Home Us church Today’s culture makes dialogue difficult. The early church approach might help.

Today’s culture makes dialogue difficult. The early church approach might help.

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A reflection for the twenty-sixth Sunday in ordinary time

Readings: Numbers 11: 25-29 James 5: 1-6 Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

Not so long ago, during a pressured theology session, a parishioner was surprised, perhaps even a little delighted, to learn that the mass we are celebrating in the parish is closer to the old church liturgy than the one that retired in 1963. She has parents who avoid her for what they call the traditional mass. “Heaven,” I told him. “The Mass that Luther set out to reform was older than that. The Tridentine Mass was not standardized until after the Reformation by Pope Pius V, and many of its layers were medieval and not Patristic.

Here is a layer of the two liturgies which is quite old: to pronounce in the Eucharistic prayer the names of the bishops who are held in communion with one another. In the Roman, Tridentine or current rite, this practice is abbreviated. We pray for our local bishop and the bishop of Rome, the idea being that if our local church is in union with Peter, it is in union with the whole Catholic Church.

In the first centuries of the life of the Church, great problems still divided the faith. Was Christ really God? Was he less than or equal to God the Father? Did he have a human will? A divine will? Or both? Ecclesiastical councils were called to settle these matters, but, like many conflicts, they continued to simmer. Bishops wrote letters to each other, called calumny, explaining how they understood the faith, showing that they had every right to be considered as being in full communion with the Catholic Church. Bronwen Neil and Pauline Allen posted several with comments in Conflict and Negotiation in the Early Church (2020).

Too often we are willing to close the dialogue with anyone who even seems to disagree with us.

Quite often these letters mention diptychs. These were two tablets – hence the name – placed on the altar, listing the bishops who stood in communion with one another so that they would be included in the Eucharistic prayer. So a church would pray for others across the Catholic and Orthodox world.

For example, in a letter from the fifth century, Egyptian leaders address the emperor in Constantinople, seeing the two churches as united in the ministry of the Roman Church. Alexandria believes that his faith was unfairly judged by Rome and asks the emperor to bring up the matter with the bishop of Rome, who had previously determined

that Dioscorus, Timothy and Peter, former archbishops of our city, believed things contrary to this faith, and that their names should not be mentioned in the diptychs. We demanded the opposite; that either those who oppose it must be produced who can affirm and demonstrate that they oppose it …

or, if Alexandria is justified, the names of its past and current archbishops should again be included in the diptychs.

These former church leaders took seriously the desire of their Lord, expressed in his own priestly prayer on the eve of his death, “that they all may be one, like you, Father, you are in me and I in you. ”(Jn 17:21). They understood that communion in faith, prayer and the sacraments was a constant command and challenge. Hence all these calumny, begging other bishops for their understanding of the gospel.

Many people don’t seem to believe that the veracity and charity of their social media posts will ever be judged by God.

Our church and our contemporary society could learn a lesson from these letters. Too often we are willing to close the dialogue with anyone who even seems to disagree with us. Has social media exacerbated this situation or has it just highlighted it? Regardless, many people don’t seem to believe that the veracity and charity of their social media posts will ever be judged by God.

Our grandparents would have blushed with shame to run away from their pastor, pope, bishop or priest. It was the same with presidents and elected officials. They did not necessarily agree or did not understand, and they expressed their opposition. In the 1930s, privileged children would often have heard their parents despise Franklin Roosevelt. However, previous generations considered these offices, ecclesial or civil, as being given by God and therefore to be respected. They could assault the captain, but they wouldn’t rule out the community. It was a step their conscience would not understand.

The temptation to heap contempt rather than charity on our fellow human beings in faith and politics has always been there. In fully Catholic Italy, centuries before the Reformation, warring city-states were known to insult each other by ritually slaughtering mitred donkeys, as Florence did in Arezzo in 1284. All the world has its unique gifts. No one charms or curses like an Italian, but pities the poor donkeys who have been invited to replace the Bishop of Arezzo.

How can we disagree on what really matters while remaining united on what matters most?

Balance is so difficult to maintain. Faith, justice and unity always count. Prudence, charity and patience too. The latter are not chains on the former. These are channels that direct them to their source in God.

There is no one doing mighty deed in my name
who can say bad things about me at the same time.
Because whoever is not against us is for us (Mk 9,39-40).

How can we disagree on what really matters while remaining united on what matters most? Our blessed Lord knew, at the beginning, that it would take a lot of prayer. Don’t be offended when someone you disagree with says, even with a hint of condescension, “I pray for you. As the old church testifies, we can all use prayer.


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