Preventing Divisions in the Parish

Here are some things that may be dividing us at St. Anthony’s: A few people don’t think we should be using Alpha; a few didn’t want us to give 10% of our annual collection to those in need; some don’t like the one hour, 20-minute Masses; some disagree with our stance on moral issues like abortion, talking about mortal sin, getting drunk, etc.; some have even complained about my homilies (gasp!).

[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
[Part 1]
[Part 2]



Now some of these aren’t huge divisions, and we’re not all divided, but we’re always going to be tempted to division, at least when we think: “I’m not interested in what the parish is doing.”

Jesus wants our parish family to be united.  St. Paul writes in the Second Reading: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ’” (1 Cor 1:11-12).  The new Christians in Corinth were now in factions, disputing with each other: some said they followed St. Paul, who founded their Church in 51 A.D.; others followed Apollos, a talented lay preacher; others followed Cephas, the Greek name for St. Peter, the first pope; while others followed Christ—no scholar is exactly sure to what faction this refers, but the main point is that they were divided.

How about us?  Are we traditional or liberal Catholics?  Progressive or conservative?  Are we engaged or unengaged, meaning we don’t fully support where the parish is going?

In the first four chapters of this letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul talks about those who consider themselves to be spiritually mature, but actually, they’re the ones who are the source of division (Scott Hahn, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, New Testament, 284-5, 287-8).  So, for us here to grow in unity, we all need to mature, myself included.

He writes, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).  He calls them ‘brothers and sisters’ to soften the strong words that will come, and to remind them and us that brothers and sisters are a family (William Barclay, Corinthians, in The Daily Study Bible, 13).  The fact that he’s appealing in ‘the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ Who died for us (C.K. Barrett, Corinthians, in Black’s New Testament Commentaries, 41) is a sign of how important our unity is.

St. Paul wants us to be ‘united in the same mind and the same purpose.’  How?  Catholics have what are called the visible bonds of communion: one faith, one worship, one governance (See CCC 815).  The easiest way to remember this is that: 1) we believe the same things; 2) we pray the same way; 3) we have the same leadership.  The reason Protestants are partially separated is because they have different beliefs, don’t have all the sacraments, and don’t follow the Church’s hierarchy.  Orthodox Christians have the seven sacraments and essentially the same teachings, but don’t obey the pope.

However, this affects us Catholics, too.  When one of us skips Mass on Sunday to play sports, this hurts our family unity because we’re no longer praying together.  Not only is it a mortal sin against God, it’s a sin against the sacred family meal Jesus gave us.  When one of us in our hearts doesn’t believe one of the official teachings of the Church, it’s a sin against unity.  Let’s explain.

Our examination of conscience asks, “Did I refuse to believe any official teachings of the Church?”  This means teachings, not practices.  We don’t have to agree with every practical decision of the pope (such as whom he appoints as bishop); or like our church music, that priests wear black (though I feel I look good in black).  This question refers to official Church teaching such as bishops being the successors of the apostles—that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.  Official teaching includes moral issues, for instance, abortion, gay marriage, in vitro fertilization, etc.  It doesn’t refer to whether parishes should use Alpha or not.

To be a sin would mean there’s a refusal to believe, not just questioning.  Questioning means, “Hmm… I don’t know why women can’t become priests.  I accept it, but don’t know why.”  Many Catholics don’t know the reasons but trust the Church’s teaching—why?  Because they’ve figured out something essential to Catholicism, and it works in two steps: 1) Do you believe Jesus is God?  2) Do you believe Jesus founded the Catholic Church?  That’s why I’ve given many homilies on the evidence for these two assertions.  If we believe these two ideas, it’s logical that we’ll accept the Church’s official teachings, because Jesus gave the first pope the ability to define doctrine, and protects the Church from teaching error—that’s from Matthew, chapter 16.

But, if we don’t know if Jesus is God or if He founded the Church, then it’s logical that we won’t trust the Church.  Now, here’s the thing: for many of us, no one’s ever talked to us about these ideas.  The fact that we get stuck on the morality of issues like abortion, etc., reveals that we’re unsure about one of these two questions.

To be a sin, we would consciously say, “I don’t trust this or that official teaching despite knowing that Jesus is God and that He founded the Church.”  “But,” you could ask, “Fr. Justin, what if I don’t know if Jesus founded the Church?”  Then you have to start investigating these most important ideas.

I’m sorry if this is overwhelming and you’ve never heard any of this before, but we had to touch on these topics eventually.  And I hope this will help your spiritual and intellectual growth!

On the other hand, for many of us, we think, “Yeah, it’s clear Jesus is God.  And I know He founded the Church.  So, I do believe her official teachings.  But what are her official teachings?”  Just go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church—that’s our sure guide.

The advantages of trusting in the Church are that not only do we have a clear, strong faith in Jesus according to what the Bible teaches, but we don’t have to research every single teaching for ourselves.  Protestants have to study the Bible and church history forever before realizing that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, that Jesus ordained priests, that Mary is our mother.

With this unity in the Church, we still have diversity in music, prayer, the way we live our lives, provided there’s nothing immoral (St. Paul VI, Solemni Hac Liturgia, 21).  And even with these three visible bonds, the Church teaches that we still need above all the invisible bond called love (CCC 815).  In other words, even if we believe the same things, go to the sacraments, and follow the bishops, if we’re not virtuous, then we’ll be divided.  Every time we’re inhospitable, impatient, rude, selfish, lazy, we hurt unity.  If we watch pornography at night in secret, we hurt each other, because we’re a spiritual family.

Now that’s Catholic Church unity.  But there’s still parish unity, because each parish is a particular family with a special mission.  For example, we’re here to become saints, which is why I try to love and challenge you constantly.  Not every Catholic will agree with this style of spirituality.  My hope is that, if you understand that our parish is very up front about desiring to become saints, you’ll understand why we give 10% of the parish’s money to those in need, why our Sunday Masses are longer than most, because, if we want to grow in charity and love, we can’t rush our most important prayer.  If we’re going to be united, we need to agree with this parish vision, otherwise there’ll be division.  The vision can change in the future, but for now it gives us focus.

Our vision also calls us to proclaim Jesus in every circumstance.  I realize that this pushes many of us out of our comfort zone.  I never used to focus on evangelization so much until recent years when my heart was converted.  St. Paul says something interesting today: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).  Scripture scholars note that St. Paul is not minimizing the importance of Baptism, but simply reminding us that his primary mission is to proclaim (E.g. The Letters of St. Paul, in The Navarre Bible, 191).  For decades, we Catholics have been told that all we have to do is love people, be holy, and that’s enough for evangelization, which is incorrect.  Witness of a holy life comes first, yes, but is not enough (St. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 21-22).  Proclaiming is necessary (St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 33), not in a pushy way, but a loving way, that’s suited to each of us.  This is what Jesus asks of us (Mt 28:19-20).

A few feel we shouldn’t use Alpha since it has some theological errors in it because it was created by the Anglican church.  I’m glad that these parishioners are sensitive to the errors–that’s a good thing.  The truth is there are a few theological errors in Alpha, but the vast majority of it agrees with Catholic teaching.  And if there were a better Catholic version, we would use it.

So, why do we use it?  Because its presentation of Christ and other truths of the faith are so riveting and captivating that it moves our hearts.  St. Paul today talks about the power of Jesus’ Cross to save, and Alpha’s videos show this in a remarkable way.  Thousands of non-practicing Catholics have had a conversion through it, and thousands of people have become Catholic through it.

St. Basil the Great asked in the 4thcentury if his students should read non-Christian authors with error in them when they have the Bible and the saints?  He answers, “It is incumbent upon us… to trace… the silhouette of virtue in the pagan authors,” that is, non-Catholic writers.  He wants young people to read Cicero, Virgil, Pythagoras.  He doesn’t say we accept uncritically everything they teach, because we’re on a search for truth.  Part of being Catholic is seeing the good everywhere, even outside of Christian circles.  This is why every seminary reads the philosopher Aristotle, even though he had error in his writings; but, on the ideas about which he’s right, he’s one of a kind.  This is why Pope Benedict XVI quotes Protestant books and scholars.  This is why we should use Alpha.

One of the errors in Alpha is how it explains we know the Bible is God’s word.  Nicky Gumbel, the presenter in the Alpha videos, admits that he oversimplifies his explanation into that: 1) the Bible claims to be God’s word; 2) it seems to be God’s word; and 3) it proves to be God’s word (Why and How Should I Read the Bible, 7:13)—but this isn’t what Catholics believe and it isn’t historically accurate.  A more persuasive explanation is that Jesus is God, He founded the Church, and this Church declared what books are inspired by God—that’s what happened historically.  That said, none of the errors of Alpha lead us to sin.  We tolerate them the same way we tolerate the errors of Aristotle, and then correct them in Faith Studies and other formation programs.

Last point: Our parish is being divided by the large number of young people who don’t encounter Christ, aren’t being discipled, and so are walking away.  I didn’t think I was going to announce this now, but God’s been telling me for the past nine months and I have to do it now: We need to hire a full-time young adult and youth minister.  Many of you have been telling me to think about our children, and so I asked our 138 members of the Intercessory Prayer Ministry to pray for guidance on this, and I got the answer two weeks later that we’ve got to start the process now.  In a few months, I plan on asking everyone to give sacrificially and financially to support this.  And this is part of the greater context of our family’s growth.  We’ll need to hire other people, too: some hires are very visible like this one, but others are necessary also—I’ll let the Holy Spirit guide us on this.

Everything has to lead us to Christ, Who is the truth, and help us love like Him.  Years ago, I didn’t understand why many Catholics focused on pro-life to the exclusion of helping the poor.  I felt they had the visible bonds of communion but were lacking a part of love for the poor.  I knew pro-life was the most important moral issue because abortion kills the most people, but I saw so many Catholics only living part of the Gospel.  One day, I was talking to Br. Juniper about my frustrations.  He was so kind and logical at the same time.  He said, “Well, look at us Franciscans, we live with the poor and live simple lives, but we’re also 100% pro-life and know that abortion kills the most people.”  When I heard that, my heart was finally converted.  Here was a Catholic who followed the Church’s teachings and lived them with grace.  If we seek the truth and live it with love, and if we believe the same things, pray the same way, and have the same Church leadership, then we’ll be united to Christ and to each other.

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