The Church’s annual “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” takes place January 18-25. This year, the theme is “Reconciliation-The Love of Christ Compels Us” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:14-ff.). It draws its ecumenical impetus from the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper, “that they may be one (John 17: 21).” As the week approaches, I would like to share a few thoughts that are the fruit of my reading and spiritual reflection.
First, a word about “unity.” Pope Francis has told us:
Unity does not imply uniformity; it does not necessarily mean doing everything together or thinking in the same way. Nor does it signify a loss of identity. Unity in diversity is actually the opposite: it involves the joyful recognition and acceptance of the various gifts which the Holy Spirit gives to each one and the placing of these gifts at the service of all members of the Church. It means knowing how to listen, to accept differences, and having the freedom to think differently and express oneself with complete respect towards the other who is my brother or sister. Do not be afraid of differences (Address to Catholic Fraternity of the Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowship, October 31, 2014)!
Similarly, his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, noted:
The way to unity remains long and laborious; yet, it is necessary not to be discouraged and to journey on, in the first place relying on the unfailing support of the One who, before ascending into Heaven, promised his followers: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Unity is a gift of God and the fruit of his Spirit’s action. Consequently, it is important to pray. The closer we draw to Christ, converting to his love, the closer we also draw to one another (General Audience, January 17, 2007).
The concept of “unity” has been addressed in the writings of many popes of the 20th and 21stcenturies, precisely because it was the object of the Lord Jesus’ prayer. This week lifts up for our consideration and prayer “unity” among all Christian believers.
Next, a word about “Christian unity.” The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), one of 21 “ecumenical councils” in the history of the Church, took great pains to emphasize the compelling call to Christian unity in all its documents, especially the “Decree on Ecumenism” overwhelmingly approved by the Council Fathers and issued by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964. There the Council began:
The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature (article 1). …
Today, in many parts of the world, under the inspiring grace of the Holy Spirit, many efforts are being made in prayer, word and action to attain that fullness of unity which Jesus Christ desires. The Sacred Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism (article 4).
Almost 30 years prior to the Council, Pope Pius XII wrote in 1939:
… We cannot pass over in silence the profound impression of heartfelt gratitude made on us by the good wishes of those who, though not belonging to the visible body of the Catholic Church, have given noble and sincere expression to their appreciation of all that unites them to us, in love for the person of Christ or belief in God (Encyclical, Summa Pontificatus, October 20, 1939).
Acknowledging that the road to Christian unity is long and sometimes difficult, the teachings of the magisterium of the Church have clearly placed ecumenical dialogue and outreach — the “stuff” of Christian unity” — as a priority for the Church in our age.
Finally, a word about “prayer for Christian unity.” Most Catholics are not so familiar with all the theological intricacies and nuances of ecumenism that we are prepared to discuss or debate its implications in great detail. For most of us, our cities and towns have multiple churches from various religious Christian denominations that we may never have entered, although we live next door or work side by side with members of the religious traditions they represent. That, in itself, is neither good nor bad, just the way things are. We may have had occasional conversations with other Christians about “church” but probably not in any depth or to any substantial degree.
On the other hand, some of us may have attended services, weddings or funerals in other Christian denominational settings to the point where we can identify differences that exist with our own Catholic religious practice. We may even have family members who, by marriage or some other circumstance, belong to and practice different Christian faiths and we have had opportunities to discuss the differences. But, here’s the point: we all know that “differences” exist but do we know the things that Christians hold in common? Those latter things are the building blocks for Christian unity.
Indeed, the Lord Jesus prayed at the Last Supper for his Apostles and those who would come to believe in him through their word, “that they may be one.” But what did he mean? That they would be identical or the same? I don’t think so. Unity is not, as Pope Francis and other popes have pointed out, “uniformity” in everything. While Catholics adhere to one Truth, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of us all (Ephesians 4: 5),” even Catholics recognize differences that exist within the Church. When these internal differences impede true unity within the Catholic community, there should be cause for concern. “A house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3: 25).” How could Catholics then ever reasonably hope or pray for unity with other Christians, as Christ prayed?
This brief call to unity in Jesus’ prayer is an invitation to us to place our entire lives in his hands just as he placed his life in the Father’s hands. “That they may be one as we are one, as you Father are in me and I am in you.” Christians seek their salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, who reveals himself to them and who inspires in them the gift of believing, accepting and responding through his presence. That is the heart of Christian unity despite the variety of expressions we may find. And the consequence of faith in Christ? A life of active love in imitation of the Master. It is that love that “compels us” to bridge the differences that do exist and seek reconciliation, first with God and, then, with one another. That was the Lord Jesus’ prayer. And it should be our prayer this week and always until we are, indeed, one in the house of the Father.