Print Edition: March 8, 2015
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Pope Benedict XVI weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
During his general audience on Jan. 23, which took place
during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Benedict XVI commemorated
the 100th anniversary of this annual celebration. He emphasized the theme for
the week, “Pray Always.”
The Holy Father encouraged all Christians to thank God for
the progress achieved thus far along the path of ecumenism and to persevere as
they strive toward unity so that “the world may believe” that Jesus is the only
Son sent by the Father.
Dear brothers and sisters,
We are currently celebrating the Week of Prayer for
Christian Unity, which ends Jan. 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
the Apostle. Christians from the various Churches and ecclesial communities
join together in a chorus of prayer during this time to ask the Lord Jesus to
restore full unity among all his disciples.
With one soul and heart, they pray together in response to a
desire what the Redeemer himself expressed when he prayed to the Father at the
Last Supper and said, “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will
believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father,
are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe
that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).
By praying for the gift of unity, Christians join in
Christ’s very own prayer and make a commitment to actively work so that all
mankind will welcome and acknowledge Christ as the one Shepherd and only Lord
and so can experience the joy of his love.
This year the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity acquires a
special value and meaning because we commemorate the 100th anniversary of its
inception. This concept, which began in 1908, has truly borne fruit.
Rev. Paul Wattson, an American Anglican who later entered
into communion with the Catholic Church and who founded the Society of the
Atonement (the Communities of Brothers and Sisters of the Atonement), together
with another Episcopalian, Rev. Spencer Jones, launched the prophetic idea of
an octave of prayer for unity among Christians. The archbishop of New York and
the papal nuncio responded favorably to the idea.
Then, in 1916, the call to pray for unity was extended to
the entire Catholic Church thanks to the intervention of my venerated
predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, in his papal brief Ad perpetuam rei memoriam (in
everlasting remembrance of the event).
In the meantime, this initiative stirred up a great deal of
interest, gradually began to take hold everywhere, over time perfected its
structure, and, thanks also to the contribution of Abbé Couturier (1936),
evolved in its development.
Later, when the prophetic winds of the Second Vatican
Council were blowing, the need for unity was felt with even greater urgency.
After the council sessions, the patient journey on the quest for full communion
among all Christians continued — an ecumenical journey that year after year
found one of its more significant and beneficial moments in the Week of Prayer
for Christian Unity.
One hundred years after the first appeal to pray together
for unity, this week of prayer has now become an established tradition,
preserving the spirit and the dates that Rev. Wattson chose at its beginning.
Indeed, he chose the dates because of their symbolic
meaning. According to the calendar in use at that time, Jan. 18 was the feast
of the Chair of St. Peter, the strong foundation and the sure guarantee for
unity among all God’s people, while the liturgy of Jan. 25 — then as now —
celebrates the conversion of St. Paul.
As we give thanks to the Lord for these 100 years of common
prayer and commitment among so many of Christ’s disciples, we remember with
gratitude the one who conceived this providential spiritual initiative, Rev.
Wattson, as well as all those who have promoted it and enriched it with their
contributions, to the point that it has become a legacy that all Christians
share in common.
The Impulse of Vatican II
As I was telling you earlier, the Second Vatican Council
devoted a great deal of attention to the topic of Christian unity, especially
in its Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) where, among other things,
the role and the importance of prayer for unity is strongly emphasized. Prayer,
as the council observed, is at the very heart of the entire ecumenical journey:
“This conversion of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private
prayers for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the
whole ecumenical movement” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 8).
Thanks specifically to this spiritual ecumenism — holiness
of life, conversion of heart, and private and public prayers — the common
pursuit of unity has made great strides over the past decades and has
diversified into multiple initiatives, from mutual knowledge to fraternal
contact among the members of various churches and ecclesial communities, from
increasingly friendly discussions to instances of collaboration in various
fields, and from theological dialogue to the search for concrete ways to
express communion and work together.
It is prayer that first and foremost has given and continues
to give life to this journey toward full communion among all Christians. The
theme for this year’s week of prayer is “Pray Without Ceasing” (1 Thessalonians
It is also an invitation that ceaselessly resounds in our
communities so that prayer may be the guiding light and strength for our
footsteps as we listen in an attitude of humility and docility to the Lord of
Secondly, the council emphasizes prayer in common, prayer
that Catholics and other Christians offer together to the one heavenly Father.
