The following is adapted from a homily given by Fr. Columba Stewart at Saint John’s Abbey Church on January 24, 2021. On the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, that Sunday was the Sunday of the Word. It was also the Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Sunday after the presidential inauguration in the United States, a time when many people were talking about what “unity” means and wondering how we can go forward in such a divided country. Fr. Columba is currently in residence at the Collegeville Institute. He is the director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), where he directs international projects preserving, archiving, and sharing endangered Christian, Islamic, and other manuscripts.
Normally on this Sunday we would welcome a guest homilist from another Christian tradition. That would be perfect for the Sunday of the Word, since the Word is what we share…. But we’re not doing that this year [because of the pandemic]. So why me? Although I’ve been a baptized Catholic since I was sixteen days old, for many years I’ve worked with various eastern churches in both theological dialogue and the preservation of their manuscripts. In fact, this week I would normally be in Rome or somewhere more exotic for the annual meeting of the International Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
For many of you the designation “Oriental Orthodox” may be new. You’ve heard of “Eastern Orthodox” and may think that “Oriental Orthodox” means the same thing. Eastern/Oriental: same thing. Not so fast! The Eastern Orthodox are the Greeks and the Russians and others with roots in the imperial church of the Byzantine Empire. The Oriental Orthodox are those from the edges or beyond the borders of that long-ago empire. They come from places like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Ethiopia, India, where the local churches parted ways with the Byzantine and the Roman Churches in the mid-fifth century. The disagreement was over highly technical aspects of the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. With the passing of more than 1500 years, arguments over a single two-letter Greek preposition have run their course. We have now concluded that we agree on the essentials of the faith. 1500 years to get there: churches move slowly. Now we spend most of our time talking about the practical differences that arose because our churches were out of regular contact for such a long period of time. We’ve each developed our own ways of doing things and understanding what we’re doing.
Given the locations of these churches, current events take up a growing part of our dialogue time. Most of them are in regions that were once largely Christian. Now, after many centuries of Muslim rule, Christians are a small minority. Some live in actual war zones, such as Iraq, Syria, and recently Ethiopia and Armenia. Many of these churches are seeing their ancient communities wash away like sand. They deal with a sprawling diaspora of those who have emigrated to Europe or North America in search of economic opportunity and political freedom. We’ve been together through the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS, and if we were together this week, we’d be talking about the situation in Ethiopia and Armenia. In today’s first reading, [Jonah 3:1-5, 10] we heard about Nineveh, city of the prophet Jonah. Today Nineveh is called Mosul, the ground zero for the three-year ISIS occupation of northern Iraq. We’ve talked about Mosul a lot.
Through our conversations I’ve gained a much richer understanding of how unity in diversity actually works. We learn to respect our differences, trusting that we are all disciples of Jesus, even if we have taken different paths. So did Simon and Andrew, James and John, in today’s Gospel [Mark 1:14-20]: those first disciples received the same invitation, but each responded to it in his own way. For example, these churches have a collegial form of government in which the bishops elect new bishops, and the laity play a formal role in the process. We can learn from that. And we Catholics, despite all of our challenges on the subject, highlight the work of women in ministry and share how our increasingly secular society affects the life of the Church. This is what dialogue is meant to be.
We learn to respect our differences, trusting that we are all disciples of Jesus, even if we have taken different paths.
All of this may seem very remote from the United States, even though members of these communities do live here. But the basic themes of listening to experience, finding unity in diversity, speaking honestly about things that make the dialogue partner uncomfortable: well, those are pretty important lessons, especially now when we see our nation more divided than at any time since the Civil War. It used to be a daring thing for a Catholic and a Lutheran to talk theology, but we got past that. Now it’s daring for a Republican to start a constructive and honest conversation with a Democrat, and vice versa. That has to change.
All of this political discord sits atop the fault lines of our nation’s original sin, the sin of racism, which justified dispossessing native peoples and enslaving African captives. And what does racism have to do with Christian unity? Everything. Early in the past momentous week we remembered the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who famously remarked, “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday.” Dr. King made his statement in 1963, shortly before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. There has been progress in the decades since, but we all saw in the Year of Covid-19 and of George Floyd that there is much more to do. The fault lines of race still run through the map of American Christianity. We Catholics like to think that we rise above discrimination and exclusion, and at our best we do: after all, “catholic” means wholeness and inclusion. But our history, like that of our Protestant fellow believers, is sadly littered with disregard for other cultures and the desire to remake them in our own image.
And what does racism have to do with Christian unity? Everything
Our takeaway should be that excavating history and speaking honestly about the pain we discover is the only way forward, whether it’s in ecumenical dialogue between churches, or in conversation between the descendants of those who enabled slavery and those who were enslaved, or in the hard work of governing a diverse nation. In today’s Gospel we heard Jesus’ first command to his followers: “repent.” Only if we repent can we hear the Good News of the Gospel for what it is, good news. And when we do so, we will hear Jesus telling us to be one, just as he and his Father are one, and to love one another as he has loved us.