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Distinction Without a Difference

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Last month the new director of our Jerusalem office, Fr. Denis Madden, spent a week in New York for his initial orientation. Naturally we overwhelmed him with papers and reports and his every day was crammed with meetings and conversation.

The most important aspect of his orientation hardly could be put into writing. It had to do with intangibles, the attitudes and style which characterize our work – our Catholic Near East Welfare Association “oral tradition.”

Discussing the ecumenical dimension of what we do, I conveyed to him one of our prime directives: “Always act as if the church is one, unless you are forced to encounter a difference.”

This means being as respectful, attentive and solicitous to the needs of the Orthodox and Protestant communities and their spiritual leaders as we are to the various Catholic communities.

So often in ecumenical dialogues, as they are usually called, theologians fasten upon the points of doctrinal difference and seek to bridge the gaps and hostilities.

In our work we’re more fortunate. In our “dialogue of charity,” to use a beautiful expression of Pope John Paul II, we fasten upon the commonality of need and the universal appeal and power of love.

When it comes to helping people in need, their creed or their lack of it is not a determining factor.

Our mission is to be of service not just to Roman Catholics, but to all Catholics – not just to Catholics, but to all Christians- not just to Christians, but to all believers – not just to believers, but to all members of the one human family.

The tendency of modern societies is to accentuate differences – differences of nationality, ethnic group, race, religion, political affiliation – differences of social class, economic achievement, education and breeding – even differences of sexual orientation, life-style and values.

If all I do is accentuate what makes me different from others, after a while I paint myself into a lonely corner. After all, if we press it far enough, each one of us is ultimately unique and different from everyone else in the whole world. That’s the way God made us!

To know who you are – and to have confidence in yourself – you have to know and appreciate all that is distinctive about yourself.

To be in touch with anybody else, to he joined or to be in solidarity with others in any way, you have to learn to bridge the differences.

That’s what forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking are all about, whether between individual persons or among groups or nations.

In fact, the special name for this power God gives us, which enables us both to appreciate all that distinguishes us and to reach out and join together with others, is love.

Maybe the prime directive for the successful orientation of every new member of the human family should be this: “Always act as if we all are one, unless you are forced to encounter a difference.”

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: Christianity Ecumenism Catholic