Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Unity, Sacrifice and Community

Father John J. Lombardi

Growing up amidst five children, two parents, five cats and a couple of dogs, I learned a couple of things: how to share (candy and the sofa were hardest), and how to overcome obstacles for our family unity (I can't recall seeing haloes around anyone's head-but we tried).

My folks would sometimes gather us for a "family pow-wow" (we didn't relish these): we'd sit and talk about how to communicate and work together more for family unity, what was wrong and how it could be righted. Things would work better for a while-we would do our dishes for a few days instead of letting mom or pop do them; we wouldn't let George, the beagle-dog, eat out of the trash can and make a mess-but then, eventually, since we weren't saints, we would have to re-group again for a refresher course in Family Relations 101. This is probably the Way of All Families, at least to some extent.

"The philosopher"-Aristotle-said, "Man is a social animal". This Aristotelian thought, adapted by great theologians in our sacred Catholic Tradition, has affected our Faith and life tremendously for over two millennia. To wit: we are not rugged individualists, nor, on the other hand, are we socialists. We believe in, and preserve, each person in his or her individuality, but also the need of each to contribute to, and sacrifice for, the Common Good. As in our family described above, everyone needs to think of sacrificing time to take care of the dog or do the dishes. Our Catholic Church is a universal community, some one billion strong-and so there is an absolute need for "belonging to the tribe," thinking of others, working as a team. We must foster commonality in our prayer (though it does not always have to be exactly the same); we must believe the same dogmas and doctrines (other wise we would have more than the current 30,000 Christian denominations), and we all need to sacrifice our expendable, individual desires for the common good. This is essential.

We also know that, as in our families where the same commonality and social good is required, unity does not always come so easily. Each dad and mom, and child alike, must be willing to make the family unity essential, by working and even sacrificing for it (i.e., instead of comfortably watching TV one should empty the trash). And when we fail to achieve harmony we must try again-endlessly! The same is true in the universal Church-whether dealing with theologians who dissent from authentic teachings, or integrating various cultures with differing expressions, or whether fostering oneness in local churches with their array of tastes and personalities; everywhere we go there is community work to be done.

The saints themselves were not air dropped into a perfect Edenic community without need to sacrifice for a family, church or religious order: As St Benedict said, the community is a School of Charity-a place where the monk or nun has to learn about love, how to grow in sacrifice and contribute concretely to the common good. The family is also a School of Charity-each child and parent must yield their wants to promote familial harmony: each person must see the need for community, desire its unification, work for it, and forgive when differences arise, practice patience when it is hard, and unite in Jesus' sacrifice when things seem impossible. These are essential, universal elements of social spirituality anywhere, anytime, in our world. We must continually strive for the Unity of Community.

How can you strive for community where you are-in your family, parish or local group of support? Review the fundamental practices of unity: reconciliation and forgiveness; acceptance and sacrifice, positive promotion for the common good. It-community-does not happen on its own, it must be worked at, tried and re-tried. As a matter of fact, oppositely and often, because of the world, sin and fallen human nature, there is a tendency for community to implode: insincerity, pride, greed and gossip can all whittle down the common good and, whether it be a family, parish or town, it can go down a slippery slope to chaos and, eventually, dissolution. "Peyton Place" is not only a soap opera or location, but a state of being-the tendency of relationships and communities to breakdown.

As Catholics and Christians we must be aware of this worldly, deadening phenomenon-as well as the attacks of the Devil-- within our families and church. We must consistently, insistently and persistently work for unity amidst diversity and dissolution. This is the realist's contribution: recognizing the sinful effects of the world, yet not despairing, but becoming even more daring in challenging lukewarmness and failure. Consistently means day in and day out; insistently means doing this with a strong good will; persistently means doing it even after failures or faux pas (hey: welcome to the club- keep trying!). We must also remember that the human adventure, the striving to holiness and the unity of community, is made of an equation wherein one-hundred percent of the work is by each of us, and one hundred percent by God. Remember, too, what St Paul said: "Of one thing I am certain, the One who started the good work in you will bring it to completion" (Phil 1:6) So, following are some Catholic insights into Unity, Community and Sacrifice. 

