“Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons… God has so constructed the body, so that there may be no division, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” Words from our second reading today, from the 12th chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy!
Each Sunday in the Creed we profess our belief in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Unfortunately, in our day and age, we are losing our sense of catholicity and not in the way that you might think. The word catholic actually means “universal, wide.” When we say that the Church is catholic, it means that our Christian faith is for everyone and indeed is comprised of members from all manners and walks of life throughout the entire world, not just in our own backyard. Now, our Catholic Church, like any other organization, has things you must believe, things you must do or avoid, so as to be a member in good standing. Yet in essence the Church is catholic, universal, all-inclusive. People throughout the ages, in all walks of life, in every corner of the world have found a home in the Church. And though we may not always do a great job at it, no one should be on the outside looking in because of accidentals like social status, wealth, gender, orientation, or nationality and the like. Through the Church, God’s heart embraces everything and everyone.
The opposite of catholicity on the other hand is narrowness, pettiness, lack of openness, sectarianism, provincialism, factionalism, and ideology – in a word: fundamentalism, and it has infected us all. This is as true in the secular world as it is in the Church. Many have told me, “I have never seen our country more divided than it is today on so many levels: political, social, moral, and economic.” Fundamentalism and the polarization it generates is everywhere. The characteristic of all fundamentalism is that, precisely, it seizes onto some fundamental value, for example the wisdom of the past or the divine inspiration of Scripture or political identification, making that the sole criterion for judging goodness and authenticity. It judges you as good, decent, acceptable, loving, and worth listening to only if you maintain that same fundamental value. This is leading us dangerously to utilize an ethics of identity, where our evaluations lead us to “categorize” the people around us. We label persons as conservative, liberal, feminist, white supremacist, LGBTQ, Republican, Democrat, you-name-it, and if you fit into such and such a category, then you are considered insincere or ignorant, in need of either conversion or having your consciousness raised. Too often we accept a label in place of a story (2x). Tragically too, at the heart of all fundamentalism, there is an absence of a healthy self-love and a healthy self-criticism, which makes folks defensive, hypersensitive, and humorless. It is because of this that the world and the church are so full of intolerance, bitterness, lack of openness, self-righteous condemnation, scapegoating and academic and moral intimidation. That is the real unCatholicism.
What are we to do about our diminishing catholicity and the very real divisions that are present among the human race? I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Indeed, human life is complicated, and surrounding each of us is an intricate network of human relationships bearing out its own set of histories, hurts, obstacles, and differences that makes coming together very difficult. And yet our readings today happen to have some rather timely advice on the subject. In the times of the early Church, St. Paul likewise found himself ministering to a much-divided people, who labelled themselves and others according to different factions: followers of Paul or Cephas or Apollos. There were class divisions and the Christians who were poor and who were rich were segregated at Church gatherings. There was stereotyping between those whose gifts were considered more valuable. Fundamentalism reigned. St. Paul saw it as his duty to restore unity and belonging to the Christian Community in Corinth.
In response, St. Paul gives us one the best images in the entirety of Scripture of catholicity, of a unifying, universal embrace. In our 2nd Reading, St. Paul gives us the image of the Body of Christ, to which all of us belong. Our Gospel reveals how the embrace of Christ included those even on the margins, while Ezra the scribe in our first reading proclaimed God’s word to all, not just men as was expected, but to women and children as well. Just so, St. Paul invites us to abandon our narrow labels and claim our shared identity first and foremost as God’s children, sharing communion together in the Body of Christ. Associated in this way, Catholicity doesn’t mean uniformity. Instead, St. Paul emphasizes the importance of interdependence, that our members’ diversity, different perspectives, and varying gifts are indeed necessary within the Body of Christ, for each of us are a vital part of the whole. It is this that brings us together as one. St. Paul dismisses comparisons and an attitude of inferiority in the Body of Christ. Just because someone doesn’t have the supposedly desirable traits of being a hand or an eye, does not mean that they belong any less to the body. St. Paul also downplays any notion of self-importance, for one member cannot say to the others, “I do not need you.” And finally, St. Paul underscores the significance of solidarity. If someone suffers, all suffer, if one rejoices so do all. In Christ’s Body, the cares and concerns of others are not distant from ourselves but are indeed our own. These things make for our catholicity and form communion in the Body of Christ.
I was looking in our parish register the other day and discovered that there are many members of the Tate family who belong to this Church that I thought I would share. For starters, there is old man “Dic” Tate who wants to run everything, while uncle “Ro” Tate goes around trying to change everything else. Their sister “Agi” Tate stirs up plenty of trouble, with help from her husband “Irri” Tate. Whenever new projects are suggested, “Hesi” Tate and his wife, “Vege” Tate, want to wait until next year. Then there is Aunt “Imi” Tate, who wants our church to be just like the others. “Devas” Tate is our beloved voice of doom, while “Poten” Tate wants to be a big shot. And there is the outsider of the family, “Ampu” Tate, who has completely cut himself off from everyone else. But then there is also Brother “Facili” Tate who is quite helpful in Church matters. And a delightful happy member of the family is Miss “Felici” Tate. Cousins “Cogi” Tate and “Medi” Tate always think things over and lend helpful, steady hands. Like them or not, the members of the Tate family are all of us, each in our own vital way, belonging to the Body of Christ. The 20th Century author James Joyce characterized the Catholic Church as, “Here comes everybody.” If we should like to overcome our divisions and embrace our catholicity, we should espouse the same values St. Paul describes today in his famous image of the Body of Christ. Should we say, ‘here comes everybody’ and claim this membership together in the Body of Christ as our own, then today, we too would hear the words, “this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”