In this regard, the Decree on Ecumenism makes the following affirmation: “Such
prayers in common are certainly an effective means of imploring the grace of
unity” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 8).
Through prayer in common, Christian communities come
together before the Lord and, conscious of the contradictions that division
generates, show their resolve to obey the Lord’s will by entrusting themselves
to his omnipotent aid. The decree goes on to say that such prayers are “a true
expression of the ties which still bind Catholics to their separated brethren”
(Unitatis Redintegratio, 8).
Prayer in common is not, therefore, an act that is merely
voluntaristic or purely sociological, but an expression of the faith that
unites all of Christ’s disciples. Fruitful collaboration in this field has been
established over the years and, starting in 1968, the Secretariat for Christian
Unity, as it was known then — which later became the Pontifical Council for
Promoting Christian Unity — and the World Council of Churches have been
preparing aids for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which they spread
throughout the world in a joint effort, reaching areas that they would never
have reached working on their own.
The Decree on Ecumenism refers to prayer for unity at the
very end of the document: “The Council moreover professes its awareness that
human powers and capacities cannot achieve this holy objective — the
reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of
Christ. It is because of this that the Council rests all its hope on the prayer
of Christ for the Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 24).
It is the awareness of our human limitations that encourages
us to abandon ourselves trustfully into the hands of the Lord. We see that the
profound significance of this week of prayer is precisely in the fact that it
is firmly founded on the prayer of Christ, who continues to pray through his
Church that “they may all be one ... that the world may believe.” (John 17:21).
The Witness of Unity
Today we truly see the reality behind these words. The world
suffers from the absence of God and from God’s inaccessibility. It wishes to
know the face of God.
But how can men and women today know the face of God in the
face of Jesus Christ if we Christians are divided and if we are against the
Only in unity can we really show the face of God — the face
of Christ — to a world that has such need to see it. Moreover, it is also very
clear that we cannot achieve this unity through our own strategies, through our
dialogues and through everything else we do — all of which is necessary.
What we can achieve is a certain openness and capacity to welcome
this unity when the Lord grants it to us. This is the significance of prayer —
to open our hearts, to create in us the openness that opens the way to Christ.
In the liturgy of the ancient Church, after the homily, the
main celebrant — the bishop or priest presiding over the celebration — used to
say, “Conversi ad Dominum” (turn to the Lord). Then he and everybody else would
stand up and turn toward the East.
Everyone wanted to look toward Christ. It is only if we
experience conversion — only in this conversion to Christ and in looking
together at Christ — that we can we find the gift of unity.
We can say that it has been prayer for unity that has given
life to and has accompanied the various stages of the ecumenical movement,
especially since the Second Vatican Council.
During this period, the Catholic Church entered in contact
with the various Churches and church communities of the East and the West
through different forms of dialogue, confronting in each of them the
theological and historical issues that have risen over the centuries and have
become elements of division.
The Lord has ensured that these friendly relations have
worked to improve our mutual knowledge of each other and have strengthened our
communion with each other while giving us a clearer idea of the problems that
still exist and that cause division.
Today, during this week, we give thanks to God who has
sustained and guided the journey thus far — a fruitful journey that the Decree
on Ecumenism describes as being “fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit” that
“increases day by day” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1).
Pray Without Ceasing
My dear brothers and sisters, let us embrace the invitation
to “pray without ceasing” that the Apostle Paul extended to the early
Christians of Thessalonica, a community that he himself had founded.
Aware that dissent had broken out there, he implored them to
be patient with each other, to refrain from repaying evil with evil, to look
for the good in their midst as well as the good in everyone, and to be happy
whatever the circumstances — happy, because the Lord is near.
St. Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians can be a source of
inspiration for Christians in their ecumenical relationships today. Above all,
he says, “Be at peace among yourselves” and “Pray without ceasing, and in all
circumstances, give thanks” (see 1 Thessalonians 5:13-18).
Let us embrace this very compelling exhortation from the
Apostle Paul both to thank the Lord for the progress achieved in the ecumenical
movement and to plea for full unity. May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church,
enable all the disciples of her divine Son to live in peace and mutual charity
as true witnesses of reconciliation to the entire world and make the face of
God accessible in the face of Christ, who is God-with-us, the God of peace and
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