Pope Francis has changed the face of the unity search on the part of the church. In place of going outside its boundaries, so to speak, and seeking a closer approximation with the followers of the Reformation period in the church (the Protestants), he is encouraging us to stay within our boundaries, and focus on the outskirts of our own domain, seeking out those inhabiting that area.
This has caught us by surprise. We had grown used to the idea that a considerable amount of slippage in our church membership has been underway, leading us to grow used to that "development" among our own membership. Statistics for U.S. church membership suggested that, while Catholics were still the largest religious group in the U.S., the next sizeable number of "religious" people were ex-Catholics, who now either belonged to no church, or else to one of the Protestant mega-churches.
Today’s biblical readings help us re-approach the unity issue, implying we reappraise it against the backdrop provided by Pope Francis, who has displayed interest in these Catholics disenchanted with official church attitudes toward them. And we may better appreciate where the Pope us "coming from" if we ponder St. Paul’s remarks to his recent converts in Ephesus, as he recalls for them their own recent background as converts to the faith, from their earlier non-believing origins. For they had been pretty much cut off both from Judaism and from the recent burgeoning Christian church, a situation Paul wants to address because it seems to have been weighing on them, as a liability. So he appeals to the unity theme, that emerges from Christ’s death on the cross, on which He shed His blood for their sake, overcoming their memory of "not belonging" by insisting that now they have become near. The wall that had been dividing them from the community of believers was now eliminated by Christ’s death on the cross. So they, who had been on the margins of things were now on a par with those who enjoy the benefits of access to the Father in heaven.
And St. Luke’s gospel recalls offers a parable by Jesus much along the same line, about the master returning from a wedding ceremony, and finding his servants ready to wait on him. We note here the distance existing between two different social classes: master and servant. The master presumably stands at the center of things, while the servants are marginal to household arrangements. Nonetheless, on this occasion such social barriers are dispensed with, as the master brings his servants right into mainline household affairs. He seats the servants at table, and waits on them. He disregards any wall of separation between those at the center and those at the margins that society had honored.
The bottom line in both Paul’s and Luke’s presentations is unity, disregarding the social conditions of each group, which can make for division and disunity, in favor of a course of action that, in these instances, only comes from those who are in a position to change things. We note how these changes come about: not from those at the margins, but from those at the center. Frequently, of course, such a turn-about happens as a result of trouble-makers and noise-makers, living not at the center but far away from it, whose behavior calls attention to their plight, and possibly alleviates it. But in today’s scripture readings, the distance those inside and those outside is abolished by those at the center, and the disenfranchised gain acceptance. Peace and unity is a gift bestowed by the display of good will rather than by an attitude of exclusion and rejection.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.