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The First Principle is Christian Unity

June 10, AD2017 6 Comments

Some Protestant clergy have chosen unity over fragmentation. They have given up everything to become Catholic and lead congregations into the Catholic Faith. On February 12th, 2012, Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson was installed as the first Ordinary for the Anglican Ordinariate (1) in the United States.  In his installation homily, he uttered some of the dearest words to my mind, heart, and soul.  “The first principle of the Ordinariate is…about Christian unity.” (You may read the full homily here,

A cobbled together proto-community of faithful Christians who had already been meeting for a year, and desperately hoping that this kind of unity would be offered in the United States, were ecstatic.  The potential of visible, tangible, organic, incarnate unity would be made available for our separated Christian brothers and sisters, and we couldn’t wait to get started.

Fracture and Fragmentation

Fracture and fragmentation have plagued the Christian Church from Her inception, but as most of us know, the significant rupture came with the Reformation.  Since that time, rupture after rupture after rupture has occurred.  Statisticians do not have a full idea of how many denominations now exist, but it’s in the thousands.

The Baptist church of my childhood experienced a fracture.  Out of that came another church; and that one lasted several years before it formally ended, fortunately on amicable terms.  And then we scattered.  Some to other churches, some to none.

That proto-community I mentioned above?  It became a full-fledged Catholic community in the Anglican Ordinariate, established by Pope Benedict XVI.  We started with 17 people, and today, five years later, have about 150.  Our pastor is working to start at least two other communities in the area.  Most of our congregation come from Protestant backgrounds and are converts to the Catholic faith.

Why would people throw their time and energy into such an effort?  Isn’t it hard? Doesn’t it soak up all our free time? Weren’t Christians already in unity by virtue of our baptism (yes, see the Catechism on this).  Why was more needed?  What drives people to leave something that might be known and comfortable, even if not perfect?  

Most of us have simply seen too much fragmentation within Protestantism.  Many of us were too familiar with breakage among Anglicans, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, and others.  We’ve seen enough, experienced enough.

Enough is enough.

A Desire For Unity

We can see division and we can see unity.  Jesus knew this and spoke directly to it.

  1. For information about the Anglican Ordinariate established by Pope Benedict XVI, please see this link:

There is no mistaking Jesus in John 17 on unity.  He nearly describes a mathematical equation:  If the world sees you, they will believe:  (a) visible unity + (b) the group of you = conversion.  This is not rocket science.  It’s common sense.  The best example of this, of course, is marriage.  

No one argues that single parents are better than married parents at raising children.  Yes, we know of the exceptions, but they are not the best.  Married is best.  The children see their parents and are evangelized by what they see.  

That is our motivation too.  We throw ourselves into unity because we are driven to do our best so that the world can see, and believe.  That is our motivation.  

That is why some Protestant clergy have given up everything–homes, friends, pensions–to become Catholic and lead congregations into the Catholic Faith.

As one of his very first actions, Pope Francis expanded access to the Anglican Ordinariate by inviting other non-Catholic Christians to come home if they wished.  He went further and invited families with children (or adults) who had not completed their sacraments to enter the Ordinariate.  We want people to come home and are doing everything we can to make that invitation one of hospitality and welcome.

Pope Benedict, in his own installation homily, said:

“Thus, in full awareness and at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome that Peter bathed with his blood, the current Successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition, this is his compelling duty. He is aware that to do so, expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism.”

The Ordinariate

The Ordinariate is that concrete gesture–a solid, constructed bridge–to the Reformation.  

In a recent dialogue with a Christian blogger who was describing the various factions among Protestants he was familiar with, I noted that our community is comprised of “…Baptists (like me), Anglicans (like my wife), Episcopalians, Brethren, Calvinists/Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Methodists, and likely more I can’t recall. We’re about 70% converts. We’re Catholic. One Church. One Altar. The bridge to our brother and sister Protestants was constructed with Anglicanorum Coetibus. The debating is in the rear view mirror.”

In our histories as Protestants, many of us were exposed to the ecumenical movement.  It impressed us as not being impressive.  Ecumenism gained a reputation as being nothing more than diluted, compromised Christianity that many among our churches simply referred to, disparagingly I am sorry to say, as “Kumbaya.”  Meaning, these were Christians who really held no faith but unity, and the unity they held was tethered to being nice, not to the historic Christian faith.  So many rejected it, and still do.  It’s understandable.

A unity that is sturdy, rooted in the ancient church, Her faith, and Her doctrines is not that.  It is a unity that can absorb and flourish with diversity, as Pope Francis has recently said.  As I noted to the blogger mentioned above, the “…quality of being Catholic is that unity does not outstrip or supersede orthodoxy, and orthodoxy is passionate about unity.”  

This drivenness, this passion, comes from the Lord, not some desire to “all get along.”  Anyone who knows Catholics knows that could not possibly be our motivation.  G.K. Chesterton said, “[A Catholic] has the range of two thousand years full of twelve hundred thousand controversies, thrashed out by thinker against thinker, school against school, guild against guild, nation against nation, with no limit except the fundamental logical fact that the things were worth arguing, because they could be ultimately solved and settled.” So no, it can’t be that we “all get along.”  It runs deeper, much deeper than that.  

We want the world to believe in Jesus.  We Catholics are Evangelicals.

The final word goes to Saint Cyprian who, in 250 A.D., reminds us in no uncertain terms why we are passionate, and also, that because we are Catholic, we will never yield, never give up, on our task of inviting all Christians to open their hearts and minds to their first and original home–the Catholic Church–and to make it their last:

The Lord speaks to Peter: ‘I say to thee,’ He says, ‘thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.’ Upon him, being one, He builds His Church, and although after His resurrection He bestows equal power upon all the Apostles, and says: ‘As the Father has sent me, I also send you. Receive ye the Holy Spirit: if you forgive the sins of anyone, they will be forgiven him; if you retain the sins of anyone, they will be retained,’ yet that He might display unity, He established by His authority the origin of the same unity as beginning from one. Surely the rest of the Apostles also were that which Peter was, endowed with an equal partnership of office and of power, but the beginning proceeds from unity, that the Church of Christ may be shown to be one. This one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Canticle of Canticles designates in the person of the Lord and says: ‘One is my dove, my perfect one is but one, she is the only one of her mother, the chosen one of her that bore her.’ Does he who does not hold this unity think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against the Church and resists her think that he is in the Church, when to the blessed Apostle Paul teaches this same thing and sets forth the sacrament of unity saying: ‘One body and one Spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God’?

By Gregory Martha Herr, Obl.S.B.

Greg lives with his wife, author Karen Lee-Thorp, in Brea, California, is retired from local government, is a Benedictine Oblate, and serves on the Board of Directors for Orange County’s newest Catholic parish, an Anglican Ordinariate church, which he helped to co-found five years ago

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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