Costly Love – The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin

When John Armstrong first told me his personal story, I realized I’d heard something similar before.

While I was Superior General of the order, one of my fellow Redemptorists, Fr. Gerry Reynolds, was intimately involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. Our house, Clonard, was located just off the Falls Road fault line between Catholic and Protestant factions. One of Fr. Reynolds’s principal collaborators was Rev. Ken Newell, of the Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. They participated in the Fitzroy-Clonard Fellowship, which was awarded the Pax Christi International Peace Award in 1999 for “its exemplary grass-roots peacemaking work in Belfast.” The process that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 could not have happened without Ken’s active participation. But that peace came at great personal cost. Rev. Newell, at one time chaplain for the Orange Order, was shunned by many members of his Fitzroy Church, even threatened for betraying his community. Indeed his love was costly, a kind of love I see reflected in John Armstrong’s experience.

We first met one another at a Chicago meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. John had been invited to share the story of his ecumenical journey, which took him from the peak of a highly successful national ministry to the depths of rejection because he too sought to talk across fault lines—in his case, between Protestants and Catholics. In chapter 5 of this book, he describes his experience: “I only entered into the love I write about after thirteen years in my ‘ministry desert.’ In calling me to a unique life-changing experience God took away almost everything I treasured about my public ministry. He placed me in a quiet place where I learned just how much he loved me.”

John explains, “Unless we are prepared to get ‘outside the box’ of our common ways of thinking we will settle for conventional wisdom. But to experience costly love we must die. There is no other way to be raised to new life. The old ways of the world will never fulfill the desire for love God has planted in us.”

Of course, that “new life” is the fulfillment of what Jesus prayed for: “ at they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21). Armstrong explains, “His prayer is that our becoming one will be the catalyst for people to come to know God’s love. … Christian unity in relationships is clearly the divine design for showing the world that God loves them.”

Pope Francis proposes that Christians work for unity by building up a “culture of encounter” in which they work as Jesus did—“not just hearing, but listening; not just passing people by, but stopping with them; not just saying ‘what a shame, poor people!’, but allowing yourself to be moved with compassion; and then to draw near, to touch and to say, ‘Do not weep’ and to give at least a drop of life.” Such gestures come at a cost, but if we do not touch, if we do not speak, we cannot help create a culture of encounter, a culture of profound relationships among all of us, who need Jesus’ words, Jesus’ caress.

John Armstrong describes this call as “missional-ecumenism,” which means building up Christian unity by loving deeply, a love that is, as he puts it, “both relational and inclusive.” But, he notes, “I could not pursue unity until I learned to pursue and live God-Love.” He uses Chiara Lubich’s words to unpack that dense term: “God-Love [reveals to us] not a God who is distant, immovable and inaccessible to people. God-Love…meet[s] every person in thousands of ways. … [God is] love in himself, love for all his creation.” When we work for missional-ecumenism, when we work for unity as Pope Francis urges us through building up a culture of encounter and dialogue, we work as Jesus did. The crucified and forsaken Jesus, in whose total sacrifice we see love totally revealed, has to be our center. “If we learn how much Jesus really loves us, we can love God—and one another—with a love that will never be cheap or diluted.”

Few of us will have to pay a price like Ken Newell or John Armstrong did, but every Christian is called to expend what is necessary to build unity by establishing a culture of encounter wherever we and ourselves—in our families, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our nation. In a world that has become accustomed to what Pope Francis calls “a culture of indifference,” we can offer our own small reflection of God’s costly love, confident that our actions can return to each person their dignity as children of a God who is love.

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.SS.R
Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey