A Sermon On The Unity of the Church

Delivered at Northfield on the Second Saturday after Easter (1846)
By Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God, C.P.

Blessed Dominic Barberi, C.P., has been called the “Apostle of the Second Spring.” It was he who received the Servant of God John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church. He was Newman’s “Father in God,” an Italian Passionist priest who prayed and labored indefatigably for England’s conversion. England was his “bride by day and his dream by night” during his 30 years of missionary life (with the last 8 years spent in England).

“O that I could give my blood and my life for my beloved England…For England’s conversion I am willing to be condemned to death, to lose the light of reason, to be deprived of God’s sensible aid, and left without the slightest relish for prayer…I would willingly undergo the pains that the English would suffer if they were eternally lost, that all should return to the bosom of the Church.”

In beatifying the heroic Passionist on October 27, 1963, Pope Paul VI rightly called him “Apostle of Unity.”

We are privileged to reproduce here a little-known Sermon by the Blessed (preached to a congregation of Catholics and Protestants) to make him better known and to encourage prayers to him to accomplish in our own time the flowering of that “Second Spring” of the Church so long awaited by saints and martyrs.

— James Likoudis

"Other sheep I have that are not of this fold: them also I must bring and they shall hear My voice and there shall be one fold and one Shepherd." (John 10:16)

How beautiful and consoling, my Brethren, are these words. Our divine Saviour shows by them that He not only is a good pastor, but is also a universal pastor: that He came down from heaven not only for the sheep which were lost of the house of Israel, but also for those unhappy sheep already gone astray and separated from the chosen people: the Gentiles (of whom most probably we are descendants!). He came to work universal redemption; He gave his life for all without any exception. Let the Jews not be proud any longer, and despise no longer the Gentiles as an outcast race of men: Let the Gentiles rejoice because they will be invited and attracted to go and join the fold of Christ, who came to make one people, one Church, to take away the walls of separation between the two races of men, to unite them both in Himself, becoming the great cornerstone of both walls. What a cheering promise for all mankind. There will be one fold and one Shepherd! All men will be united with the same bonds of friendship and holy brotherhood and make but one single Mystical Body of which Christ is the Head.

But tell me, my Brethren, when this happy case will be? I ask this because we do not now witness such a beautiful scene; on the contrary we are obliged to see a good many divisions even amongst those who profess to be followers of Christ. When my Brethren, will these divisions be at an end? Oh, could I live so long as to see the perfect union at least of all Christians, so that there would be one fold and one Shepherd! How gladly should I close my eyes and finish my life! Can I entertain such a hope! I do not know: but at least I may entertain such a desire. Oh yes, my Brethren, we can, we mush nourish and cherish the desire, and we must likewise inquire after the means of obtaining this end, the unity of Christian people, and the means to get it; this will be the subject of our present Sermon.

It is our duty, my Brethren, to wish for the unity of the Christian Church. Yes, it is an indispensable duty, for were there no other reason this would be quite enough. This unity or union has been ardently desired by our Saviour; now it is our duty to unite our will with that of Our Lord. In this holy union our only happiness consists: we shall be less or more happy in proportion as our wills be more or less comfortable or united with that of Jesus. As soon, therefore, as we are assured that our Saviour is extremely desirous to see all His disciples united in the closest union, it is our duty to imitate Him in that same holy wish. Now, there cannot be the slightest doubt about the wishes of our Saviour. The words of my text are a warrant for it. “Other sheep I have”…but to be better acquainted with the divine desire, let us open the Bible and read what St. John relates in the 17th chapter of his Gospel. After hearing the beautiful and touching allocution of Our Lord, made by Him during the Last Supper (which I should wish to read entirely to you, only it is too long), I exhort you however to read it at home. He finished His sermon with a fervent prayer directed by Him to His eternal Father on our behalf: “I pray for them,” He says. And what does He ask? Let us read at last a portion of this chapter and you will understand better (from the ninth verse to the twenty-fourth).

Mark now how often, how strongly, how tenderly He asks for this union, and mark what kind of union He wishes for us. He wishes such a union as to exhibit as far as possible that ineffable union which is among the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. Do not imagine that such a union as was the object of Our Lord’s prayer may be of a mere interior or invisible nature, so that it may remain untouched even among the numberless dissensions and strifes of so many sects that call themselves Christians. No, my Brethren, no: Our Lord’s prayer was for such a union as might be visible to everyone, even to the infidels: He begged such a union as might be an argument for worldly men to believe that the Christian religion is the true one: now, how can an infidel penetrate the interior of any one man?  How useless to see people dissenting from each other, accusing each other of errors, of wrong, of apostasy, of idolatry, of being antichristian or followers of the Beast and the Scarlet Woman and so forth; we are by no means united as Our Lord wished us to be.

Our union ought to be first interior, professing the same faith, having the same charity towards God and our neighbors: but it ought to be likewise exterior being united by the same ties of profession and subordination to the same pastors. One fold and one Shepherd as Our Lord expressed. Such was the union wished by Our Lord.

And such was in reality the happy union, which reigned among the first Christians, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles where we read: the multitude of believers had but one soul. It is no wonder that the Christian Church increased so rapidly and so widely, as to be spread in the course of a few years throughout almost the entire world. What were the means of such wonderful propaganda? The Christian religion is and always will be quite in opposition to the worldly wishes and tendencies of mankind at large but it was especially so at the time of the Apostles. The entire world was sunk into the grossest abyss of infidelity and vice, sanctioned by the reigning religion, and supported by the power of the rulers of the empire. The Apostles were proclaiming a doctrine of the Crucified Saviour, which was an object of scandal to the Jews and of ridicule to the Gentiles; besides, they were enforcing a pretty heavy burden of physical mortification, such as the Christian religion requires from its followers. How then was it possible for the Apostles to persuade such men as those to embrace the faith of Christ Crucified, and to crucify with Him all their lusts and worldly concupiscences? What was the argument that persuaded some of the Jews and the greater bulk of the Gentiles to embrace the Christians’ religion? Was it the eloquence and skill of some of the Apostles? Was it their power or their riches? They possessed no such things. They were poor illiterate men. By what means then did they succeed in their task? I tell you: by their union and charity. To see so many thousand people so united that they had but one soul and heart, this was a spectacle new to the world, so touching, so efficacious, so powerful that it excited the unbelievers to inquire into the tenets of our holy religion, and to submit themselves to it. Would that all the Christians had always kept that beautiful union and charity! There would not have been at present perhaps a single infidel in the world. But, my Brethren, that is not the case. Almighty God has opened the way for the missionaries to penetrate into the unknown parts of the world: it is true, through the medium of navigation; of steamboats we may reach from one extremity of the world to another. What a beautiful and favorable occasion for the propagation of the Gospel! Missionaries are not idle; indeed they go, they preach, but alas! They found themselves opposed to each other, reviling each other, calumniating each other: charging each other with heresy, with idolatry, with antichristianism; and sometimes even proceeding to a bloody persecution against each other: the Lutherans opposing the Calvinists, the Calvinists opposing the Baptists, Churchmen opposing the Methodists, all together opposing the Catholics…

This being the case, what success can be expected? The barbarians will say: you come to us announcing the Christian faith and enforcing the necessity on us to embrace it, but since you are of different creeds and persuasions, whom shall we follow? If we follow the Catholics, we are blamed by all the Protestants; if we resolve to follow one sect of Protestants, we incur the blame of all the other sects. Therefore, we shall wait until you are united among yourselves.

But we do not need to go among the barbarians to witness such melancholy scenes. We have a great many examples near at home. How many infidels are in this Island? There are a good many, indeed. Now suppose a minister of Religion accosts any of them exhorting him to believe and repent; the infidel will speak the same language as the barbarians: if what you say is true, think first of uniting among yourselves, and then come afterwards to exhort me. And, my Brethren, before the so-called Reformation, there were no infidels in these countries, but after that period, alas! The number is increased to a terrible extent. And if we do not think seriously of reuniting ourselves again, there is a danger that we shall devour and spoil each other as the Apostle St. Paul warns. I am quite sure, my Brethren, that although you are not all Catholics, still almost all of you have a sincere love for our divine Saviour, and a sincere wish for His glory and honor. Well, then, my Brethren, if so you cannot do better than to wish for the happy reunion of all Christians in one fold, to pray for this happy event, and to exert yourselves as far as it lies in your power to find out means to obtain this union.

But which are these means? This is the second and very important point of our discussion. Perhaps some of you may think that there are no such means at all; and consequently the wish for the reunion of all Christians is a Utopia, beautiful in itself but impossible to be realized. My Brethren, I beg to state and maintain that such is not the case. This union is possible; it may be realized if we use the means by which God gives us.

And first, we must agree in this that Our Lord has established some means to keep this union: now He, who wishes for an end, wishes likewise for the means to reach it.

Had our Saviour not appointed any means to keep that union He wished for? We ought to say that it was either by a want of consideration, want of wisdom, or want of power. But let me ask, can we cast such marks of blame on Our Lord who was the Wisdom and power of God? No, by no means: He knew very well what He was wishing for; He knew which means were best fixed for the purpose and He had the power to execute whatever He wished. Therefore, we must conclude that in wishing for the unity of His Church, He devised and appointed the means necessary for it. About this point there will be no doubt at all. Let us inquire then which were these means appointed by Him?