We live in a flawed world-As Bible-believers we see the imperfections of the world, and even people ("All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rm 3:23), but we are not easily dismayed and subsequently realize the necessity of hard work. While avoiding despair and frequent frustration, we should be buoyed by practicing the virtue of fortitude. This virtue (a good trait practiced until ingrained as a second nature, and reflexive) will help us to continue to try, try again, and build up unity and community, even amidst hardships (physical and mental), trials (people or institutions persecuting us), amongst gloominess (the doomsayers' forecasts, whiners, etc); with our personal faults (my big mouth or impatience getting in my way of the group), and unfalteringly working at overcoming all this.

How can you persevere more in building up your family, parish, community? How can you try again? Mother Seton is a great witness of fortitude: thru the death of two sons and a husband, rejection by family members over her Catholic-Christian conversion, and tremendous hardships in founding a religious order, amidst constant sickness she kept faith in God and others, and built the Daughters of Charity into a beautiful family existing today!

The Lord chose imperfect men-the Apostles.  Saint Peter was headstrong; Judas betrayed Jesus altogether; other apostles competed for who would sit at God's right hand. This collection of fallible men illustrates not that God is imperfect, nor that He made bad choices, but rather that we can benefit from the example of His choosing imperfect, sinful men and building a Church upon it, by grace, in spite of all the humanity and sin. After all, St Peter recovered his three betrayals and confessed three times in Jesus to serve Him (Jn 21), eventually dying for Him; and St Paul, who persecuted Christians initially, then joined them, was later martyred for his discipleship.  How can you use your humanity and even your past sins to make a turn for God and your family or church?

The grass is greener on the other side--we often say or think-"I'll be happy when I get there or move to another place, join another church or community, or when he or she thinks my way".  Often this is an innate, earthly feeling and disposition of unfulfillable happiness, and we should recognize the Grand Canyon-sized hole in our hearts which we try to fill with people, possessions, with our family or community in bad, unfair ways. We must approach the community with realistic expectations, not cosmic projections of Shangri La solutions.  .St John of the Cross was literally persecuted by his brother Carmelites but continued to love them anyway; while being realistic about his religious order, he kept promoting harmony and brotherhood.

The good can be the enemy of the best: this classic phrase may mean, regarding community, that we are not striving for perfection in relations with wife or husband, children or parents, and we settle for second best, what is lukewarm and half-hearted. Our personal, half-hearted good becomes the enemy of something better, the "best". Bishop Fulton Sheen said: "Perfection is being, not doing; it is not to affect an act but to achieve a character." The Lord calls us to perfection (Mt. 6: 48) and we should strive for it. 

The best can be the enemy of the good-this phrase, the seeming opposite of the one above, implies that we fail to accept another person's limitations, faults, personal quirks-even if he is a basically decent person, or someone striving for holiness: In our perspective, nothing is good enough in them so we shut them off or judge them harshly. We may term this trait perfectionism (whether judged in ourselves or toward others). It is de-personalizing, inhumane and false virtuosity, versus the heroic striving toward perfection in ordered, legitimate ways.  How are you judging others harshly? Are you projecting your own success and failures upon others?.  St Padre Pio had tremendous gifts-bi-location, reading hearts, and the stigmata (wounds of Jesus impressed in his body). Amidst all these spiritual, wow-ing phenomenon-perfections-he lived with and amongst his Franciscan brothers in humility.

What is this in light of eternity? We allow another persons' failures, problems in relationships, or co-workers to disturb us inordinately, and thereby fail to interpret or accept the present troubles in light of Heaven and salvation history: by our faulty actions and responses you would think Jesus never came and saved us from sin, or healed us, by the way we sometimes act or feel, pout or obsess. We make a miniscule molehill into a monstrous mountain, a temporally passing thing into a fantastically fatal problem. A friend once said: perception is ninety percent of reality (unfortunately true sometimes!). .  Don't overestimate without reason; re-group and sleep on things, wake up fresh and then make a judgment without being judgmental. Better yet: go talk to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and let Him calm you. "I will give you a joy no one can take from you" (Jn.16:22). St Phillip Neri took saying Mass so intensely he went into trances. As a later response, he would sometimes put a monkey on his shoulder before Mass to loosen him up! What, where is your "monkey"?

The need for sacrifice and self-denial-this is essential, though downplayed today. Whether in our marriages, families, churches or priesthood, we need a lot more of this. Self-denial is the staple of religious and communal life. If we do not deny our selves and, instead, point to the community, the leader or someone else as a problem to solve or blame, then we will be in constant flux of change and trouble. St Therese of Lieseaux once had a nun bothering her, esp. in the washroom where the nun would spray Therese with suds. After these episodes Therese would silently be disgusted with her in various encounters. But, thru conversion, Therese later denied her own need for a solution, accepted the trial as a penance, and then later accepted the sister more fully.  .What do you need to sacrifice in yourself for your parents or children, for your church or co-worker?

