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Uniformity and Diversity in the One Church

Uniformity and Diversity in the One Church

Our Lord calls us to be One Church, as the Triune God is One. True unity among Christians, then, requires both real uniformity and real diversity.

 

Reading: John 17:20-26.

The following homily was preached to the student brothers during Compline. You can listen here or read below:

In today’s Gospel passage, Our Lord prays for all the believers, that we may be one. Indeed, we too are often encouraged to pray for and work towards Christian unity. But what does it mean for the Church to be one? What is unity among Christians supposed to look like?

The obvious answer (perhaps too obvious!) is uniformity. Uniformity, of course, is important. Any group who wishes to remain united has to have some sense of uniformity. Take, for instance, a trivial example: in order for football to remain one sport, all the players have to agree on what the rules are. If a group of players come along and say, “We want to play football, but instead of kicking the ball, we’re going to carry the ball with our hands.” They might be free to do so, and they might even call their activity “football”, but essentially it would no longer be football. By changing the essential rules of the game, they have changed the game itself; they are now playing a different game – not football.

Likewise, in order to be united, it is necessary for Christians to profess belief in the same doctrines of the faith. So, for instance, we cannot really be One Church if we do not all profess belief in the Triune God; or if we do not all confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour, true God and true Man; or if some of us decide to remove bits of Sacred Scripture from the Bible; etc. We may call ourselves “united”, but if we cannot agree on such key points of the Christian faith, then our unity is only skin deep.

So, St Paul says, “There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all…”[Ephesians 4:4-6]. We ought to be one, as God is One. However, in the Godhead, there is also plurality together with the unity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all really distinct Persons, while still being One God. So, some sense of plurality or diversity must also be an important part of being One Church.

Why is diversity important? Each of us, both as individuals and as particular communities, reflect the beauty and glory of God in a unique way. But God is infinite, while we are finite; God is perfect, we are not. So, each of us only reflects God’s beauty in some limited, imperfect way. Moreover, each of us can serve God ways that others cannot. So, St Paul also says that the Holy Spirit has bestowed diverse gifts on the Church, “that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” [Eph 4:11].

So, if we look at the saints, each one of them is unique. There will never be another St John Paul II, nor will there ever be another St Maximilian Kolbe. Likewise, each one of us is called to be a unique saint, and not just replicas of existing saints, thereby adding to the richness of the heavenly choir.

This means that our diversity too cannot be something that only runs skin deep. It has to be more than a mere token diversity, where we sprinkle in a few people of different skin colours or different cultures so that we can feel good about ourselves. But it must be a diversity where we are able to see and appreciate the many ways each individual and each culture can reflect God’s beauty onto the world.

This is why although the Church demands a certain level of uniformity, she also allows for a great amount of diversity in her practices, whether in the liturgy, in pious devotions, or even in theological opinion and speculation. So we should not be so quick to judge if other Catholics do not pray as we do, or practice the same devotions we do. If I may be so bold, it is okay not to pray the rosary if one doesn’t find it spiritually fruitful… there are countless other devotions the Church allows for us.

Indeed, it is a good thing that Mass is said in Latin in some places, and in the vernacular in other places. It is a good thing that the faithful are able to receive communion on the tongue or in the hand, if they so choose. It is a good thing that there are a countless number of pious devotions available to us.

This is what allows the Church to be truly Catholic – truly Universal – and not just in name only: for we recognise that we are called to bring the light of the Gospel to all nations. We are called to baptise all cultures and peoples, not stifling their uniqueness, but recognising that they, along with us, are part of a rich mosaic, shining forth God’s glory.

A wise man once said to me: “A good Catholic does not allow for diversity where the Church demands uniformity… but neither does he demand uniformity where the Church allows diversity.” These, I think, are words worth reflecting on and keeping in mind.

 

Image: Paradise (c.1376-1378) – Giusto de’ Menabuoi – fresco underneath the cupola of the Padua Baptistery. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Br Jerome was born and grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. He moved to England to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Bath, where he remained to complete an MPhil in Electronic & Electrical Engineering. While in Bath, he helped run the Young Adults' Group in the parish of St John the Evangelist and eventually felt called to the Dominican way of life, joining the Order in 2020. He enjoys playing the guitar and loves discussing all things Scripture-related. His favourite books are The Imitation of Christ and Crime and Punishment.
jerome.johnson@english.op.org

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