How to Pray for Christian Unity

COMMENTARY: It’s worthwhile, after another Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, to ask why no one seems to talk as if our beliefs matter anymore.

Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumencial Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I raise their clasped hands at the balcony of the Patriarcal Church of St. George, Nov. 30, 2006, in Istanbul.
Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumencial Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I raise their clasped hands at the balcony of the Patriarcal Church of St. George, Nov. 30, 2006, in Istanbul. (photo: PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a hair-raising prayer, to modern minds. Just rude. Like telling someone that you love and respect him and then telling him he smells bad and he has a 3-year-old’s dress sense and his jokes aren’t funny, and, worse, he’s basically wrong about everything — but otherwise he’s okay. You will not be surprised if he doesn’t believe you when you finish by saying again that you love and respect him. 

I mean a prayer written by Pope Pius IX, published in 1868. He titled it, straightforwardly, “Prayer for the Conversion of Heretics and Schismatics.”

It beseeches Mary as “mother of mercy and refuge of sinners” to “look with pitying eyes on the heretical and schismatical nations,” to “illumine their minds, wretchedly involved in the darkness of ignorance and sin, that they may know the Holy Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church as the only true Church of Jesus Christ, out[side] of which no sanctity or salvation can be found.” 

The prayer’s a good deal more elaborate and detailed than any prayer we’re likely to hear these days. It closes with the plea that Mary will “complete their conversion by obtaining for them the grace to believe every truth of our holy faith, and to submit to the Sovereign Roman Pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth, and though, being soon united to us by the bonds of divine charity, they may make with us but one fold under one and the same pastor.” Then “we may thus, O glorious Virgin! all sing exultantly forever: ‘Rejoice, O Virgin Mary! Thou alone has destroyed all heresies in the world.’”

Those saying the prayer were to follow it with three Hail Marys. Catholics who said this prayer with a Hail Mary three times earned an indulgence of 300 days.

Pius wasn’t done. Six months later, he published a similar prayer for the “Conversion of the Greek Schismatics” (“Greek” meaning Orthodox). It mentions, rather elegantly, the ways in which the Orthodox have erred: the filioque, for one, in which we say in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Son as well as the Father, to which the Orthodox object; the papacy and its “infallible guidance,” for another. Pius calls them “our separated brethren” and prays that they may “re-enter” the Church. 

Saying it earned the same grant as saying the first prayer. A Catholic could also earn a plenary indulgence once a month by visiting a church or public oratory and praying “for peace and union among Christian princes, for the extirpation of heresy, and for the triumph of holy Mother Church.”


No One Talks Like That

Not many Catholics talk like that anymore. Modernize the writing and put it on your Facebook page, and some of your most devout Catholic friends will tell you to take it down and tell you it’s uncharitable and unkind and perhaps that it’s un-Catholic. It’s worthwhile, after another Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, to ask why no one talks that way anymore — and whether we should. 

The typical Catholic attitude to Christian unity looks more to fellowship and common action than to actual ecclesial unity. Few mention the concern with real union that both Pius IX and the bishops of the Second Vatican Council had. This year’s prayer seems to have given up on the idea of Christian unity. It asks that Christians live in solidarity with the poor and that we “hold a special place in our hearts” for the Christians of the Holy Land. (To be honest, I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean.)

The Church’s general approach to these things now is more affirming and generous and much less critical than it was. That bothers some Catholics, who feel or fear that it expresses a lack of confidence in the Church and her claims. In some cases, it probably does.

But generosity isn’t laxity. Affirmation is not (complete) approval. Not throwing a punch isn’t passivity. These alone don’t suggest a lack of confidence. Affirmation and generosity can express confidence. I think we naturally express such confidence when other factors encouraging division are removed.


A Bit of a Loss

Still, I think dropping the kind of prayer Pius offered is a loss. But then I’d be pleased to know that my Protestant friends were saying a version of the prayer in the other direction, as I explained here. If they think they know something important we don’t, they ought to ask God to make sure we find it out. That’s what friends do. 

Christians should pray as concretely and specifically as possible. I expect my evangelical Protestant friend not to pray in a generic way that I see the truth, but that “God free him from the idolatrous delusion of worshipping that piece of bread in the tabernacle,” or that “he stop pointlessly turning to Mary and the saints as intercessors,” or that “he reject the pernicious idea of purgatory.”

That kind of prayer makes me feel seen. They’ve looked at me carefully, and lovingly, and said, “This is what he needs.” And I should pray in the same way for them. I need to look at them carefully and lovingly so that I know what they need. This kind of prayer may look like a fight, but it’s more like two people trying to drag the other away from the edge of a precipice the other doesn’t see.

As the Second Vatican Council’s Unitatis Redintegratio says, speaking of “Our separated brethren”: “It is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is ‘the all-embracing means of salvation,’ that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God.” (The emphases are mine.)

These are people I know and like a great deal, and many of them I respect and admire a great deal, like the Southern Baptist evangelist James Robison and the Evangelical patriarch J.I. Packer, whom I knew for more than 40 years. Liking and respecting them isn’t a reason not to hope they come to know better than they do and that they enter the Catholic Church. The liking and the respect impel me to hope and pray that they see what they do not see now. They impel me to pray something like Pius’ prayers.