You Can Tell They Are Christians by What?

Vatican City, Jan. 25, 2059—The recently elected pope, Victor IV, the former archbishop of Lusaka, Charles Tilyenji, who took the name of the first pope from Africa (St. Victor, 189-98), celebrated the traditional Mass for the Curia in St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. It also marked the centenary of that day when Pope Saint John XXIII shocked the assembled cardinals by announcing his intent to convoke an ecumenical council.

In his address Pope Victor recalled the work of the Second Vatican Council and the hopes that it gave to the church and the world; he then recounted the joy with which the church celebrated the Great Jubilee Year 2000 and entered the new millennium. Sadly, he noted, recent world events had all but erased the joys and hopes that Vatican II called the church to share with all peoples. The crop failures throughout the world had produced mass starvation, and the nuclear exchanges in the Middle East had depleted the world’s oil supply, sparking a constant round of brush-fire wars and worldwide civil strife. In the United States the social fabric was torn apart as the gap widened between the super-wealthy and the desperately poor. The political leaders of the last century never envisioned that a nation with more arms than people would devolve into internecine civil strife as devastating as the Civil War of the mid-19th century.


The Holy Father expressed great sorrow that Catholics, far from being a light to the nations during these troubled times, had so often followed the path of violence and hatred. He mentioned that, when envisioning the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII had been inspired by Jesus’ prayer in John’s Gospel that his followers “may be one even as we are one.” Pope Victor then recalled that, from his student days, he had often prayed over the words of Jesus in John: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, you should love one another,” and Jesus’ statement that all people would recognize his disciples “if you have love one for another.” He wondered why the church had so emphasized authority and doctrinal uniformity, while these words of Jesus, so simple but so essential, seemed at the margin of church life.

Pope Victor then announced his plan to convene not another formal ecumenical council but a congress with representatives from the world college of bishops, religious, clergy and lay people and other Christian leaders to explore how mutual and self-giving love might become the defining sign of Christ’s followers.

. . .

A fantasy, a bad prophecy perhaps, but today we must ask if the kind of love that echoes through John’s Gospel is a hallmark of Catholicism. God’s love is the motive of the incarnation. Jesus dies as one who lays down his life for a friend. The principal disciple in John is not Peter but the Beloved Disciple. The words of today’s Gospel conclude the section on the foot-washing, by which Jesus symbolizes the kind of love the disciples are to have. He himself lives out that greater love that lays down one’s life for a friend. The love of Mary of Magdala impels her to the tomb, where she meets her beloved, the risen Lord. Peter is entrusted with care for Jesus’ flock only after a threefold profession of love.

The command of Jesus is both new and old. It repeats the precept of Lev. 19:18 to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. What is new is that this love characterizes the new life inaugurated by Jesus and that it is proof of one’s love for God (1 Jn. 4:7). This love forsakes violence and is modeled on the self-offering of Jesus on the cross. It is not simply the love of feeling or passion but, as St. Ignatius reminded us, consists in mutual communication between persons and is manifest in deeds. As Dorothy Day states, such love is “a harsh and dreadful thing, [where] our very faith in love has been tried through fire”; and she continues: “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread.”

The poet Ursula Le Guin captured the challenge of such love: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new” (The Lathe of Heaven). At the beginning of a new millennium, Christians are summoned to be breadmakers!

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