“The Holy Spirit is the one who will lead us into unity”
Note: The following discourse on Christian unity by Fr. Cantalamessa was first given as a sermon during a vigil service on Good Friday in Rome 2008 in the Coliseum where a number of early Christians had been martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ. –ed.
Symbolism of unity expressed in John’s Gospel
“When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four shares, a share for each soldier. They also took his tunic, but the tunic was without seam, woven in one piece from the top down. So they said to one another, ‘Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be,’ in order that the passage of Scripture might be fulfilled that says: ‘They divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots’”.John 19:23-24
It has always been asked what the evangelist John wanted to say with the importance that he gives to this particular detail of the Passion. One relatively recent explanation is that the tunic alludes to the vestment of the high priest and that with this, John wanted to affirm that Jesus died not only as king but also as priest.
It is not said in the Bible, however, that the tunic of the high priest had to be seamless (cf. Exodus 28: 4; Leviticus 16:4). For this reason the most authoritative of the exegetes prefer to stick to the traditional explanation, according to which the seamless tunic symbolized the unity of the disciples. It is the interpretation that St. Cyprian already gave: “The unity of the Church,” he writes, “is expressed in the Gospel when it is said that the tunic of Christ was not divided or cut.”
Jesus prayed and died for the unity of his disciples
Whatever be the explanation that one gives to the text, one thing is certain: The unity of the disciples is, for John, the purpose for which Christ dies. “Jesus had to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51-52). At the Last Supper he himself said: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).
Unity is a gift to be received
The glad tidings to proclaim on Good Friday are that unity, before it is a goal to be sought, is a gift to be received. That the tunic is woven “from the top down,” St. Cyprian continues, means that “the unity brought by Christ comes from above, from the heavenly Father, and because of this it cannot be broken apart by those who receive it, but must be received in its integrity.”
The soldiers divided “the clothes,” or the “the cloak,” (“ta imatia”) into four pieces, that is, Jesus’ outer garments, not the tunic, the “chiton,” which was the inner garment, which was in direct contact with his body. This is also a symbol. We men can divide the human and visible element of the Church, but not its deeper unity, which is identified with the Holy Spirit. Christ’s tunic was not and can never be divided. It too is of a single piece. “Can Christ be divided?” Paul cried out (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13). It is the faith we profess in the Creed: “I believe in the Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”
A visible communitarian unity
But if unity must serve as a sign “so that the world believe,” it must also be a visible, communitarian unity. This is the unity that has been lost and must be rediscovered. It is much more than maintaining neighborly relations; it is the mystical interior unity itself – “one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6) – insofar as this objective unity is in fact received, lived and manifested by believers. A unity that is not endangered by diversity, but enriched by it.
After Easter the apostles asked Jesus: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Today we often address the same question to God: Is this the time in which you will restore the visible unity of the Church? God’s answer is also the same as the one Jesus gave to the disciples: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:6-8).
The Holy Father [Pope Francis] recalled this in a homily he gave on January 25 in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls at the end of Christian Unity Week: “Unity with God and our brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “is a gift that comes from on high, which flows from the communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in which it is increased and perfected. It is not in our power to decide when or how this unity will be fully achieved. Only God can do it! Like St Paul, let us also place our hope and trust ‘in the grace of God which is with us.’”
The Holy Spirit is the one who leads us into unity
Today as well, the Holy Spirit will be the one to lead us into unity, if we let him guide us. How was it that the Holy Spirit brought about the first fundamental unity of the Church, that between Jews and pagans? The Holy Spirit descends upon Cornelius and his whole household in the same way in which he descended upon the apostles at Pentecost. So, Peter only needed to draw the conclusion: “If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?” (Acts 11:17).
For a century now, we have seen the same thing repeat itself before our eyes on a global scale. God has poured out the Holy Spirit in a new and unusual way upon millions of believers from every Christian denomination and, so that there would be no doubts about his intentions, he poured out the Spirit with the same manifestations. Is this not a sign that the Spirit moves us to recognize each other as disciples of Christ and work toward unity?
It is true that this spiritual and charismatic unity is not enough by itself. We see this already at the beginning of the Church. The newly formed unity between Jews and Gentiles was immediately threatened by schism. In the so-called Council of Jerusalem there was a “long discussion” and at the end an agreement was reached and announced to the Church with the formula: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit works, therefore, also through another way, which is that of patient exchange, dialogue and even compromise between the different sides, when the essentials of the faith are not in play. He works through human “structures” and the “offices” put in action by Jesus, above all the apostolic and petrine office. It is that which today we call doctrinal and institutional ecumenism.
Spiritual ecumenism is born through repentance and nourished by prayer
However, experience is convincing us that even this doctrinal ecumenism is not sufficient and does not advance matters if it is not also accompanied by a foundational spiritual ecumenism. This is repeated with ever greater insistence by the major promoters of institutional ecumenism. In this centenary of the institution of the week of prayer for Christian unity (1908-2008), at the foot of the cross we would like to meditate on this spiritual ecumenism, on what this spiritual ecumenism is and how we can make progress in it.
Spiritual ecumenism is born through repentance and forgiveness and is nourished by prayer. In 1977, I participated in a charismatic ecumenical congress in the U.S., in Kansas City, Missouri. There were 40,000 participants, half of them Catholic – Cardinal Suenens among them – and half from other Christian denominations. One evening, one of the leaders of the meeting began speaking at the microphone in a way that, to me, at that time, was strange: “You priests and pastors, weep and mourn, because the body of my Son is broken. … You laypeople, men and women, weep and mourn, because the body of my Son is broken.”
I began to see people around me fall to their knees, one after another, and to weep with repentance for the divisions in the body of Christ. And all of this went on while a sign reading “Jesus is Lord” went up from one part of the stadium to the other. I was there as an observer who was still rather critical and detached, but I remember thinking to myself: If one day all believers shall be reunited in one single body, it will happen like this, when we all are on our knees with a contrite and humiliated heart, under the great lordship of Christ.
The unity of Christ’s disciples is based on love
If the unity of the disciples must be a reflection of the unity between Father and Son, it must above all be a unity of love, because such is the unity that reigns in the Trinity. Scripture exhorts us to “do the truth in love” – “veritatem facientes in caritate” (Ephesians 4:15). And Augustine affirms that “one does not enter into the truth if not through charity” – “non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem.”
The extraordinary thing about this way to unity based on love is that it is already now wide open before us. We cannot be hasty in regard to doctrine because differences exist and must be resolved with patience in the appropriate contexts. We can instead “be hasty” in charity and already be united in that sense now. The true, certain sign of the coming of the Spirit, St. Augustine writes, is not speaking in tongues, but it is the love of unity: “Know that you have the Holy Spirit when you allow your heart to adhere to unity through sincere charity.”
Let us reflect on St. Paul’s hymn to charity. Each verse acquires a contemporary and new meaning if it is applied to the love of members of different Christian denominations in ecumenical relations:
“Love is patient…1Corinthians 13:4ff.
Love is not jealous…
It does not seek its own interests…
It does not brood over injury… (if necessary, of the injury done to others!)
It does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth (it doesn’t rejoice over the difficulties of other Churches, but delights in their successes).
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”.
Moving together toward Christ, we draw nearer to each other
“Loving,” it has been said, “does not mean looking at each other but looking together in the same direction.” Even among Christians loving means looking in the same direction, which is Christ. “He is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). It is like the spokes of a wheel. Consider what happens to the spokes of a wheel when they move from the center outward: As they distance themselves from the center they also become more distant from each other. On the contrary when they move from the periphery toward the center, as they come closer to the center, they also come nearer to each other, until they form a single point. To the extent that we move together toward Christ, we draw nearer to each other, until we are truly, as Jesus desired, “one with him and with the Father.”
