Acts 13:46-49; Luke 10:1-9
As a young musician and singer I had many opportunities to play and sing for wedding and funeral Masses. At first this was no problem, but eventually it became one. Parishes had begun to hire their own musicians who weren’t thrilled to see outsiders like me coming in. I remember at one wedding the local musician came up and told me that he was on the parish staff, this was his parish, and he would be playing. I don’t recall my reply but I know it infuriated him. He stormed off saying “I’m going to the pastor right now. One of us is leaving and it won’t be me!” Well, it was him. I stayed and did the wedding Mass, smugly condemning him for his attitude, never considering my own.
There’s an old saying that when the Church isn’t being persecuted from the outside she persecutes herself. Many of us have seen it; the place we expect to find the most unity too often seems the model of disunity. We want the Church to grow, we want to bring Christ to people, but when they challenge us with new ideas, expectations, or ways of doing things we find ourselves at odds with them.
This phenomenon is as old as the Church. In the first reading Paul and Barnabas turn their attention to the Gentiles, frustrated with their stalling mission to the Jews. And we hear how the Gentiles were delighted and the Church grew. What we have not heard (yet) is that with this growth came conflict. On one side the Gentiles resisted adopting Judaic ritual and dietary practices. What do circumcision and kosher law have to do with salvation? On the other side the Jewish Christians resisted the idea of abandoning them. After all, Jesus and his Apostles were Jews! Two groups, each with its own interests: More disputes, more hard feelings, more disunity.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius might well sympathize. In their time (the 9th century) the Church was struggling to grow in Eastern Europe. The two brothers were the perfect choice for missionaries; they were well-educated, devout, and had grown up speaking Slavic as a second language. Best of all they possessed keen pastoral sensibility; they knew that Christ is the Word who transcends language, whether Greek, Latin, or Slavic. Therefore, when they arrived in the missions they not only preached in Slavic but also translated and conducted liturgical services in it as well. The people responded and the Church grew.
As in the gospel they went out like lambs among wolves, only this time the wolves wore clericals. The missionaries of the region resented Cyril and Methodius. For one thing, they made the old guard look bad. Under them the Church withered; with the brothers here she blossomed. Second, they took issue with the way the Church grew. As they saw it, no one had the right to translate the liturgy into the native language and teach it to the people. Surely these upstart missionaries must be reprimanded.
Not surprisingly the embittered clerics appealed to Rome about the liturgical changes, demanding action. When summoned, Cyril and Methodius went to Rome and gave a spirited, eloquent defense. After listening carefully in person, Pope Adrian II blessed their mission and gave them permission to continue celebrating the liturgy in Slavic.
Cyril stayed in Rome and died not long afterward; Methodius returned to the missions. Sadly but not surprisingly, the pope’s decision settled nothing in many minds. For the rest of his life Methodius was hounded and frustrated by clerics who disagreed with him. Although he stayed the course and remained successful, the stress took its toll; he died April 6, 885.
The pattern of disagreement, debate, and decision is how things get most productively settled in the Church provided it is done in the right spirit; that is, the Holy Spirit. Since the Council of Jerusalem was called to settle the dispute between the Gentile and Jewish Christians this has been the model, its justification found in the letter issued from that Council, specifically the sentence that begins, It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit promised by Christ continually works within us, finding ways to maintain unity despite our differences. In all our human affairs but especially between the members of the Church what matters is not that we disagree but that we dialog, not the heat of our words but the light of the Holy Spirit, not the distance we keep but the fellowship we extend, and not the hostility throughout the debate but the peace of Christ we give in the resolution. As with Cyril and Methodius, some will not accept us or the decisions reached but we cannot help that. All we can do is what Methodius did: Continue to act in union with Christ and his Church, remembering always that it is not about us but about the Holy Spirit and us.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius, pray for us.