Category Archives: reconciliation

Conflict in the community

This Sunday’s Gospel comes from chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew, a chapter which pulls together some of Jesus’ words about the community, the church.

The final verse of Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 18: 20, tries to make it clear that the church is not just a grouping of persons, but the Body of Christ, where Christ is present: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”

As a community, we are called to live in communion and mutual love, as Paul wrote to the Romans 13:8: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

But we know that this is often not the case and so Jesus leaves us a process of becoming a community in the midst of sin and division.

Jesus offers us four steps. In many ways, they seem all too reasonable. But we often don’t do what Jesus calls us to do.

A few months ago, I read John Paul Lederach’s Journey Toward Reconciliation. Lederach has worked in reconciliation and peacemaking in many parts of the world, particularly in Latin America. His work has influenced the work of Caritas International in its peacemaking efforts, in particular its manuals for Conflict Transformation. Lederach is a Mennonite and has taught at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Notre Dame. In chapter 3 of Journey toward Reconciliation, he provides a practical exegesis of this Sunday’s Gospel. This has influenced me in what I will preach tomorrow – first of all in a community that just experienced a brutal killing, but which is a community with many divisions.

Jesus proposes four steps:

Step 1: Going Directly
Step 2: Taking One or Two Witnesses Along
Step 3: Telling It to the Church
Step 4: Relating as with a Gentile and Tax Collector

First, if someone has sinned against you, go directly to the person, alone. Don’t talk about the conflict behind the person’s back. Don’t air the dirty laundry in public. Go directly to the person – not seeking to win, nor to extract an apology, nor to justify oneself. Go to bring the person back into the community. Lederach suggests that this requires “prayerful vulnerability,” “responsible discernment,” and “interactive engagement.” We don’t go as one who has the answers, as the person who is in the right, but looking carefully at myself and the problem in a humble and open way.

In the bombed shell of Coventry Cathedral

I know that it is easier to castigate the “sinner” than to go and speak directly to him. This happens in communities here where it is very hard to speak directly about conflicts and so gossip abounds. I would also suggest that this is what is happening in the Catholic Church in many parts of the world. “Fraternal correction” in private has been replaced by accusations.

But Jesus says go directly – to gain one’s brother or sister.

Secondly, if that doesn’t work, take one or two witnesses. They might help keep the discussion focused and be able to pint out where we are defensive or offensive, where we are not listening. They may even be able to help us point out places of agreement that we and our opponent don’t see. In addition, I believe that the presence of witnesses can say to the person that we are concerned about her or him and want to be in communion.

But, if that doesn’t work, bring in the community. The Greek uses the word ekklesia, most often translated as church. This is one of the few places where this word is used in the Gospels. But the Church must be one that is working for community, that knows who it is, that knows its weaknesses and its strengths, that is honest and transparent in its workings.

Finally, what do we do when nothing seems to work?

Jesus’s words have often been mistranslated or misinterpreted. The Greek reads: ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης. This literally means, “Let him be to you as the pagan and the tax collector.”

Sometimes this has been interpreted as saying that we should shun the person, turn away from her or him. But Lederach opens up an interpretation that I believe is more faithful to the call of Jesus.

How does Jesus treat the pagan and the tax collector?

In the Gospels, Jesus heals the servant of the Roman centurion and the daughter of the Syro- phoenician woman. That is far from shunning, though the encounter of Jesus with the woman suggests that his culture preferred to refrain from dealing with pagans.

In the Gospels, Jesus invites himself to dinner with the tax collectors. Note the stories of the call of Matthew and the encounter in Jericho with Zaccheus. Jesus wants to eat with them.

Jesus shows us the creative imagination of God.

Eating is a way of connecting with another, putting oneself at the same level as the other person. It is a place where we can be vulnerable and can interaction with others, even though we don’t agree. It is not a surefire way of reconciling, but it can open up a place.

In all this, we need to remember that what Jesus wants is communion, community, solidarity, mutual love. There will be conflicts, but can we still love the other? Can we seek out creative ways to foster reconciliation and justice? Lederach’s question is critical: “How do we make the church community a place where this mission of encounter, growth, and reconciliation can take place?”

This is not easy, but I believe it is what Jesus wants, what Jesus calls us to be.

I’ll close with an extended quote of John Paul Lederach:

“The entire purpose of working through conflict is aimed at bringing back together what has been torn apart through earlier actions, behaviors, and responses. The primary goal is reconciliation, understood as relationship ship and restoration, the healing of personal and social fabrics. In this process, it is impossible to separate personal from social healing. Clearly, these are like steps in a journey. It begins with a personal journey within, for the purpose of identifying the source of pain, what is wrong, and understanding it. The process then moves us toward the source of our anxiety and pain that is welling up in the relationship. What rises from this journey is commitment to relationship and interdependence.”

Forgive and reconcile

How often should I forgive?
Matthew 18: 21

Today the Catholic Church remembers Pope Saint Pontian and the antipope Saint Hippolytus, both of whom died in 235 on the penal island of Sardinia during one of the Roman persecutions.

It is perhaps fitting that today’s Gospel is about forgiveness, something closely connected with today’s saints.

Hippolytus was a Greek priest and brilliant theologian who came to Rome. When Saint Callistus was elected pope in 217, Hippolytus was not happy. Callistus was a former slave and a mere cemetery-keeper. In addition, Callistus was not as severe with sinners as Hippolytus thought he should be, accusing him of forgiving sinners all too easily. As a result his followers elected Hippolytus as pope, making him the first anti-pope in history.

