Called to participate in what's humanly possible

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  • January 8, 2010
Are New Year’s resolutions still popular? Probably: gyms tend to be flooded with new members in January. Sometimes we make resolutions knowing we won’t be perfect, but committing to the walk anyway.

Several decades ago, the Catholic Church resolved to work towards full communion with other Christian communities. At times, we’re unaware of the pain of non-communion; when we do feel it, it can be powerful.

I’ve attended churches where I wasn’t invited to receive communion. Nothing personal, just not a member. Even in a pastorally sensitive church, it’s not pleasant. Unpleasant, too, is having a Christian friend accompany me to Mass but not communion. A third challenge is attending Eucharist at which the host church invites me to partake, but my own church requests I don’t. 

In all three cases, division among churches feels like a sharp sword, with little regard for interpersonal relationships. At one of the most profoundly intimate moments of Christian life — Eucharist — we hit the invisible, impenetrable wall of division. We’re together but we’re not; we’re one in Christ, but we’re not.

Imagine if the person beside you at church, not welcomed to communion, is your spouse. When you married, you entered into the communion of love and commitment, shared life and vocation, made possible because you both belong to Christ. Communion means participation in the life of the Trinity, the One who calls us to full life. What happens when the Christian couple can’t participate together in Christ’s self-gift?  

Marriage isn’t easy. It calls us to what’s humanly impossible: that two persons truly meet, neither diminished or lost, oppressed or destroyed. The church gives its baptized the gift of Eucharist to nourish us along the impossible path to places we can’t go on our own. Can the inter-church couple somehow share that food while respecting the reality of church division? How can they be divided in this and united to each other?

 A Catholic husband talked about inviting his Protestant wife and her family to church. When they were treated as outsiders there, he too felt like an outsider. Another inter-church couple had trouble sorting out what was inter-personal and what was inter-church. She loved to attend liturgy; he loved to read Scripture. He missed having her at Bible studies, she missed having him at church. They tried to accompany each other but wound up arguing, sometimes destructively. Was it simply a difference of taste? Were they partaking in long-standing denominational differences? How could they draw on their communities to help? Or could they work through it, helping their denominations better receive each other’s gifts?

Many responses happen. Sometimes the couple exits both churches so as to hold on to their relationship and is lost to the Christian community. Sometimes they let go their relationship, going their separate ways, and are lost to each other. Sometimes they continue, carrying the witness of marital communion in church division — perhaps thereby helping create the path by which these divided communities can come to communion.

At least, they feel the pain of our imperfect communion: a witness in itself. Vatican II, pointing to the unthinkable situation of Christian communities divided from each other, set the Roman Catholic Church on the unforsakable path towards full visible unity of all Christians. In so doing, it committed all and each of its members to this work. And it asked its members to bear the cross of division, in the forging of which persons “of both sides were to blame.” The path to full communion no one completely knows; like the pilgrim, we can only make the path by walking. It begins with our communion with each other in Christ. It’s made of our love for and joy in one another, our desire to be together with those we love. The married love of the inter-church couple can draw their communities closer.

Communion, whether between spouses or churches, is a gift we partake in, not a task we accomplish. But we can be sure it won’t happen without prayer. Prayer is the water that nourishes the garden. Still today it remains difficult for Christians of divided communities to pray together, even outside Eucharist. 

But there are ways. An inter-church couple is prophetic by praying together at home. Christian denominations, too, find ways to pray together; there’s a century-old tradition of committing to do so every January. Through prayer, we prepare ourselves to receive the gift we’ve often forgotten we need, and the resolution the Catholic Church committed itself to in 1964. We may find it hard to remember the importance of this gift and resolution; the inter-church couple may find it hard to forget. They carry the wound of sin and division like no one else; and it affects children and generations. No amount of pastoral sensitivity will take away this burden.

During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 17-24) shall we draw on one another, and on the power of prayer, in keeping this impossible, necessary, luminous, joyful resolution?

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