We knelt together at the first Mass of many in a little church in Roncesvalles, Spain, grateful not to be standing after having walked over the Pyrenees in the rain. Though the atmosphere in the church, filled with fellow pilgrims, was welcoming, we could not help but feel a painful divide between us—a result not due to an occasional fight between friends, but rather to centuries of separation between our two Churches, Protestant and Catholic. The Eucharistic liturgy is the high point of a Catholic Mass, and only those who have been confirmed into the Catholic Church are permitted to take communion. In that moment, as one of us went up to the altar but the other could not, it was strikingly clear that the institutions of Churches around the world have failed. Regardless of whether we are Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, we have not worked together to build the Kingdom of God. Instead, we have become fragmented and broken.
Over the past month, we (Aliénor and Angela) have been travelling on the Camino de Santiago, a centuries-old Catholic pilgrimage route leading to the relics of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. Since the route goes through Spain, this has inevitably involved a lot of tapas, and we have also been introduced to an interesting local favourite of a potato omelette inside a sandwich. Walking through the countryside, we have had the privilege to explore the shared history of our Christian tradition in beautiful, though often empty and crumbling, village churches. Yet we also seem to have been called to share in Christ’s own suffering at the tearing apart of his Body. Of course, we both know undoubtedly that we are in full communion with one another as sisters in the love and truth of Christ. Growing up in an Anglican Church in London and a Catholic Church in New York, neither of us had met many Christians from across the pew before coming to Harvard. Throughout freshman year, our friendship grew and gave fruition to many conversations about faith. Despite our disagreements, it was a joy to discover about how much we agreed on. In fact, our discussions on where we agreed allowed us to delve far deeper into our faiths than when we debated differences.
We often forget that spiritual differences between traditions developed in tandem with political rivalries. The Great Schism of 1054 between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches was rooted both in a spiritual debate over the nature of the Holy Spirit, as well as a major political split between Rome and Constantinople. As the Roman Catholic Church became embroiled in Medieval politics, it assumed the status of a powerful, and often corrupt, nation, collecting taxes, raising an army and forming treaties. Martin Luther, then, was right to want to reform the Church, and to emphasize that people should understand and think independently about their religion. And the Catholic Church did address these concerns, but not nearly fast enough: if the 1959 reforms in the Vatican II council had been addressed at the Council of Trent in 1545, perhaps we would be telling a different story.
So, yes, it would be infinitely better if Christians all belonged to the same institutional Church. Even the benefits provided by diversity of thought in different churches are, ultimately, not worth the brokenness of division. But that is not to say that denominational differences should be overlooked. While many Protestants may be able to envision a reunited, nondenominational Church, because the Catholic Church claims continuity of doctrine and apostolicity with the earliest Christians, Jesus’s twelve disciples and their following, Catholicism, by definition, cannot be compromised. This continuity, for example, includes the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist by the process of transubstantiation, the transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood at every Mass. As a member of the early Church, St. John Chrystosom (347-407), wrote, “The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. This is my body, he says. This word transforms the things offered” (CCC 1375). The miraculous lives of canonized Saints and deep mysteries such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary and her work as a spiritual mother and mentor are also fundamental parts of Catholic Christianity. “Catholic” means “universal” because of the solidarity and unity of the Catholic Church and her members across continents and centuries, which is a humbling testament to her powerful work for good in the world. Thus, being Catholic is to accept Catholicism as “the fullest truth,” meaning its members are not simultaneously able to be part of another denomination.
Since we are imperfect and fallen creatures, there is division between Christians in this life. But in our flawed world it is important for us all to remember that, nevertheless, we all belong to the same spiritual Body, a Body that is in a state of perpetual renewal. As St. Paul wrote to the Colossians: in becoming a disciple of Christ, “you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col 3:9-14).
Above all, we are all a part of Christ’s Body. By looking forward to the new Jerusalem, we can see that one day we will all be bound together, in St. Paul’s words, by love. What better way to work towards greater unity here on Earth than to live out a redemptive narrative, in which each and every Christian extends a hand to the other? By bearing with each other, and clothing ourselves with humility, we can be models to all people of Christ’s love, whether they are Christian or not.
This is why we are saddened by the lack of multi-denominational endeavours at Harvard. The Ichthus, an ecumenical publication, has distressingly few Catholics, and the only well publicised Christian-wide event held this year was an Easter celebration mostly attended by the members of Protestant campus fellowship groups. We can do better. After all, we are each other’s greatest allies. Catholics, for example, could consider thinking about why it is so difficult to simply say Christian when asked about religious beliefs, and should recognize Christ’s real presence in Protestant work. And Protestants, likewise, could seek to understand the basis for Catholic traditions, for example by reading powerful Catholic writing both pre-reformation (St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila) and post-reformation (Thomas Merton, St. Oscar Romero) that a Christian of any denomination would be far poorer without. We have a lot to learn from each other, and if we do, maybe then we could be the Body of Christ on Earth.
Upon arriving in Santiago, we laid down on top of our backpacks and kicked our shoes off in the middle of the Plaza Obradoiro. Lifting our eyes to look up at the façade of the cathedral, we realised how far we had come, not only 780 km of physical distance but also in terms of our relationships with ourselves, each other, and God. Angela has grown rather fond of going to Mass and thanking God for each meal with a popular Catholic blessing, and Aliénor has become more comfortable with laying on hands and praying out loud. Amidst the hubbub of other pilgrims joyfully arriving to the cathedral, we pulled out the leftover half of that morning’s very flattened baguette, broke it, and ate.
Aliénor Manteau ‘22 and Angela Eichhorst ‘22 are rising sophomores in Dunster House.