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Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
We are in the middle of the Week of
Prayer for Christian Unity, an ecumenical initiative that has been in the
making for over a century now.
Every year it draws our attention to
this topic: the visible unity among Christians, which stimulates the conscience
and the commitment of every believer in Christ.
It does this, above all, through an
invitation to prayer in imitation of Jesus himself, who prayed to the Father
that his disciples “may all be one … so that the world may believe” (John
This persistent call to prayer for
full communion among the Lord’s followers shows us the most genuine and most
profound orientation of the whole ecumenical quest, because unity is, first and
foremost, a gift from God.
In fact, as the Second Vatican
Council affirms, “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” (Unitatis Redintegratio,
Witnesses of Christ
This year’s theme is taken from the
final words of the risen Lord to his disciples in the Gospel of St. Luke: “You
are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). The Pontifical Council for
Promoting Christian Unity, in agreement with the Faith and Order Commission of
the World Council of Churches, asked an ecumenical group in Scotland to propose
One hundred years ago, the World
Mission Conference, which considered some problems related to the non-Christian
world, took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 13-24, 1910.
Among the problems discussed at that
time was the objective difficulty of proclaiming the Gospel in a credible way
to the non-Christian world by Christians who themselves were divided.
If Christians are seen to be divided
and often opposed to each other, how can they credibly proclaim Christ as the
one Savior of the world and as our peace to a world that does not know Christ,
that has distanced itself from him, or that shows indifference to the Gospel?
Ever since, the relationship between
unity and mission has been a key dimension of the whole ecumenical effort as
well as its point of departure. Because of that specific contribution, the
Edinburgh Conference remains a reference point for the ecumenical movement
During the Second Vatican Council,
the Catholic Church took up and vigorously reaffirmed this vision, stating that
division among Jesus’ disciples “openly contradicts the will of Christ,
scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to
every creature” (Unitatis Redintegratio,
The theme that has been proposed for
meditation and prayer during this week — the need for a common witness to
Christ — is situated within this theological and spiritual context. The brief
text that has been set forth as the theme — “You are witnesses of these things”
— needs to be read within the context of all of Chapter 24 of the Gospel of St.
Luke. Let us briefly recall the contents of this chapter.
First of all, the women go to the
tomb, they see the signs of Jesus’ resurrection, and they announce what they
have seen to the apostles and the other disciples (verse 8).
Later on, the risen Lord himself
appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He also appears to Simon Peter
and later appears to “the eleven and those with them” (verse 33). He opens
their minds to understand what Scripture said about his redeeming death and his
resurrection, stating that “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be
preached in his name to all the nations” (verse 47).
The risen Lord promises the gift of
the Holy Spirit to the disciples who were gathered together and who were
witnesses of his mission (verse 49), so that together they might give witness
of him to all the nations.
The command to tell “these things”
of which you are witnesses (Luke 24:48) — the theme of this week for Christian
unity — raises two questions: First of all, what are “these things”? And
secondly, how can we be witnesses of “these things”?
We can see from the context of this
chapter that “these things” refers above all to the cross and Resurrection. The
disciples were witnesses to Our Lord’s crucifixion, saw the risen Lord and thus
began to understand all the Scripture passages that spoke about the mystery of
the Passion and the gift of the Resurrection. Therefore, “these things” refers
to the mystery of Christ, the Son of God made man, who died for us and has
risen, who is alive forever and is our guarantee of eternal life.
By knowing Christ — and this is the
essential point — we know the face of God. Christ is first and foremost the
revelation of God.
The Body of Christ
This entails something else: Christ
is never alone. He came into our midst, and he was all alone when he died, but
he rose in order to draw everyone to himself.
Christ, as Scripture says, formed a
body, bringing together all of mankind in his immortal life. Thus, in Christ,
who brings together all of mankind, we can know mankind’s future: eternal life.
Ultimately, all these things become very simple: We get to know God by getting
to know Christ, his body, the mystery of the Church and the promise of eternal
This brings us to the second
question. How can we be witnesses of “these things”?
