January 18 through 25 is celebrated annually throughout the Christian world including the Archdiocese of Santa Fe as a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a lofty goal and a splendid, prayerful opportunity for people who are often seen united by only one factor: Jesus Christ.
Christians have never been completely united. In fact, the segment of people we call Catholics today were not always the largest group of Christians. During the earliest days of the Church, they stood the chance of being buried altogether by the overwhelming rise of heresies. Perhaps the greatest of these was Arianism, which at one point was the dominant faith of the Christians. Arius fostered a belief that denied the combined humanity and divinity of Jesus. For literally 300 years the matter was debated among the faithful. There were segments of people who believed Jesus was only human and others who believed he was not, but rather: God. Some believed he was both and others insisted he was neither.
It didn’t help that Romans were persecuting Christians, as were the Jews, and secret meetings in house churches became the norm as believers gathered and tried to make sense of the Way, as it was called, that Jesus left them. In those early days, little was written down, and the stories of Jesus were carried far and wide by a multitude of disciples in oral communication. Those faithful didn’t have the benefit of Gospels to read. In fact, the first recognized ‘gospel’ of Jesus is according to an unknown author named Q. This book is not the Gospels as we would understand today, but rather a collection of sayings Jesus used. It may have been known to Mark when he etched the first Gospel. In fact, the two most prominent reads of the first century were the Apocalypse of Peter and The Shepherd of Hermas, neither of which made it into the Bible Canon.
Just identifying those who were followers of Jesus Christ was difficult enough in the beginning. There were Jews who chose to follow Christ in a Jewish way and others who wanted to be separated completely from all Hebrew tradition. A Church that catered to various sects of Judaism was caught in a quagmire, as all of a sudden there came to be more Gentiles coming to the Church than Jews. What made the Church also divided it: a freedom of ideas. St Paul, a Jew and a Roman citizen, a persecutor of Christians, was called by God to open the doors of the Church to these new ideas. Writing the Letter to the Thessalonians roughly fifteen years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection and nearly twenty years before the Gospel of Mark appeared, he infused the Way with a new vitality and creativity.
Along with Paul’s enthusiastic and unique Judaic-Christian approach came differing opinions, not all of which were friendly. The bitterness that often existed between rival bishops or between the bishopric and the papal authority prevented clear cut resolutions leading toward a united doctrine. It didn’t help that as many as the first twenty popes were executed or exiled, and a central authority could not be firmly established. And of course, Paul himself was never above controversy and still provides fodder for early Church analysis today.
In the end, after the gigantic influx of new thoughts, new ideas, and new ways of perceiving Jesus, it took a Roman emperor to bring all the factions to the table once and for all. In ad313, Emperor Constantine created the Edict of Milan (as it is now called) which essentially granted religious freedom to one and all. It did not, as some believe, set up the Christian faith as the state religion of Rome, but rather established its equal acceptance among all other faiths; paganism was still the dominant belief of the empire.
By 325, Constantine’s pleas with all sides of the controversy, particularly the Arians and the Catholics, to find a just resolution had fallen on deaf ears. In a frustrated moment, he called for a council, a bishop’s synod, of the entire Church at which he himself became involved, attempting to force a settlement, ending the council successfully and quickly. The gavel was about to sound when a young clerk for the Bishop of Alexandria began to ask pertinent questions about the doctrine of Arianism. Athanasius forced the creation of a Nicene Creed, named for the Council of Nicea, that recognized the divinity of Jesus, but the matter still was not concluded. In fact, virtually every church council that has taken place since has reaffirmed either in spirit or in writing that original declaration. It was called homoousis, or as we know today: consubstantial, being of the same substance.
There has never been a complete agreement between followers of the Christian faith since. Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of that is the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther in 1517. The Church was totally corrupt and Luther protested, posting 95 wrongs he found in Church politics and doctrine. The power wielded became obvious and he was driven from Catholicism, which led to formation of the first strong Protestant congregation.
Today Christian churches have departments of ecumenism which have been created to promote the unity of all Christian faiths. It is a regular and on-going conversation that has already lasted two thousand years. As humans we have different ideas, and not all Catholics believe exactly alike any more than all Christians do. When we hear the Gospels, they speak to us as a people, but also as individuals. The words one may hear are not necessarily the same as another; that’s one of the real beauties of the Gospels. It is also why we need to come together to listen and to learn. After all, the one thing we have in common is the most important part; the rest should just be smoothing out the edges, right?
During this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, services are planned at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Catholic Community 5415 Fortuna Rd NW at 7PM on Monday evening January 20. Services are also planned at Our Lady of the Annunciation 2621 Vermont NE at 7PM, Friday January 24. Certainly there are other opportunities not only in Albuquerque but throughout the archdiocese. Please check your parish for information.