Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Extraordinary Form
September 19, 2015
Eph 4:1-6, Mt 22:34-46
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
The Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace
Today in the Epistle, St. Paul exhorts us, like he did the first Christians in Ephesus, “Live in a manner worthy of the call.” And there’s a specific content to that manner of life. It’s in short to live like Jesus. St. Paul calls us to be “humble and gentle,” like Jesus who told us to learn from him who was meek and humble of heart. He calls us to be patient, like Jesus who is so patient with us and persevered through all his “sufferings” that would try anyone’s patience in order to redeem us. He summons us to bear with one another through love, just like Jesus out of love puts up with so many of our frailties, idiosyncrasies, bad habits, sins and more. And then he gets to the part on which I’d like to focus most today, as we anticipate this week the extraordinary event of the visit of Pope Francis to New York. St. Paul calls us to “strive to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.” The word “strive” means to battle, to fight, to give one-hundred percent, to do everything, to do everything one can to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.
St. Paul specifies the various grounds of unity that should help us to preserve that unity and peace. God not only summons us to this type of spiritual unity but gives us his help to become one.
- St. Paul points out that we have been made one body and one Spirit by the power of God. Through Holy Communion we become members of the same Mystical Body of Christ; our communion with Jesus, if it’s real, brings us into real communion with each other. The work of the Holy Spirit, as Eucharistic Prayer III of the Ordinary Form specifies, is to make us this one body, one Spirit in Christ.
- St. Paul describes next ground of unity as the “one hope of our call.” We are united in the hope of holiness, the hope of heaven, the hope of the communion of saints within the communion of the Blessed Trinity. We’re on pilgrimage to the same destination and just like those who join a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or to Rome or to Lourdes experience a common purpose and hope, so do Christians on the greatest pilgrimage of all.
- St. Paul specifies one Lord, Jesus Christ. Just like two people share a common friend more easily become friends themselves, so much more with Jesus who called us to be his friends and revealed to us all the Father had taught him. That’s a source of deeper bond.
- St. Paul reminds us of the one Faith we have, the faith that stretches back to that of our Lady, that embraces the apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, the saints throughout the centuries, the faith that Catholic immigrants first brought to our shores, the faith for which so many have lived and died and so many in certain parts of the world continue to suffer for and die. This gift of faith unites us.
- St. Paul adds that we also have in common our one baptism, the greatest event in our lives, which transformed us and gave us new life, a life that is not meant to be lived in isolation but in communion.
- And finally St. Paul mentions that we have together one God and Father of all. Through creation but far more so through baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit into Jesus’ filiation, we have the same Father, which makes us all brothers and sisters. And we know that that Father loves us all and wants us not just to acknowledge our spiritual bonds to each other but to love each other like the most loving family members love each other.
To live in a manner worthy of our Christian calling, means to strive to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace in all of these ways.
The Unity that Charity Makes
In the Gospel, Jesus makes St. Paul’s moral exhortation about unity concrete. He says that the greatest commandment of all, the thing we need to do most, is to love God with all we are and have and then to love our neighbor with the love with which we love ourselves. Love is unitive. It brings people together. But it’s hard to love with the totally self-sacrificial type of love to which Jesus calls us. That’s why we need each other. It’s easier to have God with 100 percent of our mind, our soul, and our strength when we’re fortified by praying together to God with others. Their faith can buttress ours and ours theirs. Likewise, it’s so much easier to love our neighbor when we’re loved by neighbors and when our neighbors set a contagious example in loving others. Jesus wants us to give us all the help we need in order to love each other in this way and experience the fruit of unity that flows from this love.
During the first Mass, Jesus prayed that we might have the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. He begged the Father to give us the grace to be one, just as he and the Father are in by the bond of the Holy Spirit. He asked this, he said, so that the world might know that the Father sent the Son and loves us just as much as he loves the Son (Jn 17). Jesus wanted the whole world to experience the Father’s love and he was saying that the greatest means of evangelization, the most effective way to spread the faith, to announce the kingdom, to bring people into the love of God is the unity of Christians, the love we have for each other. And we saw the validation of this in the early Church when the Christians preserved this spiritual unity. They prayed together, ate together, went on pilgrimage to the temple together, and had all things in common, sacrificing their material goods for the goods of their spiritual brothers and sisters just like those in a loving family would within giving it a second thought. And that type of communion, coupled to the heroism to die for the faith as martyrs, helped convert the ancient world. Jesus continues to pray for that unity and the fruit of it. God the Father and the Son continue to send God the Holy Spirit to bring it about. But we have to cooperate with that work.
The ancient divider
But this support unfortunately doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In contrast to the grace of God to help us maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, there is the work of the devil. Whereas God seeks to unite, the devil seeks to divide. He divided the first family of Adam and Eve and we saw in the next generation how that division led to envy and that envy led to fratricide. The devil tries to disrupt the unity between us and God, the unity between us and others including our spouses and siblings and loved ones, the unity within us between flesh and spirit.
Responding to Pope Francis with Union in Faith and Love or with Division?
These thoughts about the battleground between the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace and the division that the devil seeks to promote are very relevant as we prepare this week to welcome 266th Peter, Pope Francis, to New York. Jesus founded the Church on Peter to give the Church a source of unity not only in the first generation after the Ascension but until the end of time. The Pope is the great sign and agent of unity in the Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in 107, said that the Pope presides in charity over the unity of the Church. It’s by our unity, with and under Peter, that we show best that we are one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.
But Jesus like the devil got the Pharisees to question Jesus, to make him controversial, to divide people from him, so the devil does so with the living Rock on whom Jesus continues to seek to build his Church. We’re by this point used to all of the polls that are done around a papal visit that show how divided Catholics are over various teachings and just about everything else. Many try to exploit this division for political or other ends, in order to weaken the Church in their favor. And over the course of the week many in the media, many without knowing any better way than bipolar political lenses to understand anything Pope Francis says or does, will be framing Pope Francis’ trip in ways that could cause future division. Whenever the Holy Father addresses almost controversial topic —immigration, the environment, the economy, the canonization of Fr. Junipero Serra, the sexual abuse of minors, the family, human sexuality, divorce, communion, religious freedom and the rest — many will frame it in terms that will potentially divide Catholic Americans and Americans in general. Some will even manipulate the fact that Pope Francis will speak his native Spanish quite a bit on this trip as something that will separate one from another rather than unite, much as they did after he held a virtual town hall meeting a couple of weeks ago with three small American communities and spoke Spanish during much of it.
When this is happening, what will our reaction be? Will we allow the frames to divide us or will we work through them, striving to preserve the spirit of unity in the bond of peace?
None of this means that as Catholics we’ll never have spirited disagreements. Even SS. Peter and Paul had a vigorous dispute in ancient Antioch. Jesus himself said that he had come to bring not peace but a sword and because of him families would be divided. But that division was not an expression of his desire but a prophecy of a sad fact: that he would be a sign of contradiction and that when people really put him first others who didn’t want him loved with all their mind, heart, soul and strength, who didn’t want their loved ones to love others as Jesus loved them first, would become envious and oppose those living fully as disciples. So Jesus is telling us, unfortunately, that there’s going to be division because some will be more pliable to the wiles of the evil one than they are to the movements of the Holy Spirit. But what he wants of us to live in a manner worthy of our calling. He sends the Holy Spirit to help us to preserve the spirit of unity in the bond of peace. But we’ve got to strive to respond to that help, to transcend the spirit of division whether it comes from the devil, the media, from co-workers and relatives, even from clergy and other sources that ought to know better and behave better.
At the beginning of Mass today, we prayed, in Latin, “Grant your people, O Lord, to avoid diabolical contagion and to follow you, the only God, with a pure mind.” And this is a week in which more than most others we’ll be tempted by the diabolical contagion of division, but it’s also a week in which God will try to help us to follow him along the path of loving union with a pure mind, heart, soul and strength. Will we show that we’re united with the Holy Father and with other Catholics through sharing one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one eternal Father or will we show that we’re one big dysfunctional family of faith that sees spiritual siblings more as opponents and adversaries than with eyes and hearts full of love?
There’s going to be a particular attempt to divide those who are traditional Catholics, those who might be more conservative by temperament or by politics, from the narrative of Pope Francis as a progressive.
There’s going to be an attempt by secularists to separate progressive believers from Pope Francis by trying to show that he’s not progressive at all on so many issues the world things God is wrong about.
Showing that Our Striving is Not a Façade
For that reason this is a week in which we will be able to show the world that “the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” is not a a façade but a way of life. It’s a week in which we can all show much we seek, together with all our spiritual siblings, with and under the successor of St. Peter, to love God with all we have. It’s the time in which we love each other as Christ loves us, even if we may not agree, even if, frankly, others aren’t fully living by faith. It’s a time that with humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance we focus on, and announce to the world, our one Lord Jesus Christ, our one Catholic Faith, the beauty of the baptism that unites us, our one God and Father that makes us all brothers and sisters.
The Greatest Means of Union
During this week in particular, the devil is going to be seeking to divide us as he always does, and the Holy Spirit is going to be seeking to unite us. And we’re going to have to choose and to act. As we prepare to become one Body through entering into Holy Communion with Christ, we ask for the grace to become also one Spirit by the work of the Holy Spirit so that the Church that, as Jesus prayed in the first Mass, the world may know that God the Father sent Him and that He loves us just as much as he loves Jesus. This is what Pope Francis is coming to proclaim and hoping to find.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians
I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The continuation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus questioned them, saying, “What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They replied, “David’s.” He said to them, “How, then, does David, inspired by the Spirit, call him ‘lord,’ saying: “The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet” ‘? If David calls him ‘lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.