Pope Benedict XVI met with 8,000 people during his general audience on Jan. 18. Since the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began on that day, the Holy Father’s catechesis focused on the question of ecumenism.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Benedict noted, is “an important occasion to reflect on the tragedy of the division within the Christian community and to ask together with Jesus himself that ‘all may be one … that the world may believe.’” He pointed out that Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant believers around the world were united in prayer “in different forms, ways and times” throughout the entire week. As believers draw closer to God in prayer, he said, they will draw closer to one another and work more readily for the restoration of full communion. The common prayer of Christians is a powerful means of imploring the grace of unity since Jesus himself has promised that “if people on earth agree about anything … it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father” (Matthew 18:19).
“However, let us not limit ourselves to prayers of petition,” Pope Benedict cautioned. “We can also give thanks to the Lord for the new situation painstakingly created through ecumenical relations among Christians in their newfound brotherhood, for the strong bonds of solidarity that have been forged, for the growth in communion, and for the convergence that has occurred between the different dialogues — to varying degrees of course.” He pointed out that there are many reasons to give thanks even if there is still much to be done. “The future is before us,” he added.
The Holy Father concluded by recalling the words of Pope John Paul II, “who did so much and suffered so much for the matter of ecumenism,” in his encyclical Ut Unum Sunt: “An appreciation of how much God has already given is the condition which disposes us to receive those gifts still indispensable for bringing to completion the ecumenical work of unity.”
“Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father” (Matthew 18:19). Jesus’solemn assurance to his disciples also sustains us in our prayer. Today begins the now traditional Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an important occasion to reflect on the tragedy of the division within the Christian community and to ask together with Jesus himself that “all may be one … that the world may believe” (John 17:21). We do this here today, in harmony with a multitude of people throughout the world. Indeed, this prayer “for the unity of all” involves, in different forms, ways and times, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, united by their faith in Jesus Christ, the one Lord and Savior.
Pray for Unity
This prayer for unity is part of the central nucleus that the Second Vatican Council calls “the soul of the whole ecumenical movement” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 8), a nucleus that precisely includes public and private prayer, conversion of heart, and holiness of life.
Such a vision takes us to the core of the ecumenical problem, which is obedience to the Gospel in order to do God’s will with his help which is both necessary and effective. The council explained this to the faithful in a very explicit way: “For the closer their union with the Father, the Word and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love” (Ibid. 7).
Despite the lasting division, the elements that continue to unite Christians sustain the possibility of raising a common prayer to God. This communion in Christ upholds the whole ecumenical movement and points to the very goal of this quest for unity among all Christians in the Church of God. This distinguishes the ecumenical movement from all other initiatives of dialogue and contact with other religions and ideologies.
The Grace of Unity
The teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism was also very clear in this regard: “This movement toward unity is called ‘ecumenical.’Those belong to it who invoke the triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior” (Ibid. 1). The common prayer that takes place throughout the entire world particularly during this period and during Pentecost expresses, moreover, the desire for a common commitment to reestablish the full communion of all Christians. “Such prayers in common are certainly an effective means of obtaining the grace of unity” (Ibid. 8).
By affirming this, the Second Vatican Council is essentially interpreting what Jesus says to his disciples when he assures that if two people on earth agree to ask something of the Father who is in heaven, he will grant it “because” where two or three are gathered in his name, he is in their midst. After the resurrection, he assures them once again that he will be with them “always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The presence of Jesus in the community of disciples and in our prayer guarantees its effectiveness, so much so that he promises that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).
Give Thanks for Unity
However, let us not limit ourselves to prayers of petition. We can also give thanks to the Lord for the new situation painstakingly created through ecumenical relations among Christians in their newfound brotherhood, for the strong bonds of solidarity that have been forged, for the growth in communion, and for the convergence that has occurred between the different dialogues — to varying degrees of course. There are many reasons to give thanks, and if there is still much to be done and to hope for, let us not forget that God has given us much on the path to unity. For this reason, we are grateful to him for these gifts. The future is before us.
The Holy Father John Paul II, whom we fondly remember and who did so much and suffered so much for the matter of ecumenism, taught us in a very opportune way that “an appreciation of how much God has already given is the condition which disposes us to receive those gifts still indispensable for bringing to completion the ecumenical work of unity” (Ut Unum Sint, 41). Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us continue to pray so we may be aware that the sacred task of reestablishing Christian unity exceeds our poor human efforts and that unity is ultimately a gift from God.
of the Jan. 18 catechesis.
- February 5-11, 2006