"Seek ye first the Kingdom and all things will be added unto you." (Mt. 6:33). What is the mission and goal of your family, church or community? Often, because of others' foibles or challenging behaviors, we forget or abandon the mission or living in and with Jesus, and focus on other's behaviors. Therefore we need to re-focus, re-dedicate ourselves constantly to saving souls, building community and overcoming all obstacles. How can you do this?

Look for good in others: Too often we see bad, defective traits in others, and get stuck on these. Because of our own pride, jealousy and "agendas" we fail to find the talents and gifts God has given to others. Stop obsessing on negatives and accentuate the positive.

Interventions: Sometimes, of course, you or a leader needs to lovingly step in to question a behavior of another person or raise an issue for change. Make sure you are on solid ground and the critique or suggestion is objectively verifiable (not just a feeling or subjective disagreement). In correcting someone always make sure it is loving and for the person's welfare, and not just a "jackhammer of judgementality" to unleash anger or denigrate someone. Don't pass on negative behaviors: When we receive anger or negativity we tend to knee-jerk respond by passing it back to someone else (misplaced anger). Stop the chain of darkness and, instead:

  1. first identify someone else's attack thoughts or judgementaility, and their suffering situation;
  2. take a deep breath in the midst of their bad behavior and don't immediately respond;
  3. "absorb the negativity" and don't pass it on (for instance, by being with Jesus before Pilate, identifying with Jesus instead of the anger the suffering person is causing you, then receiving graces from Jesus within, by identifying with Him and His Passion); and
  4. respond to the person and situation differently, afresh with Jesus' Heart, and "cool love," not impassioned anger.

Avoid Cliques and build community: Our human tendency is to cultivate particular friendships and little circles of familiarity; this is ok, though sometimes can become inordinately closed off and oppositional. How can you alternatively reach out to the "other"-different from you, the outcast, or someone in your spiritual, ideological, or social "camp" and try to build community and solidarity. "What good is it if you love those who love you, even the pagans do the same" (Mt. 5:46). I Corinthians 13: "Love is patient, love is kind, and love does not put on airs": .  Herein is a wealth of spiritual wisdom. Wherever St Paul has put the word "love" in this pass, prayerfully read your own name in it s place to encourage you to more patience, vigilance, and gentility. These are often the relational elements needed to help heal and solve problems. 

Briefly Noted

Prophets Today? We need prophets and challenging voices of Catholic and Christian Conscience to challenge Seven Deadly Contemporary Sins:

  • Abortion: thousands of them every day, and we're growing inert to all the blood and sterilized murder, esp. thru the new French drug about to be legalized in USA, RU486 (it parades as a contraceptive).
  • Contraception: this seems like it doesn't hurt anyone except that it leads to abortion, the dis-unity of couples and families, the exploitation of women, the denigration of God's design for marriage and sexuality, etc.
  • Materialism: people are frantic to buy and acquire more possessions, bigger cars/trucks, houses, money, relationships-and all the while cultivate anxiousness maintaining it.
  • Homosexualism: this means the programmed and "legitimization-by-legalization" of gay/ homosexual rights, leading to so-called alternative families, legalized sodomy (as just passed in Texas), and acceptance of homosexuality as legit, natural right. This is hurting not only homosexuals (whom God loves and wants to heal), but also families and culture.
  • Family Attack: by "no-fault divorce," busyness and materialism, attacks of fatherhood and motherhood.  
  • Relativism: this catch-all term implies, in law: that there is no truth or Commandments to guide moral conscience (a court just ordered removal of display of Ten Commandments from a courtroom in Ala.); in religion: that we cannot know God or His ways; in science/biology/schools: that we cannot know God as a cause of intelligent design of the world; in short, relativism is skepticism scientifically put
  • Sensualism: this includes pervasive pornography, depersonalization of women thru the media; persons treated not as spiritual creatures but rather as objects of lust.  There were saints who challenged each one of these in his, or her, times-how will you?! No prophet is without honor expect I his native place" Don't become prophetic to become honored-you won't-but to become honorable,--in God's eyes. The Church is counting on you.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi