By any account, it is a remarkable Holy Week for the Catholic Church. An unexpected sense of joy in the gift of a new pope has brought us warmth in spite of the wintry weather. Certainly none of us guessed when we began this Lenten fast what would transpire in these last few weeks. And yet, even in this new situation, we are also now moving toward the ancient center of the Church’s life together: the paschal mystery and liturgical participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, at Easter. At this point, of course, we have only a few days left to do the work of Lent, which is the work of preparing for that solemn and holy moment.
So: are we ready?
I find myself asking that question not only in its (already daunting) general sense, but in a very specific way. Are we ready for one particular moment in the liturgy, a moment that may in fact require some of the most demanding preparation: the “kiss of peace”? In the form it has taken in the last several decades, we are more likely to refer to it in a less intimate way—“the passing of the peace”—and we are tempted to imagine it simply as a neighborly chance to greet one another. As it turns out, though, it means much more.
Placed in the transition to the liturgy of the Eucharist, this action both symbolizes and embodies peace in a number of different ways. Especially, it asks us to consider, in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5, whether we are ready to bring a gift to the altar, or whether some conflict between us and a sister or brother makes it impossible for us to do so. Reconciliation with other, the kiss of peace reminds us, cannot be separated from our reconciliation with God. We all surely have plenty of work to do here, and yet, this Easter, I find myself thinking of one sort of division, and one sort of reconciliation, in particular. Whatever various forms of peacemaking we may be pursuing, we in the Church might well ask whether we are seeking reconciliation between a particularly stubborn and intractable set of constituencies: one another.
I am thinking here not primarily of individuals, but of “camps” in the Church that seem not only to disagree, but to have settled into chilly disdain. Now, I know the argument from history. There has always been creativity and diversity among Christians; the Church’s energetic quarrels are a strength. I wonder, though, if we have come to a place where difference is verging on disintegration. I worry not that we have disagreements, but that we may be increasingly like siblings who hardly even know each other well enough to fight any more, and have stomped off to different rooms. St. Paul chastises communities marked by dissension, but even more chilling is his indictment of those early Christians who would say to another, “I have no need of you.”
In a sense, this critique is easy. The question is what, really, is to be done? The fact of the matter is that there are real differences among us, commitments that in some cases seem directly opposed. Justice, love, and fundamental claims about God and ourselves are all at stake. It would be not only unrealistic, but wrong, to expect various factions simply to lay down deeply held convictions. So, what can we do?
What we have not always noticed is that we have, in our very midst, powerful resources for moving forward. Within the Church are teachings and practices that not only instruct us to be reconciled to one another, but that tell us how we might do it. Here, I’ll mention only one that has been transformative for me: the Focolare movement, and the writings of its foundress, Chiara Lubich.
The Focolare is one of several ecclesial movements to emerge from the Catholic Church in the twentieth century, but it is particularly relevant here in that the charism, or gift, at the heart of this movement is unity. Those in the movement are not utopian. They live out a commitment to the long, quotidian work of unity in many difficult circumstances. The successes, however, are sometimes remarkable: the work has seen success in bringing together broken families, politicians divided by party lines, and Muslims and Christians in a unity that has withstood even political realities like the U.S. “war on terror.” Maybe it could work for us, too?
Three of the most central ideals might be first steps.
The first is a transformation of vision. The real insight of the Focolare is to insist not only that we should not think of others as an obstacle to our encounter with God, but that we should see them as the surest path to it. This is perhaps easiest to understand in relation to the individual person. Chiara describes the presence of the ego and the struggle to overcome it, in analogy to a mountain we try to move. She suggests that both the ego and the struggle can be in a sense stepped lightly around in another way, which is not only to “love,” but to “live" my neighbor. If we were to apply the teaching not to individuals, but to groups, the suggestion is that others groups within the Church, including and especially those with whom we are at odds, are actually precisely the direction forward for “own own.” For us, these others represent the very possibility of salvation and wholeness. And we are not only to “love” these opposing camps, but to “live” them.
But what could that odd phrase mean? In a sense, what the Focolare calls for is empathy. But there is more. A second crucial teaching is deeply rooted in Christ himself. Here, the particular reality of Christ’s life emphasized is the most painful moment of all, the one that we will recollect soon in our Good Friday liturgies. It is the moment when Jesus calls out to the Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This pain is described in the Focolare movement as an experience of “emptiness,” and, if we would “live” the other, it is that moment to which we are called. If that all seems a little dramatic, it may help again to begin by making sense of it on an individual level. What is our first reaction when we consider turning not away from, but precisely, intentionally toward the one we find most grating, most ridiculous, most difficult to be with? What does it feel like to ready oneself to empathize with the one of whom you are most tempted to say, “I have no need of you.” Now, what if we took this teaching and applying to various factions in the Church? What might it look like for one constituency to embrace this emptiness and to turn precisely, intentionally toward another, with whom they are at odds?
Thirdly, Chiara teaches that “living the other” means nothing less than concretely to own their good as my own. What are these “others” concerned about? What are they committed to? The vision of the Focolare pulls us far beyond tolerating, or trying to “see in the best light,” all the way toward experiencing the pain, the challenges, the joys of the other as our own. Within the Church, what concrete actions of solidarity or sacrifice might embody such a commitment? In what ways could groups occupying different places on the cultural, theological, and economic spectrum not simply tolerate one another, but actually adopt the other's good as their own? We might consider the story of the prodigal Son and a father who does not simply occupy a neutral openness to reconciliation, but rather, when he sees the one who is estranged, forgets his place and runs and offers the kiss of peace. Should we aim for any less?
We understand Lent as a time for self-examination and repentance, a time for turning again to the hard call of the Cross. In the last moments of this Lent, here is Chiara's advice:
“Where, then, can we find our typical, particular cross? In people, in our brothers and sisters who are disunited from God and from each other…. And the first brothers or sisters that we need to love in this way…. are those closest to us, those who live with us.
God does not ask of us a cruel martyrdom. We do not need to whip ourselves or wear a hair-shirt, do long vigils or fasts or sleep on the ground… but always welcome into our hearts our neighbor or neighbors, with all their burdens, aridity, trials, limits and defects, and do everything we can to help them find peace, trust, love and ardor.” (Essential Writings, 17-18)
This Easter, let us offer each other the sign of peace. And if we can’t do it perfectly by Sunday, let’s repent and exchange a kiss that’s a promise to do better.