~translation via Papa Ratzinger Forum
Dear brothers and sisters,
We are celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which ends on Friday, January 25, feast of the conversion of the Apostle Paul.
Christians from various Churches and ecclesial communities are gathering together these days in a concerted invocation to ask the Lord Jesus for the re-establishment of full unity among all his disciples.
It is a concerted plea, made with one soul and one heart, responding to the desire of the Redeemer himself, who at the Last Supper, addressed the Father with these words: "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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" (Jn 17,20-21).
Asking for the grace of unity, Christians join themselves in the prayer of Christ himself and are committed to work actively so that all of mankind may welcome and recognize him as the only Shepherd and unique Lord, and thus experience the joy of his love.
This year, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity takes on a particular value and significance because it has been 100 years since it was first observed.
It began as a truly fertile intuition. In 1908, Fr. Paul Wattson, an American Anglican, who later entered the Catholic Church, founder of the Society of the Atonement (community of the Brothers and Sisters of Atonement), together with an Episcopalian, Fr. Spencer Jones, launched the prophetic idea of an octave of prayers for Christian unity. The idea was welcomed by the Archbishop of New York and the Apostolic Nuncio.
The appeal to pray for Christian unity was extended in 1916 to the entire Catholic Church, thanks to my predecessor Benedict XV, with the Papal Brief Ad perpetuam rei memoriam.
The initiative, which had meanwhile aroused not little interest, took hold progressively everywhere, and with time, developed its own structure, owing most of its evolution to the contributions of the Abbe Coutourier (1936).
Later, with the prophetic winds of Vatican-II, awareness grew even more of the urgency for Christian unity. The Conciliar sessions have been followed by a journey of patient quest for full communion among all Christians - an ecumenical journey which, from year to year, has found in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, one of its most defining and profitable moments.
A hundred years since the first appeal to pray together for unity, this Week of Prayer has been consolidated into a tradition, conserving the spirit as well as the dates chosen at the beginning by Fr. Wattson.
In fact, he chose the dates for their symbolic character. In the liturgical calendar at the time, January 18 was the feast of Peter's Chair, which is the firm foundation and sure guarantee of unity among the entire People of God, while on January 25, then as now, the liturgy celebrates the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.
While we give thanks to the Lord for these 100 years of prayer and common commitment among so many disciples of Christ, let us remember with gratitude the man who conceived this providential spiritual initiative, Fr. Wattson, and together with him, all those who have promoted and enriched the practice with their contributions, making it a common patrimony for all Christians.
Recently, I recalled that Vatican-II had dedicated great attention to the issue of Christian unity, especially with its decree on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), which, among others, underscored forcefully the role and the importance of praying for unity.
Prayer, the Council noted, is at the very heart of the ecumenical journey. "This conversion of the heart and this sanctity of living, together with private and public prayers for the unity of Christians, should be considered the soul of the entire ecumenical movement" (UR,8).
Thanks, in fact, to this spiritual ecumenism - sanctity of living, conversion of the heart, private and public prayers - the common quest for unity has registered in the past decades a great development, diversified in multiple initiatives: from reciprocal recognition to fraternal contacts among the members of the various Churches and ecclesial communities, with ever more friendly conversations and collaboration in various fields, and theological dialog in search of concrete forms of communion and collaboration.
