A reflection on the readings for Sunday, September 26, 2021 — The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The first person I ever spoke to about becoming a Catholic priest was a Methodist minister. I remember it like it was yesterday—I was sitting in a hospital waiting room during my freshman year of college. A friend’s mother was in the ICU, and I was there to support the family. While making his sick calls, the minister stopped to visit the family, and we had a conversation. He asked that most dreaded question for anyone aged 17-22—“What are you planning to do with your life?” While it certainly wasn’t the first time I had fielded that question, and by no means was I wandering aimlessly through my undergraduate education, I spontaneously informed him that I was considering the priesthood…I wasn’t…at least not up to that point. Thus began my discernment process. Looking back, I can’t help but be grateful for that minister’s role in my vocation story. I wonder if the spontaneous openness to the Holy Spirit that characterizes Methodist theology had some impact on my willingness to allow the Spirit to move me unexpectedly at that moment. My sudden vocational realization with the Methodist minister was the first of many times when encounters with non-Catholic ministers, theologians, and teachers would form my priesthood. I am blessed to have had an opportunity to engage academically with great Protestant thinkers living and deceased, develop strong relationships with imams, and share many meals with rabbis. The modern ecumenical and interfaith movement has been a staple of my service in the vineyard and a source of fellowship, advice, and profound theological insight.
I suspect that my experience is anything but unique among Catholic clergy, religious, and laity. The Second Vatican Council encouraged the Catholic faithful to engage in interreligious and ecumenical endeavors in its documents Nostra Aetate and Unitatis Redintegratio. These are not merely suggestions but decrees and declarations from an ecumenical council in communion with the Roman Pontiff. Since both documents were promulgated in 1965, there has been an explosion of mutual enrichment between the Church and her sister churches, ecclesial communions, and other faith traditions globally and individually. This is not relativism or a denial of the unique role of the Catholic Church in Salvation History, but rather a recognition that God has been and is at work in a variety of faith traditions.
Of course, the idea of recognizing the Holy Spirit at work through the work of outsiders is not some modern invention of the Council but one deeply rooted in scripture itself. Moses reproves Joshua for wishing to silence Eldad and Medad, two men prophesying even though they were not commissioned to do so by Moses. “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his Spirit on them all!” is Moses’ response. In today’s Gospel, we see a similar situation when John tries to prevent a man who does not follow Jesus from driving out demons. Much like Moses, Jesus rebukes his disciple, “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.” The teaching of Moses and Jesus are clear—those outside the flock can do good work in God’s name.
The standard Catholic criticisms of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue echo the likely concerns of both Joshua and John—if those formally outside of the Church can work in God’s name, why do we need a visible Church at all? Doesn’t recognizing their contributions cheapen or lessen our own teaching authority? Regarding non-Catholic Christian communities, the answer is easy. All of the baptized participate in the Church to varying degrees. Even those outside of full communion have received the grace of the sacrament of baptism, enjoy the gift of revelation in Sacred Scripture, and share in part of the patrimony of the Church’s tradition and theology. It would frankly be more surprising if there were not real contributions from these communities in the life of the Church.
Our tradition also gives us plenty of reason to believe that we can receive contributions from non-Christian religions as well. Throughout the ages, the great theologians have recognized that while the Church represents the fullness of the means of salvation, God has imbued his creation with seeds of the word or logoi spermatikoi to use a phrase coined by the ancient theologian Tertullian and reused throughout the centuries. St. Justin Martyr and St. Augustine use the idea of logoi spermatikoi to explain why pagan Greek and Roman philosophers made contributions to Christian theology centuries before the birth of Christ. St. Gregory of Nyssa uses it to explain why all creation ultimately leads back to its creator. St. Bonaventure believes that logoi spermatikoi serves as an explanation for God’s providential action throughout history. This foundational Christian belief lays the groundwork for the theology of interreligious dialogue. The Church represents the fullness of the means of salvation on earth, but God’s saving work within creation is not exhausted by it; seeds of his wisdom are found throughout his creation.
As is the case for Joshua and St. John, it can feel threatening to recognize that those who do not participate fully in something can contribute to it. In the case of non-Catholic Christians, one might fear that acknowledging genuine theological developments or ministerial innovations undermines the significance of that which divides us. When discussing non-Christian insights or works, we may be wary of paying insufficient attention to the centrality of Christ in our salvation. Just as in our scriptural examples, these responses can come from a genuine desire to proclaim the truth in its fullness. We err, however, when we deny the possibility that God is truly at work in these communities—it is a mark of a lack of confidence in the Church’s role in salvation rather than a defense of it. It is Moses, not Joshua, who displays confidence in God’s faithfulness to Israel. Even among those he had not commissioned, he sees prophesy as a positive sign of Israel’s faithful response rather than a threat to his power. Only a man who was confident in his unique role could react in such a way. Jesus likewise reminds his disciples that his work is being accomplished in myriad ways, at times without their prior knowledge and by those outside the fold. By instructing his followers to allow another to cast out demons, Jesus in no way diminishes the central role the Church built around his disciples will play. To resist God’s intervention through other logoi seeded throughout his creation is to underestimate not only his creative power but the intensity of his desire to draw all things to himself.
The responses of both Moses and Christ to those who question the prophesy and healing of those who are not within the religious establishment conforms to our experience of the lived faith and should give us courage as we go forward. God is at work all around us in ways we do not expect or foresee. We acknowledge, of course, that in our Church lies the fullness of the truth, but our faith also calls us to welcome the contributions and the examples of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. “Would that the Lord would bestow his spirit on them all!”
Image: Ecumenical Prayer for the Martyrs, organized by the Community of Sant’egidio & the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. . BOSTON (January 25, 2014) – From left, Rev. Jeffrey Brown, Metropolitan Methodios, Cardinal Seán, Rev. Hegoumen Moses, Rev. Laura Everett. Photo credit: George Martell/The Pilot Media Group. All photos available under a Creative Commons license, Share-Alike, Attribution-required. Source: https://flic.kr/p/juD4GY.