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HomeOn Mission'That they may all be one': Christian unity and John 17 

‘That they may all be one’: Christian unity and John 17 

By Deacon Derrick Johnson
Permanent Deacon at Assumption Parish in Welby

In the summer of 2020, the world watched the collective eruption of violence, anger, division and hatred in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. As tragic and unjust as the murder of Mr. Floyd was, what unfolded in its wake seemed to be something more. As that summer went on it became a violent expression of so many divisive forces in society. The polar nature of our time was on full display: COVID, lockdowns, government powers and mask mandates were just a few of the issues. It was as if there was a collective ire that was uncorked as chaos unfolded in the streets, highlighting the divides in our society on every level.  

The Church has not been immune from these divides. While these divisions have not emerged overnight, they seemed to be exacerbated and presented as a microcosm of what was unfolding in our communities. The rhetoric over things like churches temporarily being closed, creative ways of dispensing the sacraments (drive thru confessions, outdoor Holy Mass, streaming of prayer services and Holy Masses), Communion on the tongue, Novus Ordo vs. the extraordinary form of the Mass and many other issues became occasions for the faithful to become more divided and to gather into different camps. 

As we emerge from COVID and the many ripple effects that it caused, some of the major divisions still exist in our parishes, our social circles and online. Dissent is nothing new in the life of the Church, but these divisions are appearing to become more deeply entrenched, potentially causing deep wounds to the Body of Christ.  

The High Priestly Prayer 

As Jesus was preparing to depart from us and before allowing himself to be handed over for the atonement of our sins, we join him in John’s Gospel, chapter 17, where he makes one of the most beautiful prayers in all Sacred Scripture. In this prayer we get an imitate insight into the inner love and unity between the Father and the Son. Jesus asks the Father to keep his own united. He knows that Satan is in the world and his mission is to divide, break and weaken those who follow him. Jesus shows us his obedience to the Father. We witness the love that flows in the inner life of the Trinity, a love that is supremely united through its obedience and total gift of self to the other.  

Jesus makes clear that he came to do the Father’s will on earth and by doing so he glorifies the Father and asks that he glorify him “with the same glory that [he] had with [the Father] before the world began” (Jn 17:5).  In this supplication we see the unity of the Godhead through the Son’s obedience to the Father. Jesus goes on to speak about his fidelity to the mission of the Father as he prays for his disciples (because they belong to the Father) and their unity. Jesus prays that “they may be one just as we are” (Jn 17:11, emphasis mine). 

As Jesus goes on, he makes clear that he gave his followers the Father’s word, and the world would hate them for it because they belong to the Father and not to the world. He prays for his disciples, and he prays for our unity today. Jesus says, “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:20-21). Jesus further orders things in unity when he says to the Father “I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me” (Jn 17:23).  

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In these beautiful passages, we see that our unity is a product of the Father and Jesus’ perfect unity of love. This unity is at the service of the glorification of God and Jesus knows that it will be attacked time and time again, thus he prays fervently that his Church would have the grace to stay unified and not succumb to the attacks of the enemy and the world.

Are we one? 

If the world is to know the unity of the Trinity through you and me, as Jesus says, are we helping that by our actions and rhetoric? Any Catholic that goes online and reads or watches media about the Church today can see that the forces of division are at work against her unity. We hear divisive statements against the Holy Father, our bishops, divisions among “liberal vs. conservative,” clerics and lay groups, groups and individuals taking sides on their pet topics and perhaps the most distressing: the lines drawn against approved expressions of the liturgy, namely the extraordinary form vs. the Novus Ordo 

First, let me clarify that I am not saying that there cannot be healthy dissent and disagreement among the faithful. There have been many arguments over the 2,000 years that our Church has existed. The Church has experienced scandal, reform and many legitimate calls to correction that have been expressed in fraternal correction for the good of the Church. I am not speaking against charitable discourse, nor am I advocating condoning wrongs against Holy Mother Church. But I wonder if this is what is happening today? 

Are we expressing and challenging things in the charitable spirit of unity in John 17, or are we drawing ideological lines expressed in camps that are all-or-none propositions? I have viewed, read and heard many opinions that may have been well-intentioned, but have as their fruit division through organizing the faithful into groups that are mutually exclusive to each other. What are the ends of these disagreements? Are they serving to present truth in charity and calling each other to higher in Christ, or are we proposing ideas that end in ultimatums (either follow my way totally, or you’re not following the right path)? Are divisions over different liturgies aware that the fruits of their divide are causing deep rifts to form that are directly contrary to the prayer for unity in John 17? 

In these days of societal divide, we as the Body of Christ need to look to Jesus as our example. We need to look to the ordering of the Son to the Father in obedience and see the example that has been left for us. We as a Church are ordered in a hierarchal structure. Since the days of the Ascension and St. Peter as our first Pope, we Catholics have been called to maintain unity through the ecclesial communion that flows from the Spirit to the papacy, to bishops in communion with him and down to our pastors at parishes within dioceses. This unity is foundational to our one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church and is rooted in the same ordering, obedience and unity that we see in John 17.  

Synodal Unity and Healing  

One of the highlights of the documents coming out of our archdiocesan synod was the need for unity and healing. What ways can we heal rifts and become more united after the heart of Christ in his high priestly prayer?  

Can we recognize that we must transcend worldly societal norms in how we express our opinions and disagreements? Can we submit ourselves in obedience to the Holy Father, our bishops and pastors in the approved expressions of reverent liturgy and magisterial teaching? Jesus tells us “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (Jn 14:2); can we see the different charisms, prayer types and expressions of worship (so long as they are in line within what are approved by the Holy See and dioceses) as the different dwelling places that Jesus speaks of?  

The evil one and his division are on full display in our world. With the lifting of COVID restrictions, we’re not seeing a reunification of divides but more battle lines being drawn. The Church is engaged in fights against things like the errors of transgenderism, attacks against the sacrament of marriage, fighting to defend life at all stages against the murder that is abortion and euthanasia and a myriad of other issues that oppose the teachings of Jesus and his Church. Can we find it in ourselves to galvanize in these fights and live in the communion that Holy Mother Church gives us? If we find beauty and truth in the Latin Mass, let us rejoice that we can worship in this manner. If we can worship the Trinity well in reverent Novus Ordo Masses, we should give thanks that we can do so freely. If we prefer receiving Communion on the tongue or in the hand, or if we wish to wear a mask to parish events, can we do so and remain united in Christ?  

I believe we need to respect and find unity within the many rooms in the Father’s mansion. The Church has always had different roles and expressions of how she worships (different prayer types, liturgies throughout the world, charisms, and roles of the faithful, etc.). There are many gifts of the Spirit that come from the Father and the Son, and there are many ways that they are expressed. We’re called to submit ourselves in obedience to the Church and recognize that we’re called to be united in the same Spirit and unified as the different members of the same mystical Body of Christ. 

That the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” (Jn 17:26)  

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