There are any numbers of words and phrases we use so often that we no longer pay attention to their content. Take the Lord’s Prayer for instance. What do we really mean when we address God as our Father? Who do we include and who do we exclude?
On this Fourth Sunday of Easter we just heard a phrase that we have heard so many times: “Christ is the Good Shepherd who cares for his flock.” But what kind of a flock is it? Evidently it is made up of different kinds of sheep. There is a unity in God’s flock but there is diversity also, otherwise why would the Good Shepherd be going out looking for other sheep “not of this flock” that He wants to include?
We value unity while at the same we value diversity. It’s a nice ideal but it is a difficult reality to attain. We have only to look at the problem of unity and diversity as we find it both in our own country and in our Church. “Who’s in and who’s out?” is the big issue in America as well as in the Catholic Church. Who is an American, and who isn’t? Who’s a real Catholic and who isn’t?
We all uphold and value our unity as Americans. As we drive along our highways we see numbers of billboards proclaiming “United We Stand.” Nevertheless we’re having problems with fighting the war in Afghanistan, dealing with undocumented aliens, prosecuting terrorists amongst us, taxes, government spending, as well as dealing with fellow citizens whom we regard to be “un-American.” By whose standards do we judge someone to be “un-American?” Who are the traitors among us; by what standards do we judge them to be traitors? And who decides that they are? What must be proven in order to strip people of American citizenship and then deport them?
Diversity is a hot-button item being argued and debated in our body politic. What so we mean by the term “diversity”? What it entails in terms of our institutional policies and activities is far from clear. And what about the institution of marriage? Is it a concept that is univocal or does marriage encompass any type of loving partnership involving some degree of commitment?
The underlying problem in all these questions of “who’s in and who’s out” is this: too much diversity can destroy unity and integrity, while at the same time too much unity and impose a stifling and paralyzing uniformity. Balancing the two can be difficult. Unless a delicate balance is maintained the body will be torn asunder.
Similar difficult questions abound in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Who’s in and who’s out? Who is a real Catholic and who is not? By whose standards do we judge someone to be a genuine Catholic and who decides that someone is not?
Yes, there is one flock and one shepherd, but down through the centuries that “one flock” has certainly been composed of a whole lot of diverse Christians with diverse understandings of who Jesus Christ really is and what He requires of us in terms of our behaviors and our activities.
We all know that the Catholic Church is not a democracy. But a sheepfold is not a democracy either. The sheep don’t take votes and conduct opinion polls in order to determine in what direction they should move. The flock is guided and cared for by a shepherd. Evidently that was the will and purpose of Jesus when He appointed Peter and the Apostles to guide and care for His flock, the Church.
Anyone who has studied Catholic Church history with any depth knows full well that there is nothing at all simplistic about this descriptive model of the Church. First of all, some of the shepherds have not been at all good. Secondly, the sheep are not blind and stupid — they are possessed of intelligence and the Holy Spirit has been (and is!) at work in them.
This sets up a dialectic between the members of the Church – those who are ordained into Holy Orders and those who are not. The dialogue throughout history has been anything but serene. Violence has erupted. Tearings apart have resulted. The ideal given us by Jesus has been, at times, set aside.
In our recent history, back in the early 1960s the Church convened all of its bishops from around the world into the Second Vatican Council. A major portion of that Council’s work was devoted to the nature of the Church and the roles of the laity and clergy. An updated understanding was badly needed and the bishops of the world responded to the task that confronted them. Their response was well done, so much so that even today we’re still struggling to keep the vision of Vatican Council II before our eyes while making it become real and operative in our Church. We would all do well if we read again the Documents of Vatican II, especially those dealing with the nature of the Church, the Church in the modern world, and the role of the laity. Evidently our new Pope, Pope Francis is doing just that.
It’s not news that we have liberals and conservatives. We have them in both the Church and in our American body politic. The fact what we have both liberals and conservatives ought not to be threatening to us. One has only to study history and the origins of the Church to realize that the dialectic, with the resulting tension, has brought us a great good in many instances.
Unity is not uniformity. Diversity, per se, is not destructive divisiveness. Indeed, our Church in its infancy struggled with the great issue of whether or not Gentiles could be members of Christ’s flock as well as observant Jews. Down through the centuries our Church has struggled with inclusiveness, all the while attempting to be in the world while remaining not of the world. The task has been remarkable. The result reveals the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.
Centuries ago someone gave us a maxim that still applies today. We are not sure who first spoke it but it tells us: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” It’s a lovely principle but it becomes demanding when we together attempt to agree on what things are necessary.
In that struggle and in all of our efforts, let us always remember the last of the three points: “… in all things, charity.” As always, love is the bond of unity. If we hold to that principle then our Church will be greatly enriched.
Finally let’s take a look at our own personal lives. Are my concerns for others inclusive or exclusive? Am I cliquish in terms of who I relate to and in my friendships? Who do I know that’s being bullied, and what am I doing about it? Just how inclusive or exclusive am I? Caring and love can be demanding. They are more than simply having nice feelings. Am I willing to pay the price? If Jesus was, shouldn’t I? With the heart of Jesus, I can do the same.