Dear brothers and sisters,
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 17:21).
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, 24).
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 the theme.
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 today.
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, 1).
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 life.
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 Christ.
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 day” (ibid.).
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 communion.
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 being united.
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 this week.