That which will reunite divided Christianity will only be a new wave of love for Christ that spreads among Christians. This is what is happening through the work of the Holy Spirit and it fills us with wonder and hope. “The love of Christ moves us, because we are convinced that one has died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14). The brother who belongs to another Church — indeed every human being — is “a person for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:16), as he has died for me.
An ecumenism of faith
One thing must move us forward on this journey. What is in play at the beginning of the third millennium, is not the same as what was in play at the beginning of the second millennium, when there was the separation of East and West; nor is it the same as what was in play in the middle of the same millennium when there was the separation of Catholics and Protestants. Can we say that the way the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or how justification of the sinner comes about are the problems that impassion the men of today and with which the Christian faith stands or falls? The world has moved beyond us and we remain fixed by problems and formulas that the world does not even know the meaning of.
In battles in the Middle Ages there was a moment in which, after the infantry, archers and cavalry had been overwhelmed, the melee began to circle around the king. There the final outcome of the fight was decided. Today the battle for us also takes place around the king. There are buildings and structures made of metal in such a way that if a certain neuralgic point is touched or a certain stone is removed, everything falls apart. In the edifice of the Christian faith this cornerstone is the divinity of Christ. If this is removed, everything falls apart and faith in the Trinity is the first to go.
From this we see that today there are two possible ecumenisms: an ecumenism of faith and an ecumenism of incredulity; one that unites all those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that Christ died to save all humankind, and an ecumenism that unites all those who, in deference to the Nicene Creed, continue to proclaim these formulas but empty them of their content. It is an ecumenism in which, in its extreme form, everyone believes the same things because no one any longer believes anything, in the sense that “believing” has in the New Testament.
“Who is it that overcomes the world,” John writes in his first letter, “if not those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1John 5:5). Sticking with this criterion, the fundamental distinction among Christians is not between Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, but between those who believe that Christ is the Son of God and those who do not believe this.
Take courage all who work for the cause of unity – the Lord is with you
“On the first day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai to the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, and to the high priest Joshua, son of Jehozadak…: ‘Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’” (Haggai 1:1-4).
This word of the prophet Haggai is addressed to us today. Is this the time to concern ourselves with that which only regards our religious order, our movement, or our Church? Is this not precisely the reason why we too “sow much but harvest little” (Haggai 1:6)? We preach and we are active in many ways, but we convert few people and the world moves away from Christ instead of drawing near to him.
The people of Israel heard the prophet’s reproof; everyone stopped embellishing his own house and began to work together on God’s temple. God then sent his prophet again with a message of consolation and encouragement, which is also addressed to us: “But now take courage, Zerubbabel, says the Lord, and take courage, Joshua, high priest, son of Jehozadak, And take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord, and work! For I am with you, says the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:4). Take courage, all of you who have at heart the cause of the unity of Christians, and go to work, because I am with you, says the Lord!
 Cf. R. E. Brown, “The Death of the Messiah,” vol. 2, Doubleday, New York 1994, pp. 955-958.
 St. Cyprian, De unitate Ecclesiae, 7 (CSEL 3, p. 215).
 St. Augustine, Contra Faustum, 32,18 (CCL 321, p. 779).
 St. Augustine, Sermons, 269,3-4 (PL38, 1236 s)
This sermon by Raniero Cantalamessa was translated from the Italian by Joseph G. Trabbic. Online souce of article: https://zenit.org/articles/good-friday-sermon-of-father-cantalamessa-2/
Top image of people moving towards the formation of a cross: image modified from the original at from bigstock.com, © by Digital Storm, Stock Photo ID: 81935960
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. (born July 22, 1934) is an Italian Catholic priest in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. He has devoted his ministry to preaching and writing. He is a Scripture scholar, theologian, and noted author of numerous books. Since 1980 he has served as the Preacher to the Papal Household under Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. He is a noted ecumenist and frequent worldwide speaker, and a member of the Catholic Delegation for the Dialogue with the Pentecostal Churches.