Faith and Culture: Silver Linings
By: Deacon Keith A Fournier
( c ) Third Millennium, LLC
America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts--a child--as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience. (Mother Theresa -- "Notable and Quotable," Wall Street Journal, 2/25/94, p. A14)
It was a cold January Monday in the first year of the Third Christian Millennium, 2000. My heart was burdened as I exited Union Station in Washington, D.C., on my way to the National Memorial for the Pre-Born and Their Mothers and Fathers.
This event, which always coincides with the March for Life, is sponsored annually by the National Clergy Council, an ecumenical alliance of Christian clergy. I serve with the NCC as its Catholic representative on their Executive Council. "Twenty seven years," I thought to myself, "of unrestricted abortion on demand --my God when will it end?"
Carrying my clerical vestments, I passed dozens of people from all over America, who, braving the cold, came to stand in solidarity with the innocent children, who have no voice but ours. In giving these children, mothers and all the victims of this national tragedy our voice, we champion the major human rights' issue of our age, the right to life and the freedom to be born.
Many whom I passed in the street recognized the symbols of my clerical service which were draped over my arm, my vestments, and greeted me with smiles and the steely determination that has characterized this struggle for justice.
I rounded the corner to the Senate Hart Building, the site of this year's ecumenical service. Upon entering Room 216 where the service was beginning, I was immediately impressed not only with the number of participants, but with the variety of Christians represented.
I was there, along with Father Frank Pavone and Deacon Hiram Haywood, as Catholic clergy representatives. On the dais, along with us, was our sister and then a fairly new member of the Catholic Church, Miss Norma McCorvey (formerly Jane Roe of the infamous Roe vs Wade decision), who is now a prophetic witness for life.
On each side of us were clergy of most Christian confessions and communions: Orthodox, Protestant, evangelical, self-professed "Free Church," Pentecostals and a large Messianic Jewish contingent. This gathered assembly represented the breadth of the larger Christian community that has mobilized around this issue.
All of us were there, together, to mourn, to repent, to intercede, and to worship the Author of Life, Who alone can bring an end to this modern slaughter of the "holy innocents." As the music began, the burden of my heart seemed to lift with the melody. The presence of the Lord of life began to fill the room.
I have dedicated first my lay apostolate, and my clerical service to evangelization, apologetics, and authentic ecumenism. In fact, I took as my own personal "motto" at my diaconal ordination, "Ut Unum Sint" (May They Be One), the name of the profound encyclical written by John Paul II taken from the high priestly prayer of Jesus recorded in the seventeenth chapter of St. John's gospel.
I have drawn my own passionate conviction concerning both the essential requirement for Christian unity, and its inevitability, from the words of John Paul the Great. I believe he has not only led us into a great new missionary age, but is himself, in his extraordinary writings, the "first fruits" of a new Patristic age, and he proclaims prophetically the coming "family re-union" of the Church.
On this blustery morning I thought of the words of another great Church leader, from another great missionary age,"...let unity, the greatest of all goods, be your preoccupation." Thus wrote Ignatius, the third Bishop of Antioch, to Polycarp, his brother Bishop in Smyrna. The year was 107 A.D., the beginning of the first Christian Millennium.
Those Christians also lived in a "culture of death." Roman society practiced the killing not only of children in the womb, but of newborns, through a practice called "exposure." The holy man wrote these words while traveling to Rome, under the persecution of Trajan, the leader of that "culture of death." There he would be thrown to the wild beasts and be martyred for the Lord. Remember, it was in Antioch that they were first called Christians, St. Luke tells us (Acts 11:26).
There does seem to be a precedent for earning that name through pouring our lives out for Jesus Christ in the midst of a hostile culture. It was Ignatius who first called these early Christians "Catholic." He insisted that Christian unity, and the "catholicity" or universality of the one Church, was a cause worth dying for. In the words of this great father and martyr "wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."
His words still ring true as we have only just begun another millennium of missionary work. They also represent a great theological synthesis of the ecclesiology and the ecumenical vision of both the Second Vatican Council and this great Pope.
In a wonderful interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (published under the title "Salt of the Earth" by Ignatius Press), the Cardinal is asked a question concerning John Paul II's vision of Christian unity for the Third Millennium. He tells the interviewer that this is foremost in the heart of the Holy Father. Pope John Paul II believes that whereas the first millennium was a millennium of union, the second a millennium of disunion, the third will be a millennium of re-union.
This passionate love for, and burden to rebuild, the broken unity of the Church... this dogged commitment to the prayer of Jesus, "May they be One" (John 17:21), has characterized the extraordinary ministry of this prophet who now occupies the Chair of Peter. This has been demonstrated over and over again. We must never forget that great event on January 18,2000 when he led twenty-two leaders of other Christian churches, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Pentecostals, in an extraordinary ecumenical rite opening the fourth jubilee holy door.
This liturgy included three readings, one from St. Paul, one from the famous Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoffer, and one from the famous Orthodox theologian Gregor Florovsky. Each emphasized the call to unity. In a prophetic homily, the Holy Father proclaimed the call to unity, and, overcome with the Holy Spirit, cried out loud, "Unitade, Unitade."
He then led the assembled crowd in this cry and proclaimed his hope and prayer, "... that in the not too distant future, Christians, finally reconciled, can return to walk together as one people, in obedience to the Father's plan."
As the memorial service proceeded on January 24, 2000, that same Spirit filled our ecumenical liturgy. There we stood, Christians together, on this commemoration of Roe vs Wade, in the Senate Hart building, under the chambers where our elected representatives have voted to end the infanticide known as "partial birth abortion" only to be vetoed by then President Clinton. We prayed, we sang, we worshipped, and we wept... together.
We heard testimony from a mother who lost her child to an abortion and had come to see not only the tragic truth of what happened, but received the healing love of a merciful Father. We heard from a father who had come to mourn the loss of a son he sent to death. We shared from our common Book, the Sacred Scriptures, the Bible, and sang songs to our common Lord. We enjoyed the rich diversity of our traditions but cherished most this prophetic sign of our unity.
As I was invited to pray and to greet the gathered assembly, I was struck by what our gathering symbolized: this silver lining in the dark cloud of the "culture of death."
In coming together to speak for the innocent pre-born, we have rediscovered one another. We later heard an eloquent homily calling us to understand the full implications of our shared convictions concerning the dignity of every human person from conception to natural death. It was given by an old friend, who, along with his brother Rob, co-founded the National Clergy Council, Reverend Paul Chaim Schenck.
In the early 90's I, along with others, had helped in his legal defense when he was jailed for his pro-life witness. In fact, it was in jail, that he discovered his own commitment to authentic Christian unity. Many of us assembled that morning have moved from what I have called "trench ecumenism" to embracing the challenge to build a new "culture of life" and a "civilization of love," together. This movement toward unity, forged around this cause, offers hope to the whole Church.
It was a rich and encouraging moment. There I stood with other Christians who may not have stood with me only five years earlier. Some even in my own Church, who, though they thought I was "orthodox" in my Catholicism, criticized my "risky" ecumenism over all these years. Yet, we all stood... together. We prayed... together.
This burgeoning unity is a silver lining in the cloud of death that has covered our day. The struggle to build a new culture of life has brought us together and helped us to find our common bond in Jesus Christ.
A silver lining? Yes. But--- perhaps much more. Perhaps, the beginning of a break in the cloud that has hovered over us as we have continued in our wounds, our hostility and our divisions for an entire millennium of Christian history. The malady that ails not only America, but the entire West, is a loss of soul. Only a revitalized Christian presence can bring the necessary healing.
Abortion is only one bad fruit falling from this rotted tree. Another early Church leader, who still remains anonymous, wrote an instruction to an early pagan inquirer named Diognetus. In it he penned these now famous words "as the soul is to the body, so are Christians to the world."
Perhaps we should examine our own participation in this loss of soul. Has our own disunity impeded our ability to lead this "world" out of the darkness? Have we weakened our own efforts to persuade the contemporary "pagans" of our own age to believe the truths that we proclaim?
I believe so.
But more importantly, so does Pope John Paul II. In that same ecumenical service he challenged all Christians when he proclaimed: "We know we are brothers, and we are still divided, but we have directed ourselves with decisive conviction on the path that leads to full unity of the Body of Christ.... During this year of grace, the awareness must grow in each one of us of our own responsibility in the fractures that mark the history of the mystical body of Christ."
We need to remember and re-proclaim in words and deeds the great truths, which for years undergirded Western Civilization, such as the very understanding that there is a right to life, and the understanding of the inherent dignity and equality of every human person, who is made in His image. Not only this understanding, but the source of our liberty as being an endowment from God, is a part of the treasury of the influence of Christianity on Western civilization.
The loss of such a foundation for authentic human freedom in our contemporary age is directly related to our own failures as a Christian people. This weakness is caused partially by our own division, and our increasing inability to persuade the "world" of the truths we proclaim because we are divided.
Yet, by the end of this service, I grew more confident than ever that the "springtime" which Pope John Paul has proclaimed stretches out before us. However, it will, as does every move of the Holy Spirit, require our "fiat," our "yes" to God's invitation.
We are free to choose. The current age is so very fond of this notion. But we are not free to make the objects of our choice good or evil, right or wrong. Our proper exercise of this freedom, in conformity with the truth, constitutes the foundation of authentic human freedom. We Christians must now exercise that freedom in ways that will bring us to authentic unity.
The world awaits.
The church of the First Millennium, and the great heroes of the first Patristic age, said "yes," with their words, and with their lives. Through that "yes," including, as with Ignatius, the full "witness" of martyrdom, they transformed entire cultures which had lost their soul, and with it, their humanity. They did so... together.
Now, it is our turn.
Deacon Keith Fournier is the President of "Your Catholic Voice Foundation" and "Editor in Chief for "Catholic Online". "Faith and Culture" will become a "Premier Service" of "Catholic Online Publications" in July.
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