The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was, in my opinion, one of the finest Church-men of my lifetime. He was humble and he was strong. He was an articulate speaker and a concerned listener. His death of pancreatic cancer took him “from us much too soon.” His teaching of the “seamless garment” approach to life reminded us of the sanctity of life from the womb to the tomb. But, today it is his “Common Ground” project that comes to mind as I reflect on the first reading [Numbers 11:25-29] and the Gospel reading [Mark 10: 2-16].
Surely there were those in our Church who criticized this effort as an attempt to overlook differences and to “pretend” that we are all alike. For me, however, Cardinal Bernardin said for us to honestly acknowledge our differences … do not ignore them … but to see if ….where … we might agree and see if there was some possibility for us to work together from a “common ground”.
In Numbers, the Spirit bestowed on Moses was passed on to the seventy elders. “Somehow”, Medad and Eldad, who were not in the camp when the Spirit was shared, got some of the Spirit. Oh, MY! When some wanted to keep Eldad and Medad from prophesying, Moses patiently said, “if only all the people of the Lord were prophets.” Likewise in the Gospel, when some of the disciples tried to prevent some non-followers from casting out demons, Jesus said: “For whoever is not against us is for us.”
Listen to these words Cardinal Bernardin spoke in 1996 [Called to be Catholic: Church in a time of Peril]… and see how significant they are for today.
American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively — a common ground centered on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad serious consultation.
Many of its leaders, both clerical and lay, feel under siege and increasingly polarized. Many of its faithful, particularly its young people, feel disenfranchised, confused about their beliefs and increasingly adrift. Many of its institutions feel uncertain of their identity and increasingly fearful about their future.
Those are hard words to pronounce to a Church that, despite many obstacles, continues to grow in numbers, continues to welcome and assist the poor and the stranger, and continues to foster extraordinary example of Christian faith and witness to the Gospel. The landscape to American Catholicism is dotted with vital communities of worship and service, with new initiatives with older, deeply rooted endeavors that are kept alive by the hard labor and daily sacrifices of millions of Catholics. In the face of powerful centrifugal forces, many Catholic leaders have worked to build consensus and cooperation.
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It is imperative that the Catholic Church in the United States confront the issues and forces that are shaping the future. For this, we must draw on all the gifts of wisdom and understanding in the church, all charisms of leadership and communion. Each of us will be tested by encounters with cultures and viewpoints not our own; all of us will be refined in the fires of genuine engagement; and the whole church will be strengthened for its mission into the new millennium.
On Nov 13, 2o11, Kevin Ahern, wrote a reflection of the “apostle of common ground” and posed three questions that Cardinal Bernardin might ask today:
> what is the state of common ground and dialogue in the American Church today and society more broadly?
> How do we witness to the consistent ethic of life?
> What can we do to facilitate common ground in the Church locally, nationally, and globally?
Can we agree that: none of us … no one of us … no Church actually “owns” the Spirit? Can we agree that the spirit blows where he/she/it wills? Can we agree that during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln got it right when he said, “Rather than asking if God is on our side, we should ask, ‘are we on God’s side’?
Attempting to “do” ecumenical work, like coordinating a food pantry, will get no where if we start with a discussion about baptism or eucharist. We will fall apart if we talk about models of hierarchy or the role of the Pope. We will stutter and stumble if we try to talk about “salvation in Jesus”. But, if we talk about the Gospel mandate of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, we have the beginning of a common-work. If we talk about the separation of the sheep and goats based on what we do for the “least among us”, then we have the foundation for helping those in need.
You and I may not be able to stop the polarization caused by the political debates leading up to the election: BUT, we can work to be agreeable even when we disagree. We can make sure that we neither speak nor listen to words that question someone’s goodness or intentions.
In every family, in every parish, in organizations within our parishes — we differ on so many things. Let us listen to Jesus’ words again …. those who are not against us, are with us. We may be traveling on different roads with different strategies — but, if we want to get to the same endpoint, then we are on the same team.
In the City of Ephesus, when church leaders gathered in the 4th century to finish the drafting of the Nicene Creed, riots broke out in the street over the issue: could Mary be called the Mother of God? Many of us find divisions within our Church as painful; differences are never easy. But, history provides balance and perspective. Moses and Jesus seemed to offer this litmus test: are Eldad and Medad — are those non-followers doing any harm even though they are not “like us”?
Recall the words of Pope John XXIII: In essential matters, let there be unity; in nonessential matters, liberty; in all matter, charity.
Thomas Groome reminds us that, “The Church is not in charge of God!” It is called to be a sacrament of God’s presence and reign in the world.
When we cause division, when we separate, when we put some above others — when we judge the intentions of others, are we of God? Has God really appointed us as judge of all?
Remember the “Soup Nazi” from the Seinfeld show? If you did not wait orderly in line, have your money ready, take your soup, step to the left and pay your bill, and then quickly leave with your soup, you might hear: No soup for you! If you did not take the bread offered with your soup, then you would hear, No soup for you! If you deviated from the prescribed plan, No soup for you!
Today it seems, there are too many people trying to say: No Jesus for you! No Eucharist for you? We too easily set protocols as to who has the spirit …. as if we own the spirit or tell God what to do.
Let us stand on common ground … Jesus loves us all … Jesus loves us all equally. Jesus died for all sinners …. each of us.
Are we building walls ….or removing barriers?