Pope Francis and the possible German schism

Archbishop Aquila

As he was approaching his death, Jesus prayed that the Church would be one, that it would be unified. Looking back in history and at the present times of tumult within society and the Church, it is vitally important that we remember our unity comes from remaining in relationship with the Father, Jesus and Holy Spirit, not from adopting the values of the world.

Speaking to God the Father, Jesus said in John 17, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” We are those who believe in Jesus through the word of the Apostles, as generations of Christians born before us have. The unity of the Church is not just for our own sake, it’s also for the world, so that it will believe that the Father sent Jesus.

Those who read Catholic-related news know that Pope Francis recently spoke about the danger of schism within the Church. He told a reporter that he prays that a schism doesn’t happen, but he also acknowledged that one is possible. “It’s a choice that the Lord leaves to human freedom,” the Pope said, adding, “I pray for them not to happen, as the spiritual health of many people is at stake.” Human freedom has been the cause of schisms throughout the history of the Church, and before the Church, among the people of Israel. Yet, as we know from Christ’s words, it is essential for believers to remain united.

Unfortunately, recent developments in the Church in Germany, led by Cardinal Marx and most of the German bishops, risk damaging the unity of the Church universal. These bishops and a sizeable group of lay people plan to hold a synod that takes binding votes on whether to change doctrinal matters like the ordination of women, blessings of same-sex unions and sexuality-related topics. In his June letter to the German Catholics, Pope Francis warned, “Every time an ecclesial community tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve.” This is because in schisms there is a failure to listen to the voice of God and the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit, who always keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.

It is disappointing that the German bishops have pledged in recent days to forge ahead with their plans, despite the intervention of Pope Francis and a letter from Cardinal Marc Ouellet that called their proposal “not ecclesiologically valid.”

The antidote to this potential wound to the Body of Christ is seeking union with the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, who are the source of the Church’s unity. Those who remain in love with each person of the Trinity, do not seek out their own path. For this reason, the Catechism teaches:

“The Church is one because of her source: ‘the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.’ The Church is one because of her founder: for ‘the Word made flesh, the prince of peace, reconciled all men to God by the cross, … restoring the unity of all in one people and one body.’ The Church is one because of her ‘soul:’ ‘It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the entire Church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church’s unity’” (CCC, #813).

One only need look at the history of those Protestant communities that are constantly splitting from each other over doctrine to see the impact of replacing the faith with societally acceptable beliefs.

Jesus teaches us, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither…” (Jn 15: 5-6). One can easily observe in history that changing teaching to remain in step with the modern morality does not fill churches. Only encountering Jesus Christ, remaining faithful to him no matter what the cost, and staying attached to the vine bears fruit and fills churches.

A perfect demonstration of how love for the Holy Trinity yields unity comes from the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe. When he experienced the cold, love-shattering existence of Auschwitz concentration camp, the Nazi creed held that Jews, some Protestants and the Church must be dismantled to make way for the values of the Reich. But instead of withering in these conditions, St. Maximilian was a conduit of love, a branch who stayed connected to the vine of Jesus. He was on fire with love for Christ and his Church, which he often reminded others “has nothing to do with sweet tears and sentiments but is a matter of a free will which holds fast to love even despite our aversion and hesitancy.”

For the Church to remain united, we must all strive to love and remain connected to Jesus Christ and his teachings and not those of the world. We must put our faith in Jesus Christ and be confident that he is faithful to his promises. Look at how often in the Gospels Jesus compliments the faith of the person he has healed. Contrast this with when the apostles showed little faith as they were tossed about in their boat by a raging storm. Jesus did not urge them to have less faith but rather to stop cowering in fear and cease worrying. A strong faith, confident in Jesus and his power and authority, brings about the strength to live the Gospel. It is truly the work of God, as Jesus reminds us, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

Photo: © L’Osservatore Romano

COMING UP: Transforming quarantine into retreat

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This bruising Lent, in which “fasting” has assumed unprecedented new forms, seems likely to be followed by an Eastertide of further spiritual disruption. What is God’s purpose in all this? I would be reluctant to speculate. But at the very least, the dislocations we experience – whether aggravating inconvenience, grave illness, economic and financial loss, or Eucharistic deprivation – call us to a more profound realization of our dependence on the divine life given us in Baptism: the grace that enables us to live in solidarity with others and to make sense of the seemingly senseless.

If we cooperate with that grace rather than “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), it can enable us to transform quarantine, lockdown, and the interruption of normal life into an extended retreat, a time to deepen our appreciation of the riches of Catholic faith. Dioceses, Catholic centers, and parishes are offering many online opportunities for prayer, thereby maintaining the public worship of the Church. Here are other resources that can help redeem the rest of Lent and the upcoming Easter season.

* Shortly before the Wuhan virus sent America and much of the world reeling, I began watching Anthony Esolen’s Catholic Courses video-lectures on the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve long admired Tony Esolen’s Dante translation and his lucid explanation of the medieval Christian worldview from which Dante wrote; and there was something fitting about watching Esolen accompany Dante and Virgil through hell during a hellish Lent. Professor Esolen’s explication of Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise (also available from Catholic Courses) are just as appropriate these days, however. For the entire Comedy is a journey of conversion that leads to the vision of God; and that is precisely the itinerary the Church invites us to travel during Lent, as the Forty days prepare us to meet the Risen Lord at Easter and experience the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

* Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was arguably the greatest papal homilist since Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The March and April sermons in Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year (Cluny Media), help put the trials of this Lent and Eastertide into proper Christian focus.

* I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright. Two chapters (“The Crucified Messiah” and “Jesus and God”) in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press) make apt Lenten reading in plague time. The fifth chapter of that small book, “The Challenge of Easter,” neatly summarizes Dr. Wright’s far longer and more complex argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) and makes a powerful case for the historical reality of the Easter events. Like Wright, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s reflections on the empty tomb and the impact of meeting the Risen One in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press) underscore the bottom of the bottom line of Christianity: no Resurrection, no Church.

* Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is the greatest audio-visual presentation of the faith ever created. If you’ve never watched it, why not now?  If you have, this may be the time to continue with Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The New Evangelization (an exploration of how to put Catholic faith into action) and Catholicism: The Pivotal Players (portraits of seminal figures in Catholic history who did just that – St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo).

* Pope St. John Paul II’s centenary is the Monday following the Fifth Sunday of Easter: an anniversary worth celebrating, whatever the circumstances. The first 75 years of this life of extraordinary consequence for the Church and the world are relived in the documentary film, Witness to Hope – The Life of John Paul II. Liberating a Continent, produced by the Knights of Columbus, is a stirring video evocation of John Paul’s role in the collapse of European communism – and a reminder, in this difficult moment, of the history-bending power of courage and solidarity.

* The Dominican House of Studies in Washington and its Thomistic Institute are intellectually energizing centers of the New Evangelization. The good friars are not downing tools because of a pandemic; rather, they’re ramping up. Go to thomisticinstitute.org to register for a series of online “Quarantine Lectures” and an online Holy Week retreat. At the same home page, you’ll find Aquinas 101, 52 brief videos that make one of Catholicism’s greatest thinkers accessible to everyone, free and online, through brilliant teaching and striking animation.

And may the divine assistance remain with us, always.