Next week begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an annual observance in which Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, all of us brothers and sisters in Christ through our common baptism, pray for the restoration of perfect unity among Christians. We pray, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that divisions among Christians will be overcome.
This Week of Prayer, which begins on January 18th and ends on January 25th (the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul), reminds us, as the Second Vatican Council taught, that prayer is “the soul of the ecumenical movement.” It reminds us of the priority of prayer in all our endeavors, including in ecumenical activities since ultimately the full visible communion of all Christians is a gift of God’s grace.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity used to be called the Church Unity Octave when it began in 1908. It was founded by Reverend Paul Wattson, an American Episcopal priest, and Mother Lurana White. These co-founders of the Society of the Atonement, with thirteen lay associates, entered the Catholic Church in 1909. Thereafter, Pope Saint Pius X gave his official blessing to the Octave.
In 1916, Pope Benedict XV encouraged the observance of the Church Unity Octave throughout the Catholic Church. Now, 96 years later, I wish to encourage the fervent observance of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity throughout our diocese. Among the Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions in the Roman Missal are Masses “For the Unity of Christians.” I encourage their use in our parishes during weekday Masses between January 18 and 25. The Week is also a good time for ecumenical prayer services. Excellent materials and resources are available, prepared collaboratively by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches.
Why is ecumenism important? The answer is simple: Jesus Christ wills the unity of his disciples. He prayed “that all may be one” (John 17:21). The Catholic Church’s commitment to this task is, therefore, irrevocable, despite what often seem to be insuperable obstacles in ecumenical endeavors.
The theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year is: “We will all be changed by the Victory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15: 51-58). Christ’s victory over sin and death enables us to persevere with patience in the quest for Christian unity and to look to the future with hope. As Catholic Chair of the International Theological Catholic-Reformed Dialogue, I am involved in an important ecumenical effort, a difficult one to be sure, but one which continues because of our faith in the power of God’s grace and in Christ’s victory.
One reason for hope is that there is already a unity, though imperfect, among Christians. While we naturally regret our divisions and separations, we should also be keenly aware of the elements of unity we share with our separated brothers. Examples include the gift of the sacrament of Baptism, the Sacred Scriptures, and the common beliefs we profess in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. We should acknowledge this common ground with gratitude, recognizing that there is more that unites us than divides us.
Last year, during his apostolic visit to Germany, our Holy Father visited the Augustinian convent in Erfurt where Martin Luther studied and was ordained a priest. While there, Pope Benedict spoke to various representatives of German Protestant communities about the unity we share. He said:
“Our fundamental unity comes from the fact that we believe in God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. And that we confess that he is the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The highest unity is not the solitude of a monad, but rather a unity born of love. We believe in God — the real God. We believe that God spoke to us and became one of us. To bear witness to this living God is our common task at the present time.”
I was moved by the Holy Father’s deep concern about the secularism of today’s culture, what he called “the withdrawal from God.” All Christians should be concerned about this cultural challenge. Pope Benedict said that “our primary ecumenical service at this hour must be to bear common witness to the presence of the living God and in this way to give the world the answer which it needs.” This means living by God’s word. It means a commitment to love. It means service of others. This is how the Christian faith becomes more credible to others.
As Catholics, we must know our faith and live it afresh. Genuine ecumenism does not mean that we water down the truths of the faith. Genuine ecumenism happens when we live our faith deeply and with conviction in an increasingly secularized culture.
May the Holy Spirit inspire us and all Christians to grow in faith, hope, and charity, and to bear faithful witness to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Victory over sin and death!
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