Twice I’ve had the privilege of visiting the home of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton located in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Now called Seton Shrine, it was home to the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph during the Civil War. On both of my pilgrimages to the shrine, I was struck by the actions of the sisters during a time when our country was deeply divided on the issue of slavery. Their actions of love and hospitality give testimony to how Christians ought to respond with love to those with whom we disagree.
In July 1863, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War could be heard by the sisters from 12 miles away as they prayed. When the sound of the gunfire ceased, the sisters made their way to Gettysburg into the heart of the battlefield to care for the wounded soldiers. They took in and cared for soldiers from both the Confederate and Union armies, treating the wounded with enduring compassion and love.
The sisters had families on both sides of the war, but they chose to care for the wounded without discrimination — meaning that they knowingly cared for soldiers who may have harmed or killed their own family members. Their service was a beacon of unity in a divided nation. The sisters’ brave actions bear witness to the love of neighbor that we are all called to as Christians. Their capacity to care for the wounded and broken was a fruit of their prayer.
Today, our country is still deeply divided on grave moral issues. “Even daily Mass goers are deeply divided on the issue of politics.” This particular statement struck me one day as I was driving home from work listening to Catholic radio. It rattled me because I knew it was true from my own conversations with coworkers, peers, family members and friends over the prior months.
At times, my heart feels so heavy with the weight of division and the absence of love in our country, our communities and our homes. It feels as though some have chosen to affiliate with their political party platform before the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In a recent talk on faithful citizenship, my own bishop wondered how some Catholics “can consider themselves good Catholics when their attitudes and words are so contrary to the Gospel of Jesus.” I have had the same thoughts. The bishop continued to say that “Catholics should be part of the solution, not part of the problem that we face in our polarized society. We are called to be better.”
As I age, the time between elections seems to get shorter, the issues appear to be more complex, and the division between people seems to get deeper. News stations and social media platform algorithms have a strong influence on what information people surround themselves with regarding politics. We label each other and strip each other of our Christian identity and our human identity. It becomes too easy for political parties to demonize each other. Suddenly people with whom we disagree are no longer people, but problems that need fixing.
As Christians, we should allow political tension to not elicit a defense of empirical data, but a response of prayer in us. When we disagree with someone, especially if there are moral consequences to their actions, we ought to turn to prayer as if their soul and our own soul depended on it. We should turn to God to beg for the peace and unity that only he can give. Particularly, when we lose sight of another’s dignity, we should ask God to show us that those with whom we disagree are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should look for ways to be in relationship and service to those people.
The reality is that there is always going to be disagreement on this side of heaven. So what is a Christian to do about it? Follow the witness of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. First, pray. Then, keep praying. Next, discern what ways God is asking you to bear witness to love in serving those with whom you might disagree. Lastly, keep praying.
If you are struggling to pray for those with whom you disagree, I encourage you to turn to the Book of Numbers: “The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!” (6:24-26).