Hippolytus kept up his position as anti-pope during the papal reigns of Callistus’ successors, Urban I and Pontian. He was upset by their lax approach to forgiving sinners and their lack of sufficient zeal in combatting heresy. Hippolytus was quite a rigorist, believing that the validity of the sacraments depended on the sanctity of the ministers.

Both Pope Pontian and anti-pope Hippolytus were arrested in 235 and sent to the Sardinian salt mines. Pontian resigned his office as pope, bishop of Rome, and, according to some reports, Hippolytus dropped his claim to the papacy.

Supposedly they were reconciled with each other and died on Sardinia as the result of the harsh treatment they endured there.

Perhaps these two saints offer us a lesson for the divisions in the church  -rejecting the rigorist approach and always seeking and giving forgiveness.

If a pope and an anti-pope can be reconciled, what might happen for us and for the Church as a whole?

If a pope and an anti-pope can be reconciled, what might happen for us and for the Church as a whole?

Papal reconciliation

If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
Matthew 18:15

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the holiness of two opponents – Pope Pontian and anti-pope Hippolytus. According to tradition, both died, reconciled, as martyrs, exiled on the island of Sardinia.

Hippolytus was somewhat of a rigorist; he opposed the popes who reconciled those who abjured their faith in the face of persecution and he proposed that the validity of sacraments depended on the holiness of those who administered them. He also seems to have been a bit haughty, opposing the earlier election of Callistus as bishop of Rome, since Callistus was a former slave and cemetary keeper.

But, exiled to Sardinia, these two opponents died, probably as a result of harsh treatment they had received before they got there and the harsh conditions of the Sardinian salt mines.

In the witness of their blood for Christ, they were reconciled.

As John Shea writes, as excerpted today in Give Us This Day,

Heaven’s agenda is for two disciples on earth, previously alienated, to come together in agreement. This is how heaven comes to earth. If the two involved pray for that, the heavenly power of the Father’s love will energize them in order to bring it about.

This is what seems to have happened between Pontian and Hippolytus. It can happen even today, in a church which at times seems pulled apart into factions.

What it needs is honesty and prayer and, above all, a commitment to witness to what is essential – the Love of God.

Let us pray today for all divisions – in the church, in the world, in families – so that the Love of God and our witness of love for all may open the way for reconciliation.



We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
2 Corinthians 5: 20 

 Reconciliation with God and reconciliation with others are great challenges, especially here in Honduras.

There is violence in the big cities, divisions in the church, resentments and spitefulness in the countryside, and divisions in our own hearts.

That’s why today’s reading from Paul touches and challenges me.

But, in some way, the reading is a consolation.

Reconciliation with God doesn’t begin with me. God in Christ is already reconciling us.

What we need are open hearts, open to God – the ultimate Other – and to others.

In one way, I think this means trying to understand others who are different, who hold other views, letting our common humanity come through.

It’s so easy to see others as threats, as dangerous foes. It’s harder to see them as wounded people, like us.

And so today I pray for reconciliation – with God, with others.

I pray especially for Honduras and the church in Honduras. There are so many divisions and so few efforts to really break through the divisions.

The recent effort of Bishop Romulo Emiliani to broker a truce between the two most powerful gangs is an effort. But reconciliation needs to break through to the divisions found at the level of villages and families.

May God give me strength and courage to seek reconciliation and to be an ambassador of reconciliation.

That’s my prayer, my hope, and my challenge.

Relationships and reconciliation

A week ago at the end of a retreat in a rural village, Marco Tulio commented on today’s Gospel of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32) during the Celebration of the Word. He noted how the father addressed both sons as “son”.

I had noted before that the older son refused to acknowledge the younger son as his brother, referring to him as “that son of yours.” But he does not even address his father as “father.” Instead he emphasizes that he has been “slaving away” for so many years.

In contrast, his younger brother who had asked for his part of the inheritance (basically treating his father as already dead) thinks of his father when he is nearly dying of hunger. He decides to go, addresse his father as “Father,” admit his unworthiness and ask to be treated as a day laborer.

The older son sees his life as slavery and wants nothing to do with his brother (and maybe not even with his father). The younger, rebel son is willing to become a hired worker.

But the father sees both as sons. He asks the servants to welcome his younger son who has come back to life. He addresses his angry older son not merely as son, but as “child,” which seems a more familiar term.

The father wants relationships restored; he wants a family. He wants, as St. Paul writes in the second reading (2 Corinthians 5: 17-21), reconciliation.

But what makes this so hard.

In one sense, I think Gustavo Gutiérrez (Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, p. 61) is on to something. How often do we see following Christ as slavery, doing what we have to do, full of obligations – not as a response to God’s freely given love?

Failing to see the gratuitousness of live is failing to understand the gospel. By converting the gospel into a mere set of obligations, external rules or a guarantee to authorities without moral worth, we make a caricature of it. The gratuitousness of love alone guarantees its being creative of ways to express it…

We just have to slave away, doing what “God” commands.

But discipleship is something else.

I have just finished reading Timothy Radcliffe’s Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation, which I highly recommend. Seeing following Christ as merely following commandments misses this dimension of relationship that God so wants from us. As the father, he goes out to meet both sons, who are precious in his sight.

Radcliffe puts it this way (p. 38):

Commandments in the Bible are given in the context of friendship with God and each other. They are not about control but the formation of a heart and mind for mutuality. They are the vastly demanding invitation to grow up into the true, genuine, equal love which is the Trinity. We are indeed loved without condition, but God’s friendship, like any friendship, transforms us.

So today let us respond in love,letting ourselves be transformed by God’s friendship, seeking reconciliation and relationship with God and with our sisters and brothers.

I think that’s what Lent is about.