We speak increasingly of Christian unity but I wonder how many people understand what it means.
Ask a Christian, even an enlightened one, and he will almost always tell you: “If the heads of the churches reach agreement, we shall have union.”
At first sight this appears reasonable. We all have the impression that union would be achieved if the leaders of the Orthodox churches agreed with the Roman Pontiff on definitions of the Roman primacy and infallibility and if they solved some other largely verbal differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
But to reduce Christian unity to an agreement between the heads of the churches and make them the chief and indeed only agents of this unity is to reduce the Church of Christ to the level of ordinary human societies where the good will and intentions of a small group of men often decide the fate of nations. In other words, it means reducing the mystery of redemption which Christ himself, when about to enter his passion, summed up in the prayer for unity, to a mode of Church government and to a hierarchical mechanism determining relations between the leaders of Christendom. To look at unity in this way is to substitute churchmen for the Church, which is the mystical Body of Christ, and to substitute the various activities of human diplomacy for the life of grace in the redeemed soul.
When Christ prayed for unity, he was praying for all those who would come to believe in him in order that they might be one as he and the Father are one. The prayer for unity was a redemptive prayer as we have already explained in an earlier article. By the very fact that they are cleaving to the redeeming Christ and identifying themselves with him, Christians should find themselves united to Christ in the visible Church which is his Body. In other words, the grace that unites the Christian to Christ also unites him to his brothers.
Christian unity is not, then, to be regarded as a compromise or as a plot, the success of which depends on the skill of the minority to whom our Lord has entrusted the government of his Church. It is the work of the whole of Christendom, the necessary fulfilment of the prayers and sacrifices, of the love, of those who believe in Christ. To make it the exclusive task of popes, patriarchs and bishops is to misunderstand the redeeming value of unity and to misunderstand the personal contribution of the baptized, redeemed individually by Christ and made chiefly responsible for the salvation of his own soul within the Church. It is to subordinate Jesus Christ living in the Christian soul to Christ looked at from a juridical, social and administrative point of view.
We must, nevertheless, admit that our effort is primarily directed towards this unity from above which was certainly not the chief aim of the cries and groans of our Lord. We are all convinced that if the chief members of the Orthodox episcopate should today come to an agreement with the Pope of Rome on the place and powers to be accorded each of the church leaders, the union of churches would not be long in coming. Christian unity seems today to depend on agreement between the main leaders of Christendom and when we invite the faithful to pray for unity what we are thinking of is bringing these leaders, through God’s grace, to an agreement between themselves. But to look on unity in this way is to create between the hierarchy and the rest of the Church an artificial division that is contrary to Christ’s will, as though one group could take the initiative and the other had merely to conform.
But the Church is not like a train in which the locomotive alone has power, pulling wagons which are, as it were, lifeless. Divine grace, which is the link with the whole Church, flows through the mystical Body of Christ and vivifies all its members at the same time. So much is this true that the Church is present and living in each soul in a state of grace.
It is not, therefore, a question of achieving two different kinds of union, of which one, that of the hierarchy, necessarily involves the other, that of the faithful. Christian unity must involve the whole Church to the extent that divine life penetrates souls. The role of the hierarchy, which Christ has established to govern and rule the Church, is to help in the increase of this divine life which in growing, will renew both the hierarchy and the Christian people. The value of the pastoral body is thus linked to the internal validity of the whole Church. This is perhaps what is meant when we hear it said that a people has the clergy it deserves.
This being so, the union of the churches, which is fundamentally a work of grace, must not be made dependent on the exclusive initiative of the church leaders. If the latter are today showing themselves more favourable to union, this is thanks to the Church as a whole, called by its greater maturity to a greater charity and understanding.
We can thus take pleasure in the thought that Christian unity is not subordinated to the unity of the hierarchy, which itself depends on historical factors as well as the personal dispositions of the heads of the Church. There will always be some among them who for human and unavowed motives would prefer to hold up the advance of Christendom towards unity, but they will be overtaken by the Church which will reject them just as a torrent of fresh water hurls rubbish out of its path.
The Church is advancing. If it is indeed true, as many people seem to think, that a simple decision by the heads of the Churches would suffice to unite Christians, this is because the latter are already effectively united and, in the same way, assuming they are effectively united, the ecclesiastical authorities will have no difficulty in sealing this unity by an official “concordat”, a sort of recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of all sanctity and all union.
There is in fact some way to go before we arrive at this degree of maturity and still much opposition and much resistance to grace and love to overcome. Victory does not go to those who are most clever, or to the diplomats, but to those who are the holiest. The ferment of unity is to be found in each Christian heart and the unity of the Church militant cannot be of an essentially different character from that of the Church triumphant. Both are the work of grace and find their fulfilment in the communion of each and ever one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Each and every one! Both the bishops and the ordinary faithful will achieve unity through their union with Christ. It is through the Church in heaven that we must look at the Church on earth, placing the problem of unity in the setting of eternity. True, the juridical and administrative aspects have their importance in the providential plan, but they must not be allowed to overshadow the eternal realities. The Church here below will not be taken into heaven with its present institutions and rulers. These are all passing. The members of the hierarchy which Christ has placed with so much love and care at the head of the Church will, once their mission is accomplished, take their place among the faithful whose God-given rank in the kingdom of heaven will depend in each case on personal merits and Christian life.
We should greatly like to see the heads of the churches enlightening the charity of the faithful by a deep study of the truths of the faith and, in return, the doctors of the law and members of the hierarchy of the various churches recovering from time to time their close and vital link with the Christian community and taking inspiration from the simple and spontaneous reactions of Christian peoples, who regard unity as primarily a work of love. This would enable them to rise above legal and administrative complexities. Faith itself will pass away with this life and only charity will remain. Christian unity will begin and end in charity enlightened by faith.
– Archbishop Elias Zoghby