In a recent discussion about ecumenism and the quest for Christian unity, someone said to me that he thought it was a “pipe dream,” in other words, an illusory hope, a fantasy, a dream that is impossible to achieve. I responded that Christian unity is an illusory hope if we think that it can be achieved by our own human efforts, but that with the help of God’s grace, it is not a “pipe dream.” Christian unity is first and foremost a gift of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. And we are called to cooperate with His grace. That is why we celebrate each year the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year it begins on Sunday, January 18th, and ends on Sunday, January 25th.
This past November marked the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council. We can rejoice and give thanks that the Council’s teaching on ecumenism has been broadly received. Much healing has occurred in the relations between Catholics and other Christians. There has been much greater acceptance of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, recognizing the profound unity we share that comes from Baptism. There has certainly been a very positive change in mentality, along with a growing commitment to fulfill the will of Jesus expressed in His prayer to the Father on the eve of His Passion “that they may all be one.”
There have been many positive fruits in our ecumenical endeavors the past 50 years. Christians of different churches and communities often pray together and also work together in the service of the needy. Pope Francis has also spoken about “the ecumenism of blood,” Christians of different churches and communities who have been persecuted and martyred for their faith. As the Holy Father has said: “Those who persecute Christ in His faithful make no differentiation between confessions: they persecute them simply because they are Christians.”
Though there has been much progress towards Christian unity in the past 50 years, the journey toward full unity is not easy. There is still significant disagreement among Christians on various doctrinal matters. One great achievement has been the Joint Declaration on Justification between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. Yet, there is still disagreement on many doctrinal matters between Catholics and Protestants of various denominations. I serve as the Catholic Co-Chair of the International Reformed-Catholic Theological Dialogue and can testify to the great challenges we face in our search for convergence on various matters. I think especially of new disagreements in moral teachings that I find especially painful and which make our journey toward unity more complicated.
The theological dialogues between the Catholic Church and various other Christian Churches and Communions have been fruitful, yet also frustrating at times. Pope Francis says that “we must not surrender to discouragement and resignation, but continue to trust in God who plants in the hearts of Christians the seeds of love and of unity, in order to confront with renewed momentum today’s ecumenical challenges: to cultivate spiritual ecumenism, to turn to advantage the ecumenism of blood, to walk together on the path of the Gospel.” The Holy Father’s words remind me that we must constantly implore the help of God’s grace and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. That is why the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is so important. I encourage all to remember this important intention in your prayers during the coming week.
Spiritual ecumenism is of the utmost importance. In its Decree on Ecumenism, the Second Vatican Council taught: “Change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and can rightly be called spiritual ecumenism.” “Ecumenism,” Pope Francis says, “is a spiritual process, one which takes place in faithful obedience to the Father, in fulfillment of the will of Christ and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
I am glad to see ecumenical initiatives in parishes and other groups throughout our diocese. It is a joy to see Catholics and other Christians working together in so many works of charity and also in prayer and discussion groups. An authentic ecumenical spirit is part of being Catholic. We desire to grow with our separated brothers and sisters in the communion which already unites us. Though that communion is imperfect, it is nonetheless real.
In a society and culture that is increasingly less concerned about God, increasingly secularized, the pursuit of full Christian unity must be a priority. The Church’s work of evangelization is hindered by the division among Christians. When Jesus prayed to the Father “that they all may be one,” He said “so that the world may believe that You have sent me.” The Second Vatican Council said that the division among Christians “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature.” That is why the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism remains a priority.
Again, I encourage you to offer prayers for Christian unity this coming week. I also recommend to our priests the celebration of one of the Masses for the Unity of Christians contained in the Roman Missal during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The following prayer is one of the Collects of the Mass for the Unity of Christians:
Almighty ever-living God, who gather what is scattered and keep together what you gathered, look kindly on the flock of your Son, that those whom one Baptism has consecrated may be joined together by integrity of faith and united in the bond of charity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
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