The devil revels in division. We see this at the beginning of human history in Genesis. Adam and Eve are created in the State of Grace which means that they enjoy God’s friendship. Satan succeeds in separating them from this wondrous gift, and no sooner have they fallen than Adam starts to blame Eve for having misled him. The sword of the angel separates our first parents from the paradise of Eden, and is perhaps symbolic of that most terrible dividing of body and soul that occurs in death, which is a direct consequence of that first sin. Thanks be to God, this was not to be the end of the story. In Eastertide we glory in the triumph of a Saviour Who came to reunite men with God, and through their reconciliation with God, with each other. In His Resurrection, He achieved the most wonderful reconciliation of all when He reunited His dead body with His soul, so that in the Creed we are able to profess that we look forward to the reunion of our own bodies and souls on the Day of Judgement when Our Lord returns in majesty and power.
The Church is a union unlike any other that exists on earth. Through Baptism, we die with Christ and are resurrected with Him, and incorporated into the Mystical Body of which He is the Head. In this union, we are grafted into a living body just as the individual cells and organs of a living creature are substantially united into a single living organism. The Church is a supernatural society, the life force of which is divine. She is the supernatural means which God has ordained to reverse all of the dividing, separating effects of the Fall.
It should not surprise us that the world outside this Mystical Body, which continues without the benefit of this unifying grace, should find itself imprisoned in recurring cycles of division and conflict. Our God given mission as Catholics, to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, is a mission to bring all peoples of every colour and language into the harmony, charity and peace which can only be found in its fullness within the Mystical Body of Christ. Only when the human race is united by incorporation into the One Who has declared Himself to be the Way, the Truth and the Life can we expect to find that perfect harmony which, without the divine assistance of grace, always eludes every human society.
But what about those divisions which exist within the Church Herself, inflicting such harm on Her mission? How can the Church be a credible sign of contradiction in a divided world, and an authentic witness to the unity of life in Our Saviour, when the same sorts of hardening political divisions which risk bringing government to a standstill in our own country also appear to be dividing the Church?
The first thing to say is that, given the devil’s track record since the early chapters of Genesis, it is only to be expected that he should focus his dividing fury on the Church. And on the face of it he is having a field day. The divisions that we see at the moment are more profound than any doctrinal disputes over the Faith or practical disagreements over morals. On the one hand we find die-hards who hold that words are signs that point to actual truths, and on the other those for whom words are no more than a tool to be employed in the achievement of a desired aim. The media divides these two parties into “rigoristi” and “riformisti”. In the eyes of the riformisti the rigoristi are a basket of deplorable Pharisees who are so closed to the spirit that they insist that two plus two always equals four even when this stands in the way of exciting new ideas. The rigoristi, meanwhile, have concluded that any attempt at meaningful conversation with the riformisiti is like trying to nail sand to a doorpost.
On the purely natural level there would seem to be no prospect of any reconciliation. In such a situation, all attempts at dialogue inevitably descend into polemic and name-calling. Obviously, then, we need to be working for a solution on the supernatural level. And we Oratorians have no better example in this than our holy father St Philip Neri. During the middle of the sixteenth century, controversy simmered in Rome over the writings of Fra’ Girolamo Savonarola. The Dominican friar had been excommunicated and brutally executed in Florence 1498, after his sustained campaign of preaching against the corruption of Pope Alexander VI and the Roman Curia. Saint Philip always maintained a deep devotion to the memory of his fellow Florentine, and even added a halo to the portrait of Savonarola which he kept in his room. In 1558, a combination of precursors of the fanatical Ultramontanists of later centuries and of lickspittle courtiers currying favour with the forbidding Pope Paul IV had convinced the Holy See to place the whole corpus of Savonarola’s works on the Index of Forbidden Books. There is no record of St Philip engaging with the public disputations on this matter at all. Instead he joined the Dominican friars in Rome in prayer on Thursdays before the exposed Blessed Sacrament at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. On one of these occasions it was clear to everyone present that he had been swept up into an ecstasy, and after he had come back to himself he explained to the prior of the convent that he had seen Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament giving His blessing, and that their prayers for this particular cause had been answered. Savonarola’s spiritual masterpieces escaped the Index, and in 1566 the Dominican friar Antonio Ghislieri became Pope Pius V and the danger was past.
During this month of June we celebrate the Church’s birthday at Pentecost, and the great feasts of Corpus Christi and St Peter and St Paul. Let us imitate St Philip in praying before the Blessed Sacrament for the needs of our Holy Church. Functions at the Oratory are generally very well-attended, but in these times of turmoil and division it would be heartening to see a larger crowd at the Holy Hours before the Blessed Sacrament on Thursday evenings. Please come and pray. Pray that the supernatural action of the Holy Ghost may unite the Church, overcoming the preternatural mischief wrought by that great divider the devil. Pray for our Holy Father Pope Francis, that God will bless him with everything he needs to be an effective successor to St Peter.
Father Julian Large