The homily given by the Pope on 25 January echoed the words of Paul here. How weak we are in the face of the wiles of the enemy. Moments in time after Paul had preached there, and with the Apostles available, the men and women of Corinth had managed to set up factions in which they made claims for Paul, or another Christian leader, Apollos, or for Peter (Cehpas); worst of all some claimed alone to be ‘of Christ’. As St John Chrysostom pointed out, this was a great scandal since they made baptism, the point of unity, the cause of division.
Origen pointed out, in words which resonate as much with us as they did when he wrote them in the second century, that the Church is a mixed body which contains the righteous and the unrighteous; this is why Paul praises some members and criticises others. The person who agrees with right doctrine and the teaching of the church concerning the Trinity, and with the Creed, is not in schism. That was easier to say in his day than it is in ours, when we have a number of Churches who can say they preserve right doctrine and believe in the Creed, and yet are still not united and say that they are ‘of Peter’ or of ‘Constantinople’, or of ‘Luther’ and of ‘Calvin’ and claim for themselves the name ‘Christian’ which some of them would arrogate to themselves alone. It was then, as the Pope says it is now:
In other words, the particular experience of each individual, or an attachment to certain significant persons in the community, had become a yardstick for judging the faith of others.
The Holy Father rightly asks:
may we realize that Christ, who cannot be divided, wants to draw us to himself, to the sentiments of his heart, to his complete and confident surrender into the hands of the Father, to his radical self-emptying for love of humanity. Christ alone can be the principle, the cause and the driving force behind our unity.
He is right, and in Pauline mode when he points out:
Our divisions wound Christ’s body, they impair the witness which we are called to give to him before the world. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, appealing to the text of Saint Paul which we have reflected on, significantly states: “Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communities present themselves to people as the true inheritance of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but they differ in outlook and go their different ways, as if Christ were divided”. And the Council continues: “Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the sacred cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1)
There is no doubt, as even readers of the comments boxes here know, that this division damages us; it makes us all a scandal in the eyes of the world, and asks us all to look again at what divides us – as well as what unites us – Christ Jesus.
Pope Francis does not ignore the place of the Papacy in these divisions, but, referring to three of of his four predecessors says:
The work of these, my predecessors, enabled ecumenical dialogue to become an essential dimension of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, so that today the Petrine ministry cannot be fully understood without this openness to dialogue with all believers in Christ. We can say also that the journey of ecumenism has allowed us to come to a deeper understanding of the ministry of the Successor of Peter, and we must be confident that it will continue to do so in the future.
There is only one Christian leader who can command the attention of the world every time he speaks, and only one who can speak for the majority of the world’s Christians, and if he will not talk to others, then unity has no hope. But unity requires others to talk, and, of course, for the Pope to listen as well as talk.
Can there really be unity? We have Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, but we know from Clement’s letter to them, written probably before the end of the first century, that they had once more lapsed into quarrelling with each other; jealousy and envy had even led to the deaths of the Apostles, Peter and Paul. What happened to the church in Corinth is lost in the mists of history, but where it could have been a noble example of Christians pulling together in the cause of Christ, it disappears from the scene; the answer is not far to seek.
We have not been good at learning the lessons of history, and no impartial historian can absolve ‘The Church of God which sojourneth in Rome’ from its part in the scandal of division. Pope Francis, like his immediate predecessors is determined to do what he can in the cause of unity. Are such hopes doomed? Not if we believe St Paul:
Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.