Peace. The first words the Risen Christ said to His apostles on Easter were: “Peace be with you.” We read this and remember that just 3 days before, at the Last Supper Jesus had told them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” The “peace of Christ” is not like the peace the world thinks of—it’s not so much an external peace (quiet, nonviolence), as it is an internal peace of the heart.
Moreover, this peace comes directly from being with the Risen Christ, as the apostles were on Easter. Even so, the fullness of the peace of Christ comes not from merely being with him, but from being one with him. And so He prayed to His Father at the Last Supper: “…that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me…” And this oneness, unity, or communion, is exactly what we find in the sacrament Jesus instituted at the Last Supper and that we celebrate at every Mass: the Eucharist, which we call “Holy Communion” as Christ literally enters in to our bodies: “I in them…”
But this peace of Christ, rooted in unity/communion presupposes another unity. At the Last Supper Jesus prayed first for the unity of his 12 apostles, and then for “those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” So unity with Christ and His peace also requires unity/communion with the apostles through belief in their teaching, and the teaching of their successors, the popes and bishops.
Holy Communion and the Sign of Peace. The Church reminds us of all this at every Mass, as right before Communion, the priest recalls Christ’s words from the Last Supper, “Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles, Peace I leave you, my peace I give you…” And then speaking of the Church he prays, “graciously grant her peace and unity…” And then he says to the people, “Peace be with you,” usually inviting them to give each other a “sign of peace.”
Unfortunately, many of us have lost sight of the meaning of this sign of peace, forgetting that Jesus does give peace “as the world gives peace.” When you turn to your neighbor and shake his hand, saying, “peace be with you,” are you meaning to pray that he receive the everlasting peace that flows from Communion with Christ in the Eucharist and communion of belief in the teaching of the apostles, popes and bishops? Or do you just mean, “hey, great to see you”?
Challenges. Today there are many challenges to our communion with Christ and the apostolic teaching. Three of these challenges have been in the news in recent days. First of all, we have outright public dissent from doctrines defined by the popes and bishops as absolutely certain. This last week, the Vatican, at the direction of Pope Benedict, called for the reform of one group that has been a bastion of such dissent for decades now, the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious,” an umbrella group composed of the leaders of most of the orders of religious sisters and nuns in the United States. While there are many good and faithful sisters in the orders that these sisters lead, the fact remains that where leaders lead, many are sure to follow. Consider that many of these leader- sisters have been in charge of the Catholic education of many of our children for the last few decades. Is it any wonder that so many Catholics reject so many infallible doctrines?
A second challenge to Church unity is not so much dissent, but simple confusion regarding doctrine. For example, the week before last a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the budget passed by the House of Representatives, saying it “fails to meet” the “moral criteria” of the bishops. The problem is, that the “moral criteria” the bishops refer to are not actual principles of doctrine, but rather the bishops’ prudential judgments (carefully considered opinion), of what the doctrine would require. In other words, it’s the clear doctrine of Christ and His Church that we must feed the hungry, but reasonable, faithful Catholics can disagree on how best and who must do that—e.g., should the government or charities (the Church?) feed them? should it be the federal or local government? do we feed them by buying them food, or finding them jobs? The Church has no defined doctrine to answer these specific policy questions—we must make prudential judgments, informed by and obedient to doctrine, but in the end we can disagree on how best to proceed specifically.
Even so, many people too easily confuse prudential judgments and definitive doctrine. But in doing that, they muddy the waters when it comes to the actual doctrinal teaching of the pope and bishops. Then people begin to think, well if I can disagree with the bishops on how to feed the poor, I can disagree with them on using contraception.
Finally, a third challenge to Church unity today is the scandal created by the sins of Catholics. My mind turns today particularly to the sins of priests who commit despicable crimes of abuse of minors. Of course, the most horrible effect of these sins is the terrible damage done to these children. “It would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” But add to that the terrible secondary effect of these sins of undermining confidence in all priests and in the moral authority of the Church in general, and we see the depth of the depravity of these sins.
On the other hand, almost as bad is the crime of false accusation of innocent priests: where do they go to get their reputations back, and how do you fix the damage done to confidence in priests and the Church itself?
We have been all too vividly reminded of this this last week as the pastor of Holy Spirit parish was placed on administrative leave because of an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor. We need to be careful to mind the Lord’s teaching not to pass rash judgment, and so pray for both the priest and the alleged victim, and that God’s justice will be done. But whether or not the allegation is true or false, can anyone deny that damage has already been done to the Church, specifically to its peace and unity?
Easter. This Easter Season should be a season of growing Christ’s peace. Let us not permit anything—whether dissent, confusion or scandalous sins, whether they be ours or other’s—to come between us and the peace and communion the Lord Jesus wants to give us, any more than the 11 apostles allowed the sins of Judas to keep them from rejoicing in the communion and peace of the Risen Christ on Easter evening. “Peace be with you.”
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles