by Father Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M. Profiles in Catholicism
When we hear about violent attacks on places of worship or groups of worshippers, we rarely think of Christians attacking other Christians. Synagogues and Mosques are attacked; Christian churches in primarily Muslim countries are bombed; and Black Churches are burned by white racists. But when was the last time you heard of a
band of Baptists burning a Lutheran Church over the practice of infant baptism, or Catholics brutalizing worshippers exiting an Episcopal Church for failing to accept the Pope, or a Pentecostal holding a Presbyterian hostage over predestination? Yet such things were common occurrences in Europe for centuries. As the Protestant Reformation rolled through Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it parked a whole series of wars and conflicts.
These are often called the Wars of Religion or the Wars of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Of course, like all “wars of religion,” and acts of terrorism, these wars had political overtones. Religion often served as an excuse for taking aggressive action against an adjacent territory. Still, the casualty count is staggering. Estimates of the number killed by wars in Europe sparked by religion range from 7 million to 45 million. And these numbers do not count the large number of people who were put to death by civil authority for being of the “wrong” religion. A town or a city-state or a nation would “go” Catholic or Lutheran or Calvinist; and those who were loyal to a false religion were liable to be executed. The Spanish Inquisition was just a small example of what went on in many different places by authorities attempting to establish orthodoxy.
Beyond government action, there were riots and attacks against the adherents of the “wrong” religion. In England, our Puritan ancestors threw stones through the stained glass windows of Catholic and Anglican Churches and demolished outdoor shrines, because such things were symbols of human vanity and idolatry. And, while all this was going on, Christians still had time to persecute Jews and fight Muslims. Those who reject organized religion today have a lot of ammunition to use.
Why bring all of this up now? We certainly cannot change the past. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that even God cannot change history. What we can change is the present and the future. Considering how much harm we have caused one another, what potential might be unlocked if Christians started working together?
In 1908, Fr. Paul Wattson, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, initiated what would eventually become the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25). The idea was endorsed by Pope Pius X and by a number of Protestant faith leaders under a slightly different form. In 1966, the World Council of Churches and the Vatican agreed to collaborate on a common theme and a common prayer text each year.
This year’s theme taken from the Epiphany Gospel is “We saw the star in the East, and we came to worship him.” The prayer this year originates in Lebanon, a country under much political and economic stress. In the Eastern Church, there is a long tradition of connecting the Journey of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the Marriage Feast at Cana (which we have celebrated the last three Sundays) as the Three Epiphanies: In each case the identity of Jesus is revealed to the world. Baptism is significant, because it is held in common by all Christians. What follows is this year’s prayer. The Franciscan Friars who promote this observance every year suggest that you pray this prayer in solidarity with the people of Lebanon and all suffering Christians: “The power of prayer in solidarity with those who suffer is a demonstration of Christian unity and a sign of communion.”
“God of every nation, creator of every human life, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, has been made manifest in human history by becoming one of us and one with us.
Born in a stable, born in homelessness, he is our King and Lord. The Magi bore witness to the Light of hope coming into the world as they faithfully followed the star, coming from foreign lands in the East, until arriving in Bethlehem of Judea. The solidarity of God with created humanity in this gift of Epiphany calls us to a life of solidarity with the homeless, the refugee, the weakest and the rejected.
We are all human beings worthy of redemption and prepared by that redeeming love for the glory of your Kingdom. Help us, O Gracious Lord, to do this in unity and peace. As we who bear the name of Christian, from the days of the church at Antioch, hold a special place in our hearts for the ancient Christian communities in the land we call holy, remind us to continually respond to our baptismal promises to you, who said through your Spirit at the Jordan, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ Amen.”