"Commitment to ecumenism responds to the prayer of the Lord Jesus that 'they may all be one' (Jn 17:21). The credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize 'the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her' We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 244).
Over the nine years that I was at St. Jude Shrine in Baltimore, Maryland, I had the opportunity to participate in and then to host an annual prayer service for Christian Unity. It became a very popular celebration and leaders from various Christian communities participated, including the Archbishop of Baltimore. To me, though, the most important people who participated were the people who went week to week to their faith communities in various parts of Baltimore, but never had the opportunity to pray together with Christians from other communities. Prayer is powerful and to underestimate its power to unite us leaves us lacking in the virtue of hope. Such hope is not naïve, but is based on firm trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.
The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will begin on Saturday, January 18th and conclude on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25th. Year after year, Christians are invited to pray that “they may be one.” St. Vincent Pallotti, patron of the Catholic Apostolate Center and founder of the Union of Catholic Apostolate, worked diligently for unity in the Church, using the liturgical Octave of the Epiphany in Rome as a means to unite in prayer members of the Eastern and Western traditions of the Catholic community who were rather disconnected from one another. This celebration was held in the city of Rome from 1836 until 1968. His feast day, on January 22nd, is in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Collaboration of all Christians can lead us toward Pallotti’s vision, hope, and prayer that one day we may be “one fold, under one Shepherd, Jesus Christ” (Cf., Jn 10:16)
Since our mission as the Catholic Apostolate Center is derived from the charism of St. Vincent Pallotti, who fervently prayed for such a day, we invite you to pray not only individually, but draw other Christians together in prayer. Prayer, though, is not the only thing that we can do. We can learn more about what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about the needed work for building unity among Christians. We invite you to explore the many resources that we have on our new Christian Unity page. May we also take up the call of the Catholic Church spanning from the time of the Second Vatican Council to the appeal of Pope Francis today:
"The search for unity among Christians is an urgent task... We are well aware that unity is primarily a gift from God for which we must pray without ceasing, but we all have the task of preparing the conditions, cultivating the ground of our hearts, so that this great grace may be received" (Address to the Delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, June 28, 2013).
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Every family gathering, I look forward to catching up with my relatives over good food, interesting stories, and lively table talk. Inevitably in my family, the conversation transitions to religion. It’s a heated discussion given that my immediate family is Catholic, whereas the rest (on my mother’s side) is Coptic Orthodox. From then on, our respective faith traditions are more or less pitted against each other as theological matters are analyzed and debated. Of course recognizing that at the core we are Christians united to our Lord through our baptism, we continue to respect each other’s beliefs (cf. Galatians 3:27). We still pray and hope for unification, too, though there are disagreements among us as to how this might occur. In any case, these opportunities to evangelize are enjoyable, as each of us advocates for the faith that has shaped our lives and beings.
“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” This first sentence of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism is still surprising to many Catholics. It set the stage for the last fifty years of Catholic dialogue and conversation with our Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican brothers and sisters in the Faith. The Decree gives “Catholic Principles on Ecumenism.” Even Jesus, at the Last Supper, prayed for unity, that His disciples be one (see John 17:21). Ultimately, Christian unity is God’s will and the work of the Holy Spirit rather than solely our own. The Decree nevertheless urges all Catholics to participate in the noble work of Christian unity (#4). This work— our conversation, dialogue, and service with others— calls for complete honesty. We must represent the position of others with truth and fairness and never be dismissive or ignorant of the other traditions. By not pointing fingers and recognizing that any blame for schisms in the Church is shared by all, a heartfelt and meaningful dialogue can be achieved.
Ecumenical dialogue, rather than making us less Catholic, makes us more so. By searching within our own faith, we are made aware of the commonalities that we share with our fellow Christians. As for the divergences that we also discover in doing so, it is the Holy Spirit who will help us to overcome them; ecumenical conversation leads us back to prayer: “This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism’” (#8). To engage others, then, a spirit of humility, honesty, patience, and gentleness is needed. After all, the Church is stronger when its members are open to and inclusive of all traditions. How can the Church, being commissioned to spread the Truth to all, fully honor her call if she does not communicate well with fellow Christians (see Matthew 28:19-20, cf. 1 Corinthians 10-15)?
Though we may not agree on every theological point, Christians of all traditions continue to work towards the unification and the strengthening of Christ’s body (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). We worship the same Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sacrificed Himself for all without distinction. We answer the same call to evangelize and offer ourselves in loving service to all. The holy sacrifice of the Mass offered and the reception of the sacraments by Christians each day are the same gifts and sources of grace from God. And the ultimate witness of martyrs for their belief in Christ across the world and time further lead us on the road to unity. The Church continues to face uncertain times, just as she always has; Christ, likewise, remains steadfast in His promise to stand by her (see Matthew 16:18, John 16:33).
Thomas Wong is an undergraduate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
This week (January 18-25) is the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We are invited to pray for the unity of the Christian Family. Celebrated for more than 100 years, unity is more than just an ideal, for the Christian it is an obligation to be carried out in prayer and in shared commitment to building the kingdom of God.
The roots of praying for unity are fixed in Jesus’ prayer, near the time of his death, “… 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 17:21). The Catholic Church’s participation in ecumenical endeavors took new shape in the Second Vatican’s Council’s commitment to build stronger ties across Christian communities. Building on the work of the Council, St. John Paul II called the church to make unity an exercise of spiritual ecumenism, noting that the disunity of Christians weakens the credibility of the Gospel.
In an address to the church in Oceania he reflected “In the work of ecumenism, it is essential that Catholics be more knowledgeable about the Church’s doctrine, her tradition and history, so that in understanding their faith more deeply they will be better able to engage in ecumenical dialogue and cooperation. There is a need too for ‘spiritual ecumenism’, by which is meant an ecumenism of prayer and conversion of heart. Ecumenical prayer will lead to a sharing of life and service where Christians do as much together as is possible at this time. ‘Spiritual ecumenism’ can also lead to doctrinal dialogue or its consolidation where it already exists” (Ecclesia in Oceania, 23).
This reflection of St. John Paul echoes in the theme for this year’s celebration which is “Give me a drink.” Taken from John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), it emphasizes the importance of encountering one another in dialogue and celebrating that all Christians drink from the common well of the life-giving waters of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In our encounter with Christians, in our dialogue, in our shared ministry of charity we learn the richness of one another’s tradition and we more easily see ourselves through the eyes of Jesus; who we are and who we can become. In the Decree on Ecumenism, written at the Second Vatican Council, the unity that can be found in Christ magnifies the invitation of this year’s celebration to drink of the water Our Lord has to offer.
Before the whole world let all Christians confess their faith in the triune God, one and three in the incarnate Son of God, our Redeemer and Lord. United in their efforts, and with mutual respect, let them bear witness to our common hope which does not play us false. In these days when cooperation in social matters is so widespread, all men without exception are called to work together, with much greater reason all those who believe in God, but most of all, all Christians in that they bear the name of Christ. Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses the relationship which in fact already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant….All believers in Christ can, through this cooperation, be led to acquire a better knowledge and appreciation of one another, and so pave the way to Christian unity.
Decree on Ecumenism, 12
Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is also an adviser to the Catholic Apostolate Center.
If you would like to know more about Christian Unity, please see our resource page!