What is your opinion, my Brethren? Why, the means of the union is the Bible, you will say. Let us read the Bible attentively, let us refer all out doubts, all our dissensions to its decision: this is the only means to keep the Christian union; but because all do not read the Bible, therefore so many divisions arise. My Brethren, I assure you, that if this were the case, I would lay aside all other things, and I would cry as loud as any: the Bible and the Bible only is the religion of a true Catholic.

But is the case really so? I think it is not, my Brethren: and you will agree with me if you will listen to my motives for doubting. Do not fear that I shall say a word in disparagement of the Bible, God forbid: let my hand fall down and my tongue be withered before committing such a crime.

No: I venerate the Bible so strongly, as strongly as any who professes himself a Christian. I should be ready to shed my blood for the keeping of every jot of the Bible: and every good Catholic must be animated by the same feelings; otherwise he would be unworthy of the name of a Christian at all. I read it as often as I can. Still you will excuse me if I say that the Bible alone (mark well this word alone) is not the only means appointed by Christ to keep his followers so united: and why so? What argument do I have for such? My Brethren, I have the argument in a fact, which cannot be questioned by any man in the world. You know, my Brethren, that at the precise era of the pretended Reformation, this cry was raised by the Reformers: “the Bible and the Bible only.” We want nothing more than the Bible. Well, they had it, borrowed from the Mother Church. They mutilated it, it is true, but in fine they preserved untouched the greater portion of it: everyone read the Bible: but alas, they found themselves incapable of advancing a step without divisions: every year, and almost every day arose some dissensions; some new sects arose even to protest the Reformers, as they had protested against the Mother Church. These things have been going on for the space of three centuries, reading the Bible without intermission. But, tell me, have they arrived at the union intended on by Our Lord? No, on the contrary, they are more than ever divided, so that it would be utterly impossible to reckon the number of sects and divisions among those Christians who boast continually to have the singular privilege to stick closely to the Bible. This is a fact, which cannot be denied, and against such a fact no argument can stand.

Before having made the attempt, some hope might perhaps have been entertained that if once the Christians were to admit the Bible as their only standard of faith (to the exclusion of any other means of union), they would be united directly in one fold. But after the trial has failed, would it not be foolery to believe or suppose that was the only means of union intended by our Saviour? You will say, perhaps, that not all those who read the Bible are united because not all read it as they ought to do, viz., with humility and submission and with all other dispositions necessary to catch the meaning of it. I grant it. Yes, it is so, or at least I suppose it to be so. But tell me, did our Saviour foresee that such precisely would be the case? I am quite sure He did, for by reason of His divine knowledge nothing was hidden from Him. Now, foreseeing all these things, can we suppose Him to have appointed a means, only one means, which His divine knowledge revealed was quite unfit to keep the union among his followers?

What would you think of a king who to keep peace and union in his kingdom were to give a good law, but establishing no judges or tribunals to decide the questions arising among the citizens, but simply telling them: whensoever you have any disputes among you, go and examine the law, and stick to its decision. Now suppose there happens a doubt about the validity of a will or legacy. The contending parties are sent to the law. Very well, every one of them maintains that the law is in his favor: every one of them in consequence of this persuasion goes to get the possession of the property; every one repels his competition, on the plea that the law has decided the case in his favor. Tell me: in this case could the peace and union be kept for a single day? It could not, and you will agree with me, and you would laugh to scorn and ridicule that king who took away the tribunal leaving only the law to decide all the questions.

Oh yes, it is true we speak of a man, but it is not so with God; a man may give a law but not the true understanding of it. But God gives the law and the understanding of it, too. Very well: but tell me, has He given such an understanding to all the contending parties? Surely He has not; otherwise there would be no contention at all. Almighty God might give such knowledge, but in point of fact He does not give it, nor has He promised to give it to those who reject the authority promised by Him.

But does not the Holy Ghost tell us by the mouth of St. John that His divine unction will teach us everything? Now, since you have this divine unction and follow it, are you not right? You would be indeed, if such were the case; but I am afraid it is not so. I am afraid some other spirit directs you, and not the Holy Spirit of the Father, for tell me: can the Holy Ghost be the author of contradictions? Surely, He cannot. Now, there are innumerable persons who flatter themselves that they are guided by the Holy Ghost, and still never agree among themselves; they still contradict one another. I am afraid they have a spirit but it is not holy: they are animated by some spirit which is not holy, because I am afraid theirs is a spirit of pride and insubordination, and this spirit is not holy at all.

We must then conclude, my Brethren, that neither the Bible alone, nor the interior unction of the Holy Spirit have been appointed by Christ as the only means to keep and preserve the union amongst His followers. We must therefore inquire for something else besides: and what can this be? Surely a living authority enabled to decide the controversies, which are unavoidable in a large society such as the Christian Church. There is nothing else to be sought but this living authority. Our Lord as a wise king and lawgiver has given the law and established judges to decide the questions just as He did with the ancient people of the Jews: He gave them the law, and appointed the Sanhedrin to interpret it. I hope you have no difficulty about it; Protestants themselves have been obliged to have recourse to canons of religion, to establish tribunals, and to inflict grievous censures; nay, to put to death sometimes those who refused to submit to their decisions. This is likewise a fact, which cannot be put in doubt. This Island itself has witnessed many bloody executions for religious reasons after the pretended Reformation.

Many hundreds of priests have been hanged for no other crime than of having said Mass…The necessity therefore of a living authority is clear. The Reformers of England placed it in the king and parliament. But has Our Lord so appointed? Did he appoint the Roman senate to be the living authority fit to decide all the questions arising in matters of religion? Did he appoint Claudius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Diocletian or any other such rulers of the world? If such were the case, the Christians who are in Levant would be obliged to have recourse to the Grand Seignor of Constantinople; those of China to the Chinese Emperor: and Christians to bow their heads to such authority. But what can be more ridiculous and absurd than this? Therefore, it is quite sure that Our Lord did not appoint princes as judges in matters of faith. I am quite sure that He did not do so, and you will agree with me on this point. Surely we do agree that this is not the case. What some have maintained is simply this: that the King is the judge in matters of religion supposing he be a Christian himself. Now those Emperors were not Christian, consequently, they were unfit to judge about the Christian religion. Give us Christian princes and we shall submit to their decisions. Well then, my Brethren, must the Protestants of France submit to the decisions of Louis Phillip? Those of Germany to the Emperor of Austria; those of Poland to Czar Nicholas? I think they would not, and you will agree with me. They are right in doing so, yet these kings or Emperors are Christians. Therefore, no king nor Emperor can be authorized judge in matters of religion as appointed by Our Lord Jesus Christ.

When then is such an authority to be found? I will tell you, my Brethren. It is to be found in the Catholic Church, Viz.; in the entire body of true Christians. The Church itself as a whole is a lawful judge appointed by Christ. The Church is the pillar of truth; to this tribunal all erring brethren are to be denounced. And, if they refuse to submit, they are to be held as “heathen and publicans.” The Church is the infallible tribunal against which the Gates of Hell cannot ever prevail, as Our Lord Himself assures us. Jesus Christ Himself will always be with her: and the Holy Spirit likewise will abide with her forever. To what Purpose? To teach her all truths, to guide her in the true way of salvation. Well, but how can the entire Church of Christ decide any questions? Can the many millions of Christians meet to decide anything? Oh yes, they can, not every one of them personally, but by the medium of their representatives (just as the English nation as a whole speaks in Parliament by those members who are representatives of the entire nation). In this same manner the Bishops and Pastors of the Church who are the representatives of Catholic Christendom meet together to decide questions and differences. After their decision every particular member must acquiesce and submit; or, if he refuses to do so, he is to be held as refractory.

This is the theory, which has been followed constantly in practice from the very beginning of the Church and will be followed till the end of the world. Thus, when in the time of the Apostles questions arose about the observance of the Law of Moses, the Apostles and Elders met at Jerusalem and decided the point at issue. Thus the Catholic Bishops met at Nicaea to condemn the Arian heresy; at Constantinople to condemn the Macedonians; at Ephesus to condemn the Nestorians; at Chalcedon to condemn the Eutychians…and finally at Trent to condemn the errors of the sixteenth century. By this very means the peace and union have always been kept in the Catholic Church, and it will be kept till the end of the world. This, therefore, my Brethren, is the means appointed by Christ for preserving Unity.

If any of you is desirous of that Christian union so much wished for, he has nothing to do but to have recourse to this means: to acknowledge the Catholic Church’s authority and submit to its decisions, and thus we may hope to have that one fold of all the Christians of which the Gospel of this day speaks, and which forms the object of the desire of Our Dear Redeemer. The same desire ought also to be that of all His sincere followers.

Do not imagine that what I have proposed is a chimera. No, my Brethren, it is a reality and it has been realized in all the ages of Christianity. It is realized now in the Catholic Church, where are to be found more than two hundred millions of people united in the same faith, the same subordination to the lawful pastors and the same mutual feelings of friendship and charity. This bright and irresistible argument has begun to be felt deeply by all the reflecting people of England: and its strength has already drawn many, not only the sheep, but also pastors of the Protestant communion into the true fold of Jesus Christ: and we may hope that tide so happily begun will draw the rest of the nation into the pale of Catholicity; and then there will be one fold and one Shepherd.

Amen. Amen.