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Fight These Four Killers of Church Unity

These are the ones that hurt unity, and they afflict all of us: pride, anger, impatience, exaggerated zeal

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2021

Brothers and sisters:
I, a prisoner for the Lord,
urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:
one body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all.

—Eph. 4:1-6

The Catholic Church is much in the news not just nowadays, but almost continually for many years. By news, alas, I mean the bad news. Few there are indeed, even among Catholics, who, when they hear of the Church, think immediately of the mystical body of Christ, founded by him, and living on earth, in purgatory, and most of all in heaven. Such a divinely constituted entity is of no interest to the news industry. After all, that would be the Good News, and Church consistently means bad news to the New York Times, or MSNBC, or NPR, or even some independent Catholic news sources.

The epistle to the Ephesians, which we hear this Sunday, as we have for three weeks and will hear for five more, has as its theme the Good News of the revelation of Christ through his Church, a splendid hymn-like praise of the Savior, our head in us his members.

It is good in this trying “news cycle” for the Church we love to consider the apostolic perspective of this letter of St. Paul. If we do so, we will find ourselves turning from a preoccupation with the deeds of others, whether in the hierarchy and their clergy or with Catholics who are public figures, to looking closely at ourselves. After all, each one of us is as much a member of the Church as the pope or our president! Let’s set aside how they are doing as members of the Church and take a look at how we are doing, I am doing, as we make up the Church on earth. Is that, at least, Good News?

St. Thomas Aquinas points out that in today’s passage of the epistle, the central theme is the unity of the Church and the qualities and motivations needed to maintain her as one. These latter are humility, meekness, patience, and mutual love. Aquinas clarifies these great virtues that guarantee the unity of Christ’s body by contrasting them with their opposites—namely, pride, anger, impatience, and exaggerated zeal.

We often wonder what can be done to confront the apparently insurmountable evils that assail the unity of holy Church from within and without. Here is a condensed characterization of what we can, each of us, do to overcome them. Without a doubt, we can begin with humility, meekness, patience, and mutual love. And if you think stronger means are needed, or that humility and meekness just avoid confrontation and don’t solve the problem, then you need to study your Catholic faith and its teaching on the virtues, since you don’t understand them just yet.

Context is everything. We must recognize that we begin to build up unity in the Church and overcome her enemies by starting at home. The family is called by the Second Vatican Council the domestic Church. And “charity begins at home,” as the saying goes, so begin with those closest to you at home, among your friends, in your local parish, and at work.

Fight pride to ensure the humility the apostle enjoins. St. James tells us, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humility was the key to our Lord’s glory and triumph. His cross, excruciating in its humiliations, is his instrument of victory. Be careful not to take things personally; avoid preferring your own excellent judgment in things that don’t matter; pay attention to how you compare yourself to others in your thoughts. You will find that you lack humility—that is, that you are proud. Pray for humility of heart to the one who said, “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” Then you will be furthering the triumph and unity of the Church.

Fight anger to ensure the meekness the apostle teaches. James also teaches that the “man’s anger does not work the justice of God.” The clearest indication of an immature and childish attitude is a constant claim that this or that or they or things are just not fair. If you take offense easily, and see injustices in many little things throughout the day, and brood over how you have been treated, then you are an angry person, and you are not building up the Church as you should. A habit of grievance always offends our neighbor. If we have been treated unjustly, we still must maintain a serene perspective, at least admitting that God has allowed our trial for some good.  Overcoming anger will do more to vindicate justice than indulging it. If you ever are righteously angry (and few ever are, if you take St. Francis de Sales’s word for it), then let it come as a surprise, not explode as a habit, and a suspicious one at that. Angry people cause disunity even when they are right! Fallen nature is extremely unreliable when angry, and thus the psalmist tells us, “Be angry and sin not,” since it is almost impossible to be passionately angry without some sin. Only God can free us from habitual anger, so we must take up our beads and pray for meekness.

Fight impatience to ensure the patient perseverance that the apostle exemplified in his words and deeds. Impatience is a Latin word for the inability to suffer or undergo something. Some people are not prone to anger—that is, they are not quick to attack others—but they are impatient, unable to bear being attacked. Following Christ, the founder of our Church, means bearing the cross and enduring in patience these onslaughts. The virtue of hope is key here (as it is everywhere), since we have to confront obstacles, challenges, disappointments, difficulties, and setbacks of all kinds. Life is hard a great deal of the time. If we treat the trials of life as an insufferable imposition, then we are not taking up what is necessary for our deepest calling: to take up our cross and follow Christ and him crucified. This is not a project for a season, but will be our work our whole life long. The Savior says, “In the world you will have trouble, but have courage, I have overcome the world.”

Fight exaggerated zeal with true love. This rash “zeal without knowledge,” as the apostle describes it elsewhere, is different from the previous three faults that threaten unity. It is the quality of the expert or enthusiast, not to say also the fanatic. St. Thomas describes it thus: “They judge everything they see, and correct at the wrong time and the wrong circumstances, and thus discord is stirred up in society.” Zeal in its legitimate form is a kind of love or charity. How sad it is that some who love the truth of the faith and the glories of holy Church will give in to the scandal caused by those who harm the Church by false doctrine and unsound discipline and worship, by beginning to judge rashly every aspect of the persons they hold responsible for the Church’s ills. Their zeal, at first good in itself, becomes a kind of cynical hatred of others. This turns those around us against the Church, since our zeal is so bitter. Set causes aside and consider: how am I in my family church? How do I respond to the resistance I may find there to the faith? Strive for the unity of those closest to you with Christ, dealing with the people you know and not those you don’t know. “Love conquers all.”

Now is the time to be builders of unity, to belong wholeheartedly to the Church, by showing we have her good at heart in our families and immediate environment. Then we will “live in a manner worthy of the call we have received” and imitate the humble, meek, patient, and loving head of the body to whom we are united in one Church. That would be Good News indeed!

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