Although St. Paul recognized the inevitability of factions ("heresies"),* he was not happy about it. In today's reading he challenges those who have fallen into divisions:
Hearing Paul chastise the Corinthians, we might conclude they were squabbling about words and personalities. However, in fairness to them, we must recognize much more was at stake. Their divisions were substantial and it would take generations to work them out. About forty years after Paul's letters, the bishop of Rome (St. Clement) would also write to the contentious Corinthians. His letter is one of the treasures of early Christianity.
The trouble with factions is not that they sometimes provoke intellectual conflict. It would be helpful if we could have honest debates like the recent one between Fr. Richard Neuhaus and Yale professor Peter Singer (First Things, February 2002). However, factions not only lead to debate, but more often to pride - an exaltation of ones own group and a looking down on others. One can start to think that if only my side would win, then everything would be OK - which of course is a bunch of baloney. Every group contains people who are dictatorial, greedy, mean-spirited, haughty and lazy. In other words we all need redemption. If we are going to overcome the pride of factionalism, we must concentrate on our common need for repentance and forgiveness.
I saw a beautiful example of that last week at the pro-life rally in Olympia. Each year several thousand gather on the capitol steps to protest the Supreme Court decision which withdrew legal protection from pre-born children (Roe v. Wade, 1973). Bishop Skylstad of Spokane gave the opening prayer and we heard from various state representives - including a couple of pro-life Democrats. But what caught my attention was the small counter demonstration. About twenty people not only held up typical pro-choice signs (“Keep Your Laws Off My Body”) - but also more provocative ones: “Thank God for Abortion,” and “I (stylized heart) Abortion.”
Seeing the pro-abortion group, someone handed me a plastic doll about two inches long which realistically depicts a baby at ten weeks of gestation. She said, “Father, will you give this to those demonstators?”
That was the last thing I wanted to do. Chicken liver that I am, I handed the fetal model to a Maryknoll priest at my side. “How about you, Ernie?”
With no hesitation, Fr. Brunelle took the little pink doll and carried it down to those with pro-abortion signs. I expected a shouting match, but for the next forty minutes, the Maryknoll missionary held a quiet conversation with them. None of the counter protesters put down their signs and picked up a red rose, but perhaps something deeper happened. Fr. Ernie’s combination of courage, humility and acceptance spoke volumes about something all of us desire: God's mercy.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus utters the opening words of his public ministry. Emerging from the desert, after confronting the fiercest demons, he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 4:17) Those are such beautiful, hopeful words. I return to them over and over. I will need to hear them from now till the hour of death.
The next time you are in an argument with someone, remember Jesus' words - and the lovely example of Fr. Ernie. What matters is not scoring debate points, but reaching the person in front of you. You can win an argument and lose a soul - including your own.
In recent years, I have become more publically involved in the discussion about what constitutes genuine renewal in the Church. Unfortunately, rather than debate, most prefer to intimidate. It has been painful for me to be put into a box, even by people I have known for a long time and consider to be friends. I have been characterized as conservative, traditionalist, even pre-Vatican II. But, to tell the truth, the only thing I want to be is a Catholic. I believe the same applies to most of my parishioners, especially the Hispanics. What that means in the final analysis is that I recognize I am a sinner, totally dependent on the divine mercy. Christ cannot be divided. Only He was crucified for you and for me.
*See 1 Cor 11:19 For there must also be factions (haireseis) among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. (RSV)
From Archives (Third Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
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