Ecumenism and the Holy Name of Jesus

Yesterday was an absolute feast on the subject of ecumenism and the Holy Name of Jesus at Mass.

I. Acts 23:6-11, the Wages of Disunity


The first reading was Acts 23:6-11 (with a prologue from Acts 22:30, setting the scene):

Wishing to determine the truth about why Paul was being accused by the Jews, the commander freed him and ordered the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin to convene. Then he brought Paul down and made him stand before them.

[…]

Paul was aware that some were Sadducees and some Pharisees, so he called out before the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees; I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the group became divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection
or angels or spirits, while the Pharisees acknowledge all three. A great uproar occurred, and some scribes belonging to the Pharisee party stood up and sharply argued, “We find nothing wrong with this man. Suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”

The dispute was so serious that the commander, afraid that Paul would be torn to
pieces by them, ordered his troops to go down and rescue Paul from their
midst and take him into the compound.

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage. For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.”

I’ve mentioned on this blog that I’m a law student. I may not have mentioned that I’m graduating this Sunday, but I am, and would love your prayers. In any case, that’s definitely one reason I enjoy this passage so much. In the context, St. Paul was about to be flogged when he informed the Romans that he was a Roman citizen, and couldn’t be punished without a trial (Acts 22:25). This lead to a trial in front of the Sanhedrin, so that the Roman commander could determine his guilt. As a result of the above trial, Paul gets a transfer to Herod’s district in Caesarea (Acts 23:23-35). Paul was just clearly a man who was as “shrewd as snakes” to those wishing him harm (Matthew 10:16; Psalm 18:26).

His shrewdest moment comes, of course, at trial. Paul knows that the Pharisees and Saducees are united against Christians, but are divided against one another on three issues: on the existence of the resurrection, angels and spirits. So he simply presents the case as one the Pharisees can identify with. He (rightly) calls himself “a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees.” And he presents the case against him as one about hope in the resurrection of the dead, shrewdly focusing on the theological beliefs held in common between Christians and Pharisees which the Sadducees reject. Strictly speaking, this is correct. He just isn’t specifying that the resurrection of the dead he’s referring to is one which includes Gentiles (see Acts 22:21-22 for the specifics of what provokes his arrest).

And it doesn’t seem like he’s having to work very hard to play the two sides against each other. After all, he only brings up the first of the three issues dividing them. The Pharisees then bring up the other two, arguing, “We find nothing wrong with this man. Suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” So Paul’s purposely reopened the wounds between the Pharisees and Sadducees. All of this is for a very calculated purpose: it leads to total chaos. It’s not immediately clear here, but Paul mentions later that he shouts ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.” (Acts 24:21). That probably added to the chaos. The Roman commander observing this views the in-fighting amongst the two Jewish factions, and is shocked, and pulls Paul out of the trial.

When I first read this before Mass, it struck me that this happens to us Christians all the time. Our doctrinal disputes, and the way we conduct ourselves in disagreements, shocks and offends non-Christians, and repels them. The lack of unity was the direct cause of the failure of the Sanhedrin to stop Paul from spreading Christianity to the Gentiles. Clearly, God’s hand was in this, but He worked by exploiting their sinful disharmony.

II. John 17:20-26, the Prayer for Unity, and the Holy Name
The Gospel tied into these themes even more directly. It was John 17:20-26, part of the High Priestly prayer of Jesus:

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying: “I pray not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.

And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are
one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.

Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me,
that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved memay be in them and I in them.”

I’ve mentioned this passage before, so I’ll be brief. This is the only time Jesus specifically prays for us, the post-Apostolic generations in the Bible. So we should pay special attention to this passage. And realistically, His prayer can only come true through the Catholic Church. No other Church is as ancient or universal. Last night, I went to hear the natural law philosopher Hadley Arkes tell his conversion story from Judaism to Catholicism. He mentioned the universality of the Church, how it truely comprises people offerring Sacrifice to God from the rising to the setting of the sun (Malachi 1:11). He said that nowhere is this more visible for him than in churches in downtown D.C. There are churches in both the suburbs and urban areas which are overwhelmingly one race or ethnicity. But downtown D.C., during the day, has this incredible mix of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic statuses. In Hadley’s words, “you’ll see a lady in a fur coat next to an African-American janitor with a walkie-talkie on the side. And everyone else, besides.”

Just think about it: if we’re serious about all being in one unified Church brought to perfect unity, not just agreeing to disagree, but in loving agreement, who else is even a contender? History has definitively proven that you need a strong central earthly authority like the pope, or you end up dividing along doctrinal (Protestant) or ethno-national (Orthodox) lines.

Note that He prays for two separate, but related things: that they may be one, and that they may be in us. And the culmination of these two things, unity in Christ, is “that the world may believe that you sent me. ” This is the antithesis of the Roman commander’s view of the Sanhedrin as an uncharitable and divided institution. It’s an image which we need to work on achieving even within the Catholic Church, since there’s plenty of disharmony which exists short of open schism.

Finally, the unity is connected to the Holy Name of God. John 17 is full of these references:

  • John 17:6, “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. “
  • John 17:11, “Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are. “
  • John 17:12, “When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me, and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled. “
  • John 17:26, “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” “

As v. 11 particularly makes clear, unity comes through the Name. Just as there is “no other Name under Heaven by which men are saved” (Acts 14:12), the Name draws us in to a single Way, a single Truth, and a single communal Life.


III. St. Bernardino of Siena and the Holy Name of Jesus

The first reading and Gospel fit together like a key in a lock, but (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor) the saint’s feast day was frosting on the cake. It was St. Bernardino of Siena, and he is famous for two things: his skills at peacemaking and ecumenism, and his commitment to the Holy Name of Jesus.

After the death of St. Francis, there were competiting schools of thought about how to implement the Rule of St. Francis. He was a committed member of the stricter Observant branch, but according to the priest giving the homily, he helped stop the in-fighting between the different branches. Moreover, northern Italy (where Siena is located) was disputed territory at the time, between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. This lead to the creation of two factions: the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Siena was a strongly Ghibelline town, siding with the Holy Roman Emperor, yet throughout northern Italy, there were images of either the Ghibelline or Guelph seal on everything (if you go to Italy, you’ll see what I mean: the family or faction seals would literally be carved into the wall).

Anyways, St. Bernardino convinced the people to replace those seals with the Christogram, the famous IHS symbol, imposed upon a sun (the symbol of the risen Christ). IHS is the name of Jesus in Greek, and so St. Bernardino was popularizing what was effectively Jesus’ seal, a seal literally covered by His Holy Name. So rather than belonging to the Guelphs or the Ghibellines, the people of northern Italy remembered that they belonged to Christ.

The priest suggested we start praying the Holy Name of Jesus. It’s literally as easy as offerring up the name “Jesus” in prayer, and he suggested we do it in reparation for the blasphemous use of His Name. It’s a beautiful and simple commitment to God, and I firmly believe that with more of an emphasis on Jesus and what unites us, we’ll be less like the Sanhedrin.

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