Theres a powerful and dramatic scene in the movie, Becket, in which Thomas, the Archbishop of Canterbury, surrounded by his monks, solemnly declares his friend and king, Henry, excommunicate.
For most people today this is the kind of image excommunication calls to mind. The word seems to have a sort of antique ring to it.
Thats curious since, whether we realize it or not, we ourselves tend rather frequently to excommunicate others.
Excommunication means literally out of communion or union.
Anytime we leave or break our union with any group of persons we belong to not just our religious community were excommunicating ourselves.
Anytime we recognize that another person has chosen to leave or break union with us, we have a right to consider him or her as excommunicate out of communion by his or her personal choice.
But, anytime we treat or classify another person as lacking any solidarity or union with ourselves through no fault of his or her own anytime we set arbitrary boundaries and place another outside them we may well be excommunicating someone else.
When Pope John Paul II addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York last month, he referred to our fear of difference as we confront one another.
Sometimes were afraid of others only because they look different from us or speak differently than we do.
Sometimes we fear them because their religion or ways are different from ours.
Sometimes were uneasy with them because they are from a different country.
When were afraid of someone, we dont include him within the boundaries of our friends or acquaintances; we dont feel any solidarity with him; he remains always part of them or those and never is considered one of us.
A lot of people believe this is a good and practical policy to follow.
In a song from the musical, West Side Story, one of the young lovers is urged to stick to your own kind.
This contradicts the teachings of Jesus.
The entire, evolving Judeo-Christian tradition challenges us to accept every other human person as our sister or brother.
The Gospel urges us to extend our solidarity, concern and love to include the whole world.
The mission of Jesus, in which all his disciples share, is to make the whole human race one family.
One way of measuring our maturity and spiritual growth is by how much we expand the boundaries that determine with whom we have relationships and solidarity. When they reach out as far as they can go, there is no one we place outside of communion. There is no one we will excommunicate.
Alas, however, there are people who choose to reject union with God and with others. Its hard to understand how there still can be people who choose to excommunicate themselves.
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA