Work and Prayer for Christian Unity

Weekly General Audience January 21, 2009

During his general audience on Jan. 21, which took place during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians around the world to pray and work for full unity among Christ’s disciples. This week, he emphasized, offers numerous occasions for Christians to thank God for all he has done and continues to do to bring Christians closer to one another. The Holy Father urged all Christians to listen more attentively to God’s word, to grow deeper in prayer, and to intensify ecumenical dialogue in an effort to imitate St. Paul’s example of a life completely devoted to the Lord and to the unity of his body, the Church.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Last Sunday we began the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which will end on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. It is a wonderful spiritual initiative that is spreading more and more among Christians, in harmony with and, we might say, in response to Jesus’ pressing words addressed to the Father in the Upper Room before his passion: “… that they may all be one … that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).

Four times in this priestly prayer, the Lord prays that his disciples may be “one,” in the image of the unity between the Father and the Son.

It is a unity that can grow only when based on the example of the Son’s surrender to the Father; in other words, by setting aside our own desires and uniting ourselves to Christ.

Moreover, during this prayer, Jesus twice adds, as the purpose of unity: “that the world may believe.”

The Gift of Unity

Full unity, therefore, is linked to the very life and mission of the Church in the world.

The Church has to experience a unity that can only come from its unity with Christ — with its transcendence — as a sign that Christ is the truth. This is our responsibility: to see that the gift of unity is visible to the world, thereby making our faith truly credible.

For this reason, it is important for every Christian community to be aware of the urgent need to work through every possible means to achieve this great objective.

Aware that unity is, above all, a “gift” from the Lord, we must ask for it unceasingly and trustfully in prayer. It is only by setting aside our own concerns and turning to Christ — it is only in this relationship with him — that we can truly be united among ourselves.

During this Week of Prayer, this is the invitation that is directed to believers in Christ from every Church and every ecclesial community. Let us respond generously to it, dear brothers and sisters!

The Prophet Ezekiel

This year the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity proposes that we meditate and pray on the following words from the book of the prophet Ezekiel: “that they may become one in your hand” (Ezekiel 37:17).

This theme was chosen by an ecumenical group in Korea and reviewed for use by the general public throughout the world by the Mixed Committee for Prayer, comprised of representatives from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and from the World Council of Churches in Geneva. The process of preparation was in itself a very fruitful and stimulating exercise in true ecumenism.

In the passage from Ezekiel from which this theme is taken, the Lord orders the prophet to take two sticks — one a symbol of Judah and his tribes and the other a symbol of Joseph and of the entire house of Israel associated with him — and join them together so that they form “one stick” in his hand. The parable of unity is clearly visible.

When his countrymen ask him for an explanation, Ezekiel, enlightened by God on high, tells them that the Lord himself is taking the two sticks and joining them together so that the two kingdoms and their respective tribes, though divided among themselves, “shall be one in his hand.”

The hand of the prophet, which joins the sticks together, is like the hand of God himself, which gathers together and unites his people and, in due time, all of mankind.

We can apply the prophet’s words to the Christian people as an exhortation to pray and to work, doing everything possible to bring about unity among all of Christ’s disciples so that our hands may be instruments of God’s unifying hand.

This exhortation becomes particularly moving and takes on urgency in Jesus’ words after the Last Supper.

The Lord wishes all his people to proceed — he sees in this the Church of the future, of future centuries — with patience and perseverance towards the goal of full unity. Such a commitment requires humble adherence and docile obedience to this command from the Lord, who will bless it and make it fruitful.

The prophet Ezekiel assures us that it is the Lord, our only Lord and the one God, who will gather us together “in his hand.”

In the second part of this reading from the Bible, the meaning and the conditions for the unity among the various tribes in just one kingdom are presented in greater depth.

Scattered among the Gentiles, the Israelites had become acquainted with false religions, assimilated erroneous concepts of life and acquired customs that were foreign to God’s Law. Now the Lord declares that they will no longer be defiled by the idols of pagan nations, by their abominations and by all their transgressions.

He reminds them that they need to be free from sin and purify their hearts: “I will deliver them from all their sins of apostasy,” he says “and cleanse them so that they may be my people and I may be their God” (Ezekiel 37:23).

Through such a process of inner renewal, they will “live by my statutes and carefully observe my decrees.” This prophetic text concludes with a promise of salvation that is unconditional and complete: “I will make with them a covenant of peace … and put my sanctuary among them forever” (Ezekiel 37:26).

The Need for Openness

Ezekiel’s vision has particular significance for the entire ecumenical movement because it highlights the vital need for genuine interior renewal among all members of the people of God, a renewal which only the Lord can bring about.

We, too, need to be open to this renewal, because we, too, dispersed among the peoples of the world, have learned customs that are far removed from God’s word: “Every renewal of the Church,” the Decree on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council tells us, “is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling.

Undoubtedly, this is the basis of the movement toward unity” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 6); that is, greater fidelity to God’s call.

The decree also emphasizes the interior dimension of conversion of the heart. “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name,” it goes on to say, “without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 7).

Thus, in this way, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity becomes for all of us a stimulus for sincere conversion, growing docility to listening to God’s word, and to an ever deeper faith.

The week is also a good occasion to thank the Lord for all he has already done “to join” us together — Christians who are divided, along with our Churches and our church communities.

This spirit has inspired the Catholic Church, which, during the past year, has pressed on with a strong conviction and deep-rooted hope in maintaining friendly and respectful relationships with all the Churches and ecclesial communities of the East and West.

In various situations — some more positive and some more challenging — it has made a concerted effort to never waiver in its commitment to implement every effort that might lead to the restoration of full unity.

Relationships between the Churches and theological dialogues have continued to give encouraging signs of spiritual convergence. I myself have had the joy of meeting, both here in the Vatican and in the course of my apostolic trips, Christians from every corner of the globe.

Ecumenical Initiatives

On three occasions, I have been able to welcome with joy the Ecumenical Patriarch, His Holiness Bartholomew I. During the recent assembly of the Synod of Bishops, we listened to him speak to us — an extraordinary event — with fraternal and ecclesial warmth, as well as a deep conviction and trust in the future. I have had the pleasure of welcoming the two Catholicoi of the Armenian Apostolic Church, His Holiness Karekin II of Etchmiadzin and His Holiness Aram I of Antelias. Finally, I have shared the sorrow of the Patriarchate of Moscow at the passing of our beloved brother in Christ, His Holiness the Patriarch Alexy II, and I continue to be united in prayer with our brothers as they prepare to elect a new patriarch of their great and venerable Orthodox Church.

Likewise, I have had the chance to meet with representatives of the various Christian denominations of the West, with whom I continue to consider the important witness Christians are called to give today as part of a concerted effort in a world ever more divided and facing so many cultural, social, economic and ethical challenges.

For these and for so many other meetings, dialogues and fraternal gestures that the Lord has allowed us to experience, let us give thanks to him together with joy.

Pray for Unity

Dear brothers and sisters, let us take advantage of the opportunity that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity offers us to ask the Lord for the continuation and, if possible, the intensification of this ecumenical commitment and dialogue.

Within the context of the Year of St. Paul, which commemorates the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul, we must not fail to imitate everything that the Apostle Paul left us in his writings regarding the unity of the Church.

Every Wednesday, I have been devoting my reflections to his letters and to his priceless teachings. I would like to simply repeat here once again what he wrote to the community of Ephesus: “One body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-5).

Let us make St. Paul’s longing our own. He spent his life entirely for the one Lord and for the unity of his mystical body, the Church, and through his martyrdom, gave a supreme witness of faithfulness and love for Christ.

Following his example and counting on his intercession, may each community grow in its commitment to unity, thanks to the various spiritual and pastoral initiatives and the gatherings for common prayer that are becoming more numerous and more frequent during this Week of Prayer, thereby giving us, in a certain way, a foretaste of the day of full unity.

Let us pray that the dialogue in truth, which is indispensable for resolving differences, as well as the dialogue in love, upon which theological dialogue depends and which helps us to live together in a common witness, may continue among the Churches and ecclesial communities.

The desire that dwells in our hearts is that the day of full communion may come soon, when all the disciples of our one and only Lord may finally celebrate the Eucharist together, the divine sacrifice for the life and salvation of the world.

Let us call upon Mary’s maternal intercession so that she may help all Christians to cultivate a greater attentiveness to God’s word and a more intense prayer for unity.

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