This week (18-25 January) we observe the annual International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. You can read the message from Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Cardinal-President of The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity here. There are many resources available for our use throughout this week, including these from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This initial reflection on the Week is just that: a starting point. Much more remains to be developed. For now, let’s start at the beginning, which is quite simple yet profound: We Christians are already united — in a common baptism! Before getting into our differences, let’s start at our point of unity.
While some folks seem to get more than a little nervous about things like this, it is important to remember that our concern for unity goes all the way back to Christ himself:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17: 20-24)
This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s landmark document on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, which gave added impetus to Catholic participation in the effort. It is also the fiftieth anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras. Pope John XXIII, from the beginning of his papacy in 1958, had made Christian unity a goal. On 5 June 1960, during the early preparations for the Council, Pope John established a “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity” as one of the preparatory commissions for the Council, and appointed Cardinal Augustin Bea as its first President. This was the first time that the Holy See had set up an office to deal uniquely with ecumenical affairs.
[From the Vatican web site:] At first, the main function of the Secretariat was to invite the other Churches and World Communions to send observers to the Second Vatican Council. Already, however, from the first session (1962), by a decision of Pope John XXIII, it was placed on the same level as the conciliar commissions. The Secretariat thus prepared and presented to the Council the documents on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), on non-Christian religions (Nostra aetate), on religious liberty (Dignitatis humanae) and, together with the doctrinal commission, the dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum).
As a kind of introduction to the week’s prayer, consider some insights from the Council itself. From Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, we read the following:
15. The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. . . . We can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. (17*) Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth.
This week we stress that unceasing prayer for unity. But it also serves to remind us that we believe in the very real power of our common baptism, and that we already are in communion, even if it is not yet a perfect communion, with other baptized Christians. The Decree on Ecumenism builds on this idea:
3. . . . In subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church-whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church-do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. . . . But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.
Perhaps, during the coming week, we can begin our prayer by celebrating the common foundation we share. Our communion may be imperfect, but it is no less real. For example, a recent photo of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley being blessed by Methodist pastor Rev. Anne Robinson during an ecumenical prayer service has created quite a stir around the internet. Some people have been scandalized; others have questioned the Cardinal’s judgment, and still others have praised it. Even canonist Edward Peters had to weigh in to clarify concerns and allay some fears. Read his comments here. As he points out: “No canon or liturgical law prohibits baptized non-Catholics from making the Sign of the Cross nor from using Holy Water in accord with its character. Thus, one Christian making the Sign of the Cross on another Christian’s forehead (in explicit commemoration of one’s baptism or not) is simply something to be explained to those not used to seeing it performed by a female Protestant minister on a Catholic cardinal. . . .” In short, then, I think the image of this blessing of one Christian by another has really little to say about whether one is ordained or not; rather, it should be a powerful witness to all Christians of the common character of our shared baptism.
Certainly, many things still divide Christians. But if we can start from a common foundation, future steps toward full communion seem far more achievable.