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The One Work of the One Church


Address delivered at the Jesuit Philippine Bureau dinner, New York City,

December 1. 1949.

I NEED have no hesitation in taking your presence here tonight as a testimony to your generous loyalty toward the Jesuit missioners whom you know. However, I hope I may also take it as a testimony to your Christian understanding of the missions themselves, what they really are and mean. This is the more important thing. Your missioner will readily consent that he himself should be forgotten; but he is most anxious that his work should be understood by you, that you should yourselves be caught up, as he is, in the great idea and the great love that is the wellspring of the missionary spirit. It is then important for the missions that you should understand them; it is no less important for you.

I speak of "understanding" the missions; the word is not exact. Properly speaking one does not understand the missions. Like the Church her-self, the missions are not a human enterprise but a divine fact that only the light of faith can illumine. The missionary enterprise was in the mind of St. Peter when he wrote in his First Epistle: "Now the angels can satisfy their eager gaze. The Holy Spirit has been sent from heaven, and your evangelists have made the whole mystery plain to you" (I Pete 1, 12). St. Peter was thinking o the first Pentecost when "the whole; mystery" of the Church and her misssion was revealed. The memory was vivid within him: the "strong wind blowing," and the tongues as it were of fire, and the piercing sense of terror, and the surmounting rapture that broke out of all of them in a storm o speech, as the Holy Spirit filled the and "gave utterance to each."

The utterance was strange enough but stranger still was the fact that it was understood. In amazement the bystanders, several thousand of them said:

How is it that each of us hears the talking in his own native tongue? There are Parthians among us an Medes and Elamites; our homes are Mesopotamia or Judea or Cappadocia in Pontus or Asia, Phrygia or Pamphylia, Egypt or the parts of Lybia around Cyrene; some of us are visitors from Rome, some of us are Jew and others proselytes; there are Cretans among us too and Arabians. An each of us has been hearing them tell of God's wonders in his own language So they were all beside themselves with perplexity and asked one another "What can this mean?" (Acts 2, 8-13)

What did it mean? The Fathers of the Church loved to illustrate the meaning of Pentecost by setting over against it the other scene that it irresistibly recalled, the tower of Babel in the land of Shinar. Around that fateful structure, whose inspiration was the pride of man, there were gathered men who until that time had formed one single family, but who now were separated from one another by a new barrier, a confusion of languages. They could no longer understand one another. When one spoke, the other looked blank, answered, met equal blankness. These men had sinned together by pride, and the startling consequence of their sin together was that they were no longer together but divided one from the other. And the sign of their division was that they had no common words. There was no means of communication between them, no communion, no unity any more. So in sad little groups they straggled off, each along its separate path, seeking in hopelessness some vague salvation that even if found could not be shared.


But, the Fathers of the Church say and we believe, Pentecost symbolized the restoration of the spiritual unity of mankind whose shattering was symbolized by the tower of Babel. What can this mean, the motley crowd asked. It meant that now a Word had been spoken which all men could understand—the living Word of God, the word of salvation which is for the many, which comes to each man in his own idiom. Pentecost meant that a new language had been given to men in which they could all communicate—the language of the Holy Spirit, the language of love, whose gentle accents have in them the ring of a trumpet that can blow down the walls between the races and nations of the earth. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit, sent to the Church and dwelling in her, took up the mission of Christ Himself as St. John described it—the mission of "gathering into one the scattered children of God" (John 11, 52). Scattered indeed they were, far and wide, disunited, unintelligible to each other. But now there was the hope of unity. The Church herself would be their unity.

The awesome mystery of Pentecost still continues. Only now it is not a visible dramatic scene that astounds a single city. It is a hidden drama that quietly unrolls in thousands of towns and cities and countrysides all over the earth. The Church today is still speaking in tongues, not now miraculously infused but laboriously learned. If you listen, you will hear all the languages of Pentecost and others too—Eskimo and Madagascaran and Hindustani, Malay and Siamese and Mandarin and all the chattering dialects of the teeming millions of the East. You will hear Russian, too. And you will not be listening to a Babel. For in all these idioms it is always the one Word that is being uttered. It is the same story of God's wonders that is being told. Each man hears it in his own language—Peter's ancient message: "Let it be known then without doubt ... that God has made him Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2, 36). Each man hears the message of his own language, but all men answer in a common tongue whose syllables and accent do not matter; for it is the language of Christian faith and love in which all men can communicate in perfect common understanding.


The missionary enterprise then confronts us with a resounding divine fact. The fact is that the Church has not resigned herself to mankind's all too obvious scatteredness. In the face of the great divisions that rend the human family she does not sit with folded hands, accepting these divisions as inevitable, unhealable. She has not retired to one corner of the world nor shut herself off from any segment of humanity. She has not consented to a permanent apportionment of the world between the followers of Christ and the followers of the great Buddha or of the Prophet of Islam or of any other prophets. Nor has she admitted that there may yet be fashioned some "religion of mankind" whose faith would be more catholic than hers. Every one of her missioners is a living witness to her faith that God has indeed made Him Lord and Christ, this Jesus who was crucified. He is Lord of every human creature and of human society, too, all mankind's indisputably single Sovereign. He is Christ, too, the one Redeemer, whose life was given a redemption for the many, nor is there salvation in any other Name than His. And she herself, the Church, for all the spots and wrinkles that disfigure her human visage through your fault and mine, is the Bride of Christ, in whose maternal arms all mankind is to find its native unity.

Thus the fact of the missions reveals the Church's faith in herself as the Catholic Unity of mankind. And what a faith this is! On a human view one would not call it faith but folly, or arrogance perhaps, or at best a futile stubbornness in the face of facts. Surely the facts are dismaying enough. East is divided from West; nation is pitted against nation, class against class, race against race, man against man; culture is estranged from culture without a common measure; Christianity itself, the seamless robe, is rent into tatters of discordant sects; philosophies are endless and none of them agree. Who could listen for an instant to the raging tumult of conflict rising from every quarter of the globe and not be tempted to regard it as impossible that all this clashing discord should be at all resolved into harmony? One might even be tempted to think, what some have said, that Christ Himself, for all His greatness, is but the greatest among the dead, buried in the grave of His own dream of human unity.

Against this temptation the Church's faith in herself, as revealed in the. missions, stands forever firm. She does not blink the facts; on the contrary, she dares to see them in their hidden dimensions. She knows that in confronting the fact of human disunity she is ultimately confronting the mystery of iniquity. "Satan hath scattered us," said Irenaeus. True. There is a demonic element hidden in all this tragic human situation. And it is at work not only, as we sometimes lightly think, in those whom we call, not seldom with presumption, the enemies of God, but also in those who think of themselves as His friends. However, the Church confronts the mystery of iniquity serenely unafraid. Constantly she hears whispered to herself the words in which St. John strengthened his flock: "He that is in you is greater than he that is in the world" (I John 4, 4). In you there is a stronger power at work than the forces of disruption at work in the world. You have the Word of Truth. You have the Spirit of Love. There is victory in your being. Going therefore teach . .

The Church's faith in herself as the Catholic Unity of mankind is displayed to you in her missionary enterprise. And that is why I would have you understand the missions, in order that you may understand the Church, and understanding her, confidently take up your share in her total missionary task. Your share. To support with your generous prayers and sacrifices the far-flung work of gathering the children of God out of their scatteredness—this share falls to you. But when you have done with all devotion this task and duty, you have simply helped the missions. You are not yet yourselves missioners. Is there not then something else? Is there not a task that lies to hand here in the United States that might in a true sense, with no exaggeration, be called a missionary task?


There is. I do not mean simply the task that is incumbent on the Church understood as the priesthood, which is the task of building the Body of Christ. I mean more particularly the task that is incumbent on the Church understood as the Christian people, which is the task of building the earthly City. This is not the task of bishops and priests; as such they stand outside the order of the City, empowered to reach with spiritual authority the Christian con-science but not the City's own structure. Here is a task for the Christian people—for you. And it is in its own way a missionary task. Consider it just briefly.

The task centers about all that is meant today when men speak of "the problems of democracy." In the late 1920's men thought that democracy was inevitable; now they know that it is an achievement, always precarious. You have a mandate in regard of that achievement. As Christians you are actively to see to it that democracy as a natural demand imposed by reason itself is given more perfect expression in political and economic and social life than it has hitherto had in American history. Not only have you a mandate from your Christian conscience; is there not being addressed to you by your fellow-American citizens an invitation, even a most urgent summons?


It is a phenomenon of our day that the sheer pressure of the problem of democracy on the minds of men of good will has resulted in a crack in the secularist front that seemed so solid ten years ago. You hear men saying today that the problem of democracy in all its phases is at bottom a religious and moral problem. That would not have been often said ten years ago. There is today a new openness to the role of religion in society, in education, in the direction to all human affairs. Perhaps we have been so occupied in our ancient dreary business of counting adversaries that we have failed to see a great door opening. To me, a survey of the history of the American Church and its present situation somehow recalls the famous dream of St. Paul at Troas in Asia Minor. We read that he "saw a vision in the night; a certain Macedonian stood by him in entreaty and said: Come over into Macedonia and help us" (Acts 16, 9).

You grasp the analogy. Could it not be that we American Catholics have been hitherto working too exclusively, as it were, in Asia Minor? That is, we have been building the Church in the U.S. —erecting our churches and our own schools and our own hospitals, creating our own societies and organizations of all kinds, pursuing our own interests. This was, and still is, a necessary task; and it has been well enough done. But in the meantime, what of Macedonia? That is, what of the whole order of American society? It has built itself as best it could, pretty much without us; and as time has gone on, it has wandered into a betrayal of the inspiration of its original design, which was belief in God and in His law. And can you not hear the American people, now deeply perplexed over the problem of democracy, saying in entreaty: "Come over into Macedonia and help us. You have built your Church. Now help us build our City, which is your City too."

Here is a missionary journey for you, the Christian people—a voyage into the heart of all the problems of American democracy. It is, if you like, a sea voyage across waters as dangerous as those that separated Troas from Philippi. I mean the mounting sea of misunderstanding and prejudice and fear that separates the Catholic Church from millions of Americans. But on the farther shore there are men of good will who wait for you, ready for collaboration with you on terms of civic equality—ready even to accept the leadership which your Christian principles make you responsible to give,—toward the solution of all the problems of American and world democracy. The problems are endless, and every one of them is basically a spiritual and moral problem, and no one of them can be solved except by the whole American people.


You then, the Christian people, and the priests who guide you, stand at a great historic juncture in the history of our Church and of our country-You stand at Troas on the coast. Thence St. Paul sailed to bring the Christian faith into its first contact with the culture of Greece--a meeting of faith and culture that has been decisive ever since for the life of Western man. Thence you must sail to bring your Christian sense of justice and of charity into contact with American democratic culture — a meeting that would likewise be in its own way decisive.

It is a missionary journey that I propose, to do a missioner's work; for is not the work to be done a work of unity? It is a work of justice and charity—the virtues whereby human unity is achieved. The unity first in view here is civic indeed, not religious. But is not civic unity the reflection in society of a Christian ideal? And is it not at the moment the necessary "evangelical preparation" for the higher unity of faith? Is there not a Christian ancestry to the grand old American concept, "We, the People"? And would there not be some indirect betrayal of the missionary spirit of the Church in allowing the unity of that beloved concept to be broken down into "We" and "They"? There is danger of just such a dissolution. It would be disastrous. And it can only be averted if we heed, as did St. Paul, the summons of the vision in the night: "Come over. Come over and help us. Help us, and We, the People, will be strong enough to solve, under God, all our problems."


The task is infinitely delicate. Like the missioner's task, it requires endless patience and tact, a respect for human freedom, secure knowledge, inexhaustible charity, profound loyalty to the Church and equally profound understanding of those who do not share that loyalty. It is in its own way a missionary task. And that is why I speak of it tonight. Only in the perspectives of the missioner's task will you understand your own; and only if you do your own task will you understand theirs. Both are the one work of the one Church of Jesus Christ.