Separated Brethren

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" I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:1-3).

The universality of the Church is manifested in our times by the millions of Catholics throughout the world.  At the same time, there are still many people who do not belong to the Catholic Church yet are members of various organized religions.  Of these people, some believe in Christ, while others do not, even though they believe in the one, true God.  There are others who may have some sort of religion but do not believe in the one, true God.  All of these people are outside the visible Church, but in varying degrees.  We will consider their relationship to the Church.

Let us pray for all our brothers and sisters who share our faith in Jesus Christ, that God may gather and keep together in one Church all those who seek the truth with sincerity (General Intercession from the Liturgy of Good Friday).

Those closest to the Church are non-Catholic Christians who have been baptized.  They are often referred to as our separated brethren.  They are united in some way to the Mystical Body in virtue of their Baptism.  This is because there is but "one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins", as we profess in the Nicene Creed.  We are all baptized in Christ.  Thus anyone who has received the sacrament of Baptism has been united to Christ and his Body, the Church.

What divides Christians, however, is the degree to which they accept the teachings and practices handed down through the apostles from Christ.  It is only the Catholic Church that teaches the full message of Our Lord.  The divisions in belief and practice among Christians vary by degrees.

Those who are closest to the Church are the Orthodox Christians, who possess all of the sacraments but who have separated themselves from the authority of the Church.  They did this one thousand years ago when they rejected the authority of the Pope.

In the next place are those denominations that broke away from the Church at the time of the Reformation - for example, the Lutherans.  In addition to separating themselves from the authority of the Church, these groups also rejected certain teachings and sacraments of the Church.  The Lutherans, for example, rejected the need for the sacrament of Penance and taught that individuals may interpret the Scriptures without the guidance of the Church,

Finally, there are Christian denominations that have broken from these groups, rejecting still more doctrines of our faith.  Since the Reformation, new Christian denominations have continued to appear, as people decided to keep certain parts of the message of Christ while rejecting others.

While all of these various Christian groups possess some parts of Christ's gospel, they are still separated from the fullness of his message.

The fullness of unity in the Church requires that all Christians be united again in doctrine and worship.  The Church prays for this, especially in the Liturgy of Good Friday.  The message of the prayer is that those united to Christ, initially in Baptism, may be fully united with him in faith.

Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity.  Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption (General Intercession from the Liturgy of Good Friday).

Then there are those people who do not believe in Christ, but who do believe in the one, true God.  These are the Jews and the Moslems.  The Jews, by virtue of their history, bear a closer relationship with the Church.

The Jews were the first chosen people.  God first revealed himself to man when he made the Covenant with Abraham.  He promised that Abraham's descendants would be his special people and that he would be their God.

Over the centuries God gradually revealed himself to these people, preparing them specially for his spiritual Kingdom, which was still to come.  God revealed to his people that salvation would come to the world through them.  God promised that he would restore to the world the harmony and closeness to God that had existed before the Fall.  This would be accomplished by a descendant of Abraham - the Messiah.  When they had been instructed and formed, the Jews were ready to receive the fullness of God's revelation.  They were ready to be transformed into the wholly spiritual people God had intended them to be.  And so Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world.

Many of the Jews. however, did not recognize him as the Messiah.  Because of this, they are separated from the Church today.  They should be members of the Church, for salvation came from them.  Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman at the well, "Salvation comes from the Jews" (Jn 4:22).  A special bond unites us with them.  Jesus sprang from their own stock; he was "Son of David".  God still loves them with a special love.  We pray that they may recognize in Our Lord their own Messiah promised by God - and thus once more become part of the People of God, as they had been destined to be.

Like the Jews, the Moslems also believe in the one, true God.  However, unlike Judaism, their religion is not the preparation for Christianity.  The Moslem religion - Islam - developed in Arabia about six hundred years after Christ and draws from both Judaism and Christianity,.  They accept the revelation of God to the Jews found in the Old Testament but do not recognize Christ as the Messiah.  They see him as one of the prophets, not as the Second Person of the Trinity.  We pray that the Moslems, too, may see the truth and one day be fully united to the Church.

Almighty and eternal God, you created mankind so that all might long to find you and have peace when you are found.  Grant that, in spite of hurtful things that stand in their way, they may all recognize in the lives of Christians the tokens of your love and mercy and gladly acknowledge you as the one true God and Father of us all (General Intercession from the Liturgy of Good Friday).

Then there are those people - both the pagans and the atheists - who do not believe in the one, true God at all.  The pagans are those who do not believe in the one true God but may practice some form of idolatrous religion or even believe in many gods, which is called polytheism.  The ancient Greek and Roman religions were of this sort.  There are also those pagans who practice animism, believing that inanimate objects possess supernatural powers and can be controlled by us.  The pagans then worship many god, but not the one, true God.

There are also people who are atheists.  Strictly speaking, atheism is the denial of the existence of a personal God.  In our modern world atheism takes many forms.  There are those who expressly deny God's existence.  Others maintain that there may be a God but that we can know nothing about him.  We call these people agnostics.  Still other people do not expressly deny God's existence but never take any interest in God or religion.  They choose to ignore him and concentrate on mankind and its accomplishments instead.

There can be many obstacles that prevent these people from believing in God.  We pray that God will remove these obstacles, so they too may come to believe in him.

As members of the Church we should work toward the reunion of all Christians with the Church and pray that all others outside the Church might fully become members of the Mystical Body.  This is what is meant by ecumenism.  As Catholics we have been given a great gift, and we should have a longing to share this gift with others.

We know that salvation has come into the world through Christ.  He left us the Church to distribute to us the graces of salvation and to provide a secure guide for us.  We have been blessed with the sacraments that help us on our path to Heaven.  Christ also left us with a visible representative on earth, so that we might clearly see his message in the world.  Those who are outside the Catholic Church do not have these great gifts.  Does this mean, then, that those who are outside the visible Church cannot be saved?

The Church teaches that "outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation".  What exactly does this mean?  The Church is necessary for salvation because Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation.  Jesus and his message are found completely in the Church - his Body.

The Church does not teach, however, that all of those who are outside the visible Church will not be saved.  Only those who know that God wants them to be in full communion with the Catholic Church, yet who deliberately choose to remain outside the Church - by willingly rejecting Christ and his message - will not be saved.  There are many people, though, who are outside the visible Church through no fault of their own.  For example, there are many who have never heard the gospel or may have a distorted picture of it.  If they live a good life, trying to do what God expects of them, they have hope of salvation.

But a problem still exists.  Our Lord told us that Baptism is necessary in order to enter Heaven.  When he spoke to the Pharisee Nicodemus, he said:

Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God (Jn 3:5).

We have already seen that those Christians who are outside the Church are truly baptized in Christ, but what about those who have never been baptized - can they enter into the Kingdom of God?

For those who do not know of the sacrament and its importance, or who are unable to receive it before they die, there are two other means of receiving the sanctifying grace necessary to enter Heaven.  The first is called Baptism of desire.  This desire for Baptism can be explicit as in the case of someone who is preparing for Baptism but who dies before receiving the sacrament.  Or it can be implicit.  The desire is implied in those people who faithfully and truly try to carry out God's will in their lives.  Perhaps they do not know of the need for Baptism but would receive it if they did.  God, knowing their thoughts and desires, does not punish them for circumstances beyond their control.

The second extraordinary means of receiving the grace necessary for Heaven is called Baptism of blood.  This is the "baptism" granted to those non-Christians who have been martyred for Christ.  The fact that they are willing to die for Christ demonstrates their faith, and they are welcomed into Heaven, although they have never received sacramental Baptism.

Now that we see the great gift we have been given by being baptized and raised as members of the Catholic Church, we should work to bring others into union with the Church.  At the same time we should show respect for the religions of others, leading them with patience and compassion to see the truth.

We ought to see that we are unworthy to receive such a gift, and not think that this entitles us to feel smug and superior.  Indeed we can learn from so many of our separated brethren.

The Eastern Orthodox venerate tradition.  The splendor of their liturgy inspires in us deep reverence for the worship of God.  Episcopalians have a great understanding for the beauty of ceremonies.  Lutherans, Baptists, and Evangelicals read the Bible and are very familiar with it.  Jews have a deep sense of the sacred, love the Commandments, and have the courage to stand up for their beliefs.

We Catholics must live our faith more seriously.  Our love must increase, and each of us must personally convert, and turn away from sinful ways and follow Christ.

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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