We might be tempted to ask rhetorically if there was ever a time in the Church when divisions in factions, disagreements between groups was ever so bad as now?
On the 2nd Sunday of Advent we hear from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
There had been sizeable Jewish community in Rome because of both 2nd century BC immigrants and the descendants of captives of military campaigns. Burial inscriptions indicate that there were some twelve synagogues and a strong Jewish presence in what is now called Trastevere, the western bank of the Tiber River. In the early 1st century there were Roman Jews in Jerusalem for Pentecost.
Peter had been in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) and most certainly had had a hand in helping the Roman Christians get organized. Paul wrote to the Romans near the end of his “Third Missionary Tour” (Acts 18-21) probably in AD 57. Peter is not amongst those whom Paul mentions towards the end of the letter. It was a Hellenic epistolary custom to greet people in the conclusion. If Paul had any inkling that Peter was in Rome, he would have greeted him.
The strong majority of those whom Paul greets have Greek or Latin names, perhaps indicating that the majority of the Christian community in Rome was of Gentile rather than Jewish background. Claudius had found the Jews in Rome annoying, from disturbances in their synagogues because of a certain “Crestus”, so he exiled them in AD 49 (cf. Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.4). Christians in Rome were squabbling with each other. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine that Claudius engaged informants and “secret service”, his precursors to the later agentes in rebus, to infiltrate and investigate in view of how they might be disturbing the civic peace and the pax deorum, the contractual relations with the gods. Hence, Paul in Corinth met the Roman Christian couple, in probably a Jewish and Gentile mixed-marriage, Aquila and Priscilla.
What was going on in Rome? Some Gentiles had joined Jews in the Diaspora in their synagogues in a complete way which would have meant embracing Jewish legal way, including circumcision. Other Gentiles were attached in a less full way without all the legal niceties. Claudius’ edict meant that, for a while, the Church of Rome was mainly Gentile until the return of Jews after the Emperor’s death in AD 54. The Jews were surely outnumbered in the Roman Church and yet from Paul’s comments some of them saw themselves as superior to the others because they were Jews and they looked down on other Christians (Rom 2:17ff). On the other hand, some Gentiles saw themselves as the replacements of the formerly chosen people (11:1ff). All this prompted Paul, the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles to write what we have in our reading for the 2nd Sunday of Advent: “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7). Paul follows this with an appeal to unity through citations from the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms, the three main parts of the Scriptures as they were at the time, what we call the Old Testament, showing how, though Christ came to be the servant of the “circumcised” He also came to be the servant of the Gentiles.
Thus, there were various groups in Rome who, having embraced faith in Christ, were of divergent backgrounds and they were fighting each other, fighting over their own wrinkle of turf.
I cannot help but think about our own time, especially in English speaking Church with its now strong traditional demographic, under manifest persecution by our pastors, some more than others.
There is growing repression of a certain kind of Catholic in the Church from inside and outside.
I’m mindful of a recent congressional report on how the Federal Bureau of Investigation targeted traditional Catholics as possible domestic terrorists. Shades of Claudius. Can we expect an edict soon?
From the inside what do we see? In a recent Q&A at a Catholic university an American prelate said something chilling. He was asked why, in this time of liturgical diversity, there were no Traditional Latin Masses available for the students. This prelate appealed to his doctorate in liturgy obtained in the super iconoclastic period of 1980 at the hype liberal Roman Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo. He responded that, “Tradition dies a slow, sometimes bloody death”. He added it was right to say, “deal with the priests.”
The enemy knows where to strike, and surely “an enemy hath done this”, to borrow a familiar phrase. “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.” That’s certainly the strategy of some who have power.
On the other hand, if there is oppression from within and above, there is also an easy target. So long as there are these factions, there will also be impotence in the face of oppression. The very group being persecuted is persecuting itself.
Under the hammer of persecution against traditional doctrine and worship, organizations have risen to deliver news. Anyone and everyone with a webcam is carrying on. Coalitions or societies have formed in support of cancelled priests. All have good motives. Lately, however, a cacophony has amplified with internecine squabblings. Unsavory and scandalous bickering and finger pointing has erupted to discourage us all and make us into our own laughingstock.
I am tempted to ask rhetorically if there was ever a time in the Church when divisions of factions and disagreements between groups was ever so bad as now?
There have always been factions and fractions in the Church, ever since the Lord gathered Apostles who argued amongst themselves, sold the Lord and then ran away from Him in His hour. It has ever been so.
However, we do have the advantage of hindsight. If we ourselves have been trying to destroy the Church from within, as Card. Consalvi once told a menacing Napoleon, might I please ask – especially my fellow priests – to stop trying so hard?
My old pastor, back in the day, used to say that conservative Catholics couldn’t run a bird cage. They are so busy defending their own little wrinkle of turf that they won’t put aside minor differences so as to make a stronger and cohesive front.
A take away.
“Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).