Sunday, September 28, 2008
One day, may we be one
This is Mr. Weber's address to the JPII students on September 29, 2008.
So Jesus came to visit Hendersonville, TN. The Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce was eager to show their honored guest around town, especially emphasizing with him all the different churches and denominations in Hendersonville established to praise and worship him. They pointed out Methodist churches, Baptist churches, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Church of Christ and even a Catholic high school named after a pope.
At the end of the tour, the Chamber of Commerce said proudly: “See Jesus, how much Hendersonville loves you”. “Yes”, Jesus said sadly. “But see how much you hate one other.”
The division of the Christian church into its many denominations is one of the scandals of our faith. In John’s gospel, just before Jesus was arrested, he prayed for his apostles and all those who would later claim to be believers:
“I pray that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you-- that they may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21)
And yet, nearly 2000 years later, we remain divided.
There are, for sure, many things –in fact, the most important things—that we as Christians proclaim together. We affirm together our love and faith in Jesus Christ. We both proclaim our need for an active and obedient faith. We affirm our dependence on the grace of God and our common need for God’s forgiveness and love. We stand together, humbly, as his children and as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Yet though we go to class together, study together, pray together, laugh together, cheer on our teams as a united community, pick each other up when we’re down, when it comes to communion time at Mass, we’re reminded that we are NOT fully united in our faith. And that should make us all feel very sad.
The temptation is to gloss over our differences as if they don’t matter. Couldn't we pretend to believe the same thing about communion, in the interest of unity?
When I was a young principal, we had an exchange student who came to us for his senior year. He wanted the experience of being in an American school, even though he knew he couldn’t graduate at the end of the year, because he didn’t have enough credits, and he was going back for one more year of high school anyway. He had a GREAT year with us, everyone liked him, he played soccer as I recall, and was part of our student body in every way. However, as the end of the year approached and as the senior class began to start focusing on graduation, he began to feel left out, since he wasn’t graduating. His host parents called me and asked if he could participate in graduation ceremonies just to feel included—wear the gown, put on the tassel, go up and get the diploma, even if it were simply a blank piece of paper”. I felt badly for him, so I let him do it.
It was a mistake, and the person who most felt that mistake was the young man himself.
In 8 months, when you seniors put on the cap and gown and walk down the aisle at graduation to the music of “Pomp and Circumstance” , you will be surprised at how emotionally affected you are by it all. That’s because the graduation pageantry says one very powerful thing to everyone there: you made it. You know you made it and you’re rightfully proud of that, and the cap/gown/diploma is a public testimony to this basic truth.
As much as I wanted this exchange student to feel included, putting him in a position where he was play-acting something that wasn’t true made him feel false and empty.
When we celebrate the Last Supper together, the Catholic Church believes a remarkable thing occurs: the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. Not a symbolic body and blood, but the actual thing. Many Christian faiths have communion services that re-enact the Last Supper and pass out communion, but no other Christian faith to my knowledge believes that the bread transubstantiates to the actual body of Christ.
Before the communion minister gives out communion, he says “Body of Christ”, translated, “This is Christ himself, in my hands, which I now give to you.” We are asked to say “Amen”, which means “Yes, I agree with that”. If someone doesn’t believe that and came up and said that he did, it would be at best an empty gesture, with no meaning. It would feel false even if our motivations were sincere.
We don’t solve genuine differences between us by pretending we don’t have those differences. Instead, we state those differences clearly, try to understand clearly, debate those ideas respectfully, and seek to find ways to reconcile. We still have much work to do.
Which brings us back to our Masses at JP II.
The Catholic Church does not say, as we have been wrongly led to believe in the media, that non-Catholics are not Christian or that non-Catholics are lower class Christians. Rather, the Catholic church says we are separated and in a strained relationship. Pope Benedict, like John Paul II before him, is committed to bettering the relationship between Catholics and other Christians—something that is called “ecumenism”. Here at JP II, we bear the name of a great leader in ecumenism, and I really believe this school lives out that vision in an admirable way.
I hope, I pray there will be a day when we can come to Mass together as a completely united school community and share communion together, without divisions. Until that time, I hope the many of you who are not Catholic here will, in fact, come forward at communion to receive a blessing.
I know that feels a bit awkward for you. I was watching Mr. Diamond last week during mass. After getting to know him better at frosh retreat, watching him whoop it up, dive through hoops and act crazy, or coordinating our Loughlin scholars program, or acting as the Veritas advisor, or as asst. Dean of Students, or simply interacting with you in the hallways, it’s hard to imagine a more connected faculty member to the life of this school. You could almost call him “Mr. JP II”. Yet Mr. Diamond is Methodist ; in fact, his wife is a Methodist minister. Because of this, he is not able to fully participate in our communion service. Yet week after week I watch him come down the aisle, arms folded, and pray for a blessing—in this case, a blessing from the communion minister, a student at JPII.
Let me suggest that Mr. Diamond’s simple gesture, coming forward and being prayed over by a student here, is an ELOQUENT PRAYER for the unity of our Church, that one day, we will not be broken…that one day, as Jesus prayed, “we may all be one”.
Let me encourage the rest of you who are not Catholic to follow his lead. I know many of you already do. You’re not coming forward because you’re told to, or supposed to, or because in some way you’re less worthy than Catholics to receive full communion. You’re coming forward to pray as the Lord did, that one day, may we be one. That day has not arrived, and we have work to do.
In the mean time, speaking to all those of you who are not Catholic on behalf of those of us who are, thank you for your Christian witness to us. JP II is a better school because you’re here.