The North American singer and songwriter, Bart Millard, said: “As long as there’s breath in our lungs our story is still being written.” Breath keeps our lungs alive and help them to function as they ought. Thus, as long as there is breath there is life!
But what kind of breath are we talking about? It is God’s breath of love, reconciliation and unity. We, as human beings and even as Church, have been the problem. Our jealousy, competition, divisiveness, pride, arrogance, and all the imaginable malice has made us power freaks. Just kindly look at the terrible result we have garnered so far: a disunited humanity and a fragmented Church!
When confronted with such pain and blame, caused of course by such a discordant humanity and Church, our world suffers greatly. How can we sideline the fact that we are experiencing the stinking odor of sadness at its best? When we opt for division we are immediately opting for an expiry date. And what happens when we are entangled in an expiry date? We die from an existential asphyxia simply because our own soul doesn’t get enough oxygen of communion it direly needs. Hence, if it is left captive of enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy (Gal 5:20) and you name it, what we are left with is complete destruction.
If there is a faith that should be proud of the message it conveys, it is certainly Christianity. The reason being not because it has built enormous and artistically embellished cathedrals which undoubtedly show human genius in its zenith. Not even, I would say, because it did and still is doing much for humanity, although the latter, like a teenage girl and boy instead of appreciating the love of a caring mother, rebels and insults the one who brought her and him into this world. No! The Church is proud of her faith in a God who has become a human being, like you and me, in the person of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour.
Christ preached first by his words and then he cemented perpetually what he said by his life example of love, forgiveness and unity. As the Master par excellence of love as self-giving, He told us, as his disciples: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35). And how we treated his testamentary words? How we treated Him in one another? Badly! We tried to do our best not to let others be like us, on the same footing. We even considered our brothers and sisters in faith, Christians like us, as our enemies!
The pain of division brought many Church leaders, starting from Pope Francis, to pronounce themselves against such a senseless division of Christ’s disciples. In fact, during his General Audience of Wednesday 22 January 2014, having the peace talks in Geneva regarding the end of violence in Syria in progress on the one hand and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which is annually celebrated from 18 till 25 of January, on the other, the Holy Father said: “Of course, Christ was not divided. But we should recognize with sincerity and pain that our communities continue to live in division that is scandalous. Division among us Christians is a scandal. There is no other word: a scandal. “Each one of you,’ St. Paul wrote, ‘says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ’ (1:12)”.
And if Christianity is the faith which preaches the God-Man who spent his entire life doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:38), how can one justify its adherents behaviour characterised by division, hatred and suspicion? As St. John Paul II rightly lamented in his encyclical which speaks about the commitment to Ecumenism Ut Unum Sint: “How is it possible to remain divided, if we have been ‘buried’ through Baptism in the Lord’s death, in the very act by which God, through the death of his Son, has broken down the walls of division? Division openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature” (no.6).
However God, as Our Father, in his merciful love, always sends people that, on the example of his Son and Our Elder Brother Jesus, bring once more into our midst that fresh air of unity and reconciliation. St. Leopold Mandic (1866-1942), a humble Capuchin friar, offered himself as a pleasing sacrifice to God exactly for Christ’s wish for his disciples on the eve of his suffering, death and resurrection. Bogdan entered the Capuchin Order with two clear motivations in his mind. The first one was to become a missionary in the East so as to bring closer to the Catholic Church her Orthodox brothers and sisters, thus contributing to the Church’s unity. Whereas the second motivation was that of becoming a confessor to show goodness and mercy to the souls of sinners.
Even if his poor health, coupled with his vow of obedience, might have stopped him from fulfilling his first aspiration nevertheless he managed to accomplish the second one in an extraordinary way. In his loving mercy God helped St. Leopold to unite the two vocations in one. Impressive is what this great hero for the Church’s unity himself wrote on Friday 31 January 1941 as the Second World War was raging on: In every moment and with every care possible, aware of my weaknesses, I commit myself through my vows to dedicate all the energy I have in life to the return of our brothers and sisters separated from us in the East to Catholic union. For now, every soul who has need of my ministry is for me the East”.
Mother Church duly recognized St. Leopold’s heroic life for the Church’s unity. St. Paul VI in the Homily for the Beatification of Fr. Leopold Mandic, on May 2 1976, presented this brave and humble Capuchin as a precursor of the so-called “spiritual ecumenism”. Pope Montini said: “Fr. Leopold was ‘ecumenical’ ante litteram, that is to say he dreamed of, foresaw, promoted, even without working in that field, the coming together again in perfect unity of the Church, even while she herself jealously guards the many differences in her ethnic make-up”.
By praying together for the first time before the relic of St. Leopold Mandic at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre chapel as brothers, Papas Martin Zammit, a priest of the Greek Catholic Byzantine rite who serves at Our Lady of Damascus Church in the Maltese capital city of Valletta, and myself, a Franciscan Capuchin Catholic brother who serves as a chaplain at the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre, wanted to affirm what St. John Paul II rightly accentuated in Ut Unum Sint, mainly, that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs” (no. 54). In other words, that the Churches of Rome and Byzantium are sisters. Hence, the entire Church is made up of the vaste area of East and West, each one with her “legitimate diversity,” (no.54) and each one faithful to Christ’s words: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Matt 28:19-20).
This beautiful prayer meeting Papas Martin Zammit and myself had, on 31 October 2020 the first Vespers of All Saints Solemnity, at the Oncology Centre Chapel which witnesses daily the pain of those who are undergoing cancer treatment and their families, powerfully reminded me of that fraternal emotional address Pope Francis gave on November 30 2014 at the Patriarchal Church of St. George, in Istanbul Turkey:
Meeting each other, seeing each other face to face, exchanging the embrace of peace, and praying for each other, are all essential aspects of our journey towards the restoration of full communion. All of this precedes and always accompanies that other essential aspect of this journey, namely, theological dialogue. An authentic dialogue is, in every case, an encounter between persons with a name, a face, a past, and not merely a meeting of ideas... I believe that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation. Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit... The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome, ‘the Church which presides in charity’, is communion with the Orthodox Churches. Such communion will always be the fruit of that love which ‘has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (cf. Rom 5:5), a fraternal love which expresses the spiritual and transcendent bond which unites us as disciples of the Lord.
Through the hidden yet powerful witness of St. Leopold, the patron saint of cancer patients, the Holy Spirit brought together the representatives of the Eastern and Western traditions, the two lungs of the Church, to pray as brothers and empowered them to commit themselves, more and more to that fraternal collaborate spirit much-needed in our time so that Christ’s Kingdom in Malta and beyond continues to grow and bear abundant good fruit.