The Church devoted a week at the end of January to prayer for Christian unity. It’s an annual observance that should remind us just how important ecumenism is. After all, there is no week of prayer devoted to issues that we personally might consider more urgent: defense of the family, war, or abortion.
But sometimes Christian unity can seem like a lofty but abstract goal. Sure, there are different Christian sects. We know that. It doesn’t bother us much.
That’s where Solomon comes in.
Throughout Christian tradition, the Church has been regarded as the mother of the people of God. Christ is born in every generation when the Church baptizes and adds members to the mystical body of Christ. What’s the attitude of a true mother?
Solomon was confronted by two mothers who lived in the same house. Both claimed to be the true mother of a baby, and both refused to allow the other to claim her rights. “Get me a sword,” said Solomon. “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other.”
The First Book of Kings (Chapter 3) tells what happened: “The woman whose son it was, in the anguish she felt for it, said to the king, ‘Please, my lord, give her the living child — please do not kill it!’ The other, however, said, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours. Divide it!’
“The king then answered, ‘Give the first one the living child! By no means kill it, for she is the mother.’”
When it comes to Christian unity, our recent series of articles by Jack Smith and Tim Drake show Pope Benedict XVI to share the disposition of a Church that is a true mother.
Benedict has said he “is prepared to do all that is in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism.”
Every pope “has his own style and brings to ecumenism his own personal conviction and experience,” Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Smith. But Benedict “truly feels the pain of a weakened witness by Christians before a world urgently in need of divine Truth and love.”
There are two hallmarks of the Holy Father’s approach to ecumenism.
The first is a focus, in love, on the truths of the faith. To win unity by compromising the truth would formalize the divisions in the Church, not end them. That’s why, before he became Pope Benedict, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the differences between Christians clear in Dominus Iesus.
As Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, put it, “Love without truth is dishonest.”
But, he added, “Truth without love can be cold and repelling.” Pope Benedict is a pope who wrote an encyclical on love, and so he stresses one truth in particular in ecumenism. Unity among different groups of Christians “is grounded in the supernatural reality of the one baptism that makes us all members of the one body of Christ,” the Holy Father said last at World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. “Among Christians, fraternity is not just a vague sentiment; nor is it a sign of indifference to truth.”
The second hallmark is the Pope’s approach to unity is “spiritual ecumenism” with a focus on the Holy Spirit.
“Pope Benedict never fails to remind us that unity is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Farrell said.
“Unity is a gift from God and a fruit of the work of his Spirit,” the Holy Father said in January. “For this reason, it is important to pray. The closer we grow to Christ and are transformed by his love, the closer we will grow to each other.”
Thus, the Church under Benedict is seeking new ways for Christians to join in prayer for the important gift of unity — and asking Catholics to include this intention with their regular prayers.
Benedict’s sense of urgency was demonstrated when he announced in his first public message as pope that he would “work without sparing energies for the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ.”
It’s no wonder he’s so insistent. The consequences of the sin of disunity surround us: A single Christian Church would be a powerful witness to the truth of the Gospel, which is that Christ came to form one united body of followers. When there are countless Christian churches, all claiming to be eq+ually valid, the Christian project begins to look like a failure and the Gospel looks less convincing.
Pope Benedict knows that dividing the Church is even worse than dividing a baby. And like the mother in the story, he’ll do anything to stop that from happening.