National Catholic Register


Prayer Is at the Heart of Ecumenism

Weekly General Audience January 23, 2008

BY The Editors

February 3-9, 2008 Issue | Posted 1/29/08 at 12:56 PM


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.

Historical Roots

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 5:17).

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 us all.

Common Prayer

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 other?

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 unity.

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