We can be witnesses only by getting
to know Christ and, by knowing Christ, knowing God, too. Of course, knowing
Christ involves an intellectual dimension — learning everything we can know
about Christ — yet it is always much more than an intellectual exercise. It is
an existential process, the process of opening up my very “self” — my
transformation through the presence and the strength of Christ — and thus also
a process of opening up my “self” to all others who should form the body of
Thus, it is clear that getting to
know Christ in a process that is intellectual and, above all, existential is a
process that makes us witnesses.
Teaching of the Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
also gives us a sign of what “these things” are. The Church has gathered
together and summed up the essentials of what Our Lord has given to us through
revelation in the Nicene Creed, which “draws its great authority from the fact
that it stems from the first two ecumenical councils (in 325 and 381)”
(Catechism, No. 195).
The Catechism points out that this
creed “remains common to all the great Churches of both East and West to this
Therefore, the truths of faith are
found in this creed, truths that Christians can profess and give witness to
together so that the world may believe, thereby manifesting, out of a desire
for and a commitment to overcoming existing differences, their will to journey
towards full communion, namely the unity of Christ’s body.
The Eastern Churches
Since the Second Vatican Council,
the Catholic Church has forged fraternal relationships with all the Churches of
the East and with the ecclesial communities of the West, especially by organizing
bilateral theological dialogues with most of them that have been able to find
points of convergence and even consensus on certain matters, thus strengthening
the bonds of communion.
Over the past year, these various
dialogues have made important progress. With the Orthodox Churches, the Joint
International Commission for Theological Dialogue, during its 11th plenary
session, held in Paphos, Cyprus, in October of 2009, initiated the study of a
critical theme in the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox: the role of the
bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium, that is,
during the time when Christians in East and West lived together in full
This study will now be extended to
the second millennium.
On numerous occasions, I have
already asked Catholics to pray for this dialogue, which is delicate yet
essential for the whole ecumenical movement.
In addition, the corresponding Joint
Commission for the ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Ethiopian,
Syrian and Armenian) met from Jan. 26-30 of the past year. These important
initiatives show that a dialogue that is deep and rich in hope is taking place
with all the Eastern Churches that are not in full communion with Rome, on
matters that are specific to each of them.
During the past year, we examined
the outcomes of the various dialogues over the past 40 years with ecclesial
communities of the West, particularly those with the Anglican Communion, the
Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the
World Methodist Council.
In this regard, the Pontifical
Council for Promoting Christian Unity undertook a study to clarify the points
where convergence has been attained in these bilateral dialogues, and to
indicate at the same time the remaining problems where a new phase of dialogue
needs to be opened.
Among recent events, I would like to
mention the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Joint Declaration on
the Doctrine of Justification, which Catholics and Lutherans celebrated
together on Oct. 31, 2009, in order to stimulate the continuation of the
dialogue, as well as the visit to Rome of Rowan Williams, the archbishop of
Canterbury, who discussed the Anglican Communion’s current situation. The joint
commitment to maintain relations and continue the dialogue is a positive sign —
an expression of how intense the desire for unity is — despite all the
obstacles that stand in the way.
Therefore, we see that, on the one
hand, we have our responsibility to do everything possible in order to arrive
at true unity, but on the other hand, there is God’s action, since only God can
give unity to the Church.
A “self-made” unity would be a human
unity. What we desire is God’s Church, the Church made by God, who will create
unity when he wills it and when we are ready for it.
We also need to keep in mind all the
real progress that has been achieved in collaboration and in our fraternal
relationships over all these years — over the past 50 years. At the same time,
we need to recognize that ecumenical work is not a linear process. Indeed, old
problems that arose in another age and another context lose their importance,
while new problems and difficulties arise in the present age.
For this reason, we must be always
open to a process of purification through which the Lord makes us capable of
Dear brothers and sisters, I ask
everyone to pray for the complex question of ecumenism, for the promotion of
dialogue, and that Christians of our time may give a new and shared witness of
faithfulness to Christ to this world of ours.
May the Lord hear our prayer and the
prayer of all Christians that we raise to him in a particularly intense way