Conflict is a normal part of human life. There is no record of a humanity where conflict did not exist. The Church, being composed of fallen, sinful human beings, has always had to deal with the issue of conflict.
St. John Chrysostom, writing in the 4th century, relates the following: “Come and take a peep at the public festivals, at which it is the custom for most appointments to ecclesiastical office to be made. You will see the priest assailed with as many accusations as there are persons under his rule. For all who are qualified to bestow the honour are then split into many factions and the synod of presbyters can be seen agreeing neither among themselves nor with the one who has received the Episcopal office. Each man stands alone . . . one man is anxious to promote above the rest a friend, another a relative, another someone who flatters him. No one will look for the best qualified man or apply any spiritual test.” (On the Priesthood, book III 15). Sound familiar?
One of the differences between Christians and non-Christians is that Christians have an obligation to seek reconciliation where conflict and contentiousness exist (cf. Mt. 5: 23-24, 18:15-16, Mk. 11: 25-26, etc.).
The great commandment of Jesus Christ is the commandment of love. There are honest disagreements where people hold differing opinions based on sound moral and spiritual principles. There are also conflicts, both interpersonal and among groups, which are grounded in base human passions – egoism, pride, even hatred. It’s easy to agree that in the first case by having open discussion, seeking God’s will in a spirit of love and respect, we can usually come to a peaceful resolution. In the second instance it’s even more important to remember Christ’s commandment of love – Christian love, love for enemies, love for those who hate us and treat us spitefully, Christ-like love (cf. Mt. 5: 43 – 47). Without this love there will be no reconciliation.
Reconciliation likewise cannot exist without forgiveness. Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, the Eucharist, Anointing of the sick, the funeral and requiem services (among others) all exist for the forgiveness of our sins. And we must never forget that our forgiveness is always three-fold: we ask forgiveness of God, we ask forgiveness of others, we ask forgiveness of ourselves. In order that this forgiveness would be actualized, that it would become real in our lives, we must at the same time offer forgiveness – to neighbour, to self, and perhaps, under certain circumstances, in a mysterious yet very real way, even to God Himself.
Our Lord taught us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It’s been said that the “as” in the previous sentence is the most terrible preposition in the bible. The only condition given us by our Lord for forgiveness is our willingness to forgive others.
A “troubled parish”, just like a troubled family, is characterized by conflict without resolution, strife without reconciliation, sin without forgiveness. Parishes don’t usually die because of deep-seated theological problems, but rather because parishioners come into conflict among themselves, become entrenched in their often misguided opinions, harden their hearts, and treat everyone who doesn’t agree with them as an enemy.
Children and young people in such parishes listen to the Gospel, go to Church school, learn about Christ’s commandment of love, see that parishioners in reality treat each other worse than they treat strangers on the street, and quite reasonably ask themselves “what in God’s name is going on here? If this is the way people who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ actually live, I don’t want any part of it!” They leave our communities and then we scratch our heads and ask ourselves “where have all the youth gone?”
If we are serious about having healthy parishes and a growing Church we must be serious about our attitude towards conflict and reconciliation. Besides love and forgiveness, what is needed?
First and foremost, the will to be reconciled. We must truly, in our heart-of-hearts, want reconciliation – not that people must be reconciled to us, but that all of us, together, must be reconciled to God and neighbour.
Secondly we must be humble. Even where things run smoothly differing opinions, ideas, and approaches will be present. We must have the humility to admit when we are wrong, to listen respectfully to differing opinions, and give others the benefit of the doubt.
Finally it must be said that there can be no reconciliation without repentance – repentance in the original sense of the Greek word metanoia. This word, which is usually translated into English as “repentance” comes from the roots “meta” which refers to a change, and “nous”, which refers to the central intellectual/spiritual center of the human person. Metanoia literally means a “change of mind” or a “change of heart”.
Regarding conflict, division and contentiousness in our parishes (as well as in our personal lives) we would do well to consider these words of St. John Chrysostom, who further on in the same book writes: “. . . these evils are suffered and borne patiently by the One Who does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live. How can we marvel enough at His love for man, or wonder at His mercy? Christians damage Christ’s cause more than His enemies and foes. But the good Lord still shows His kindness and calls us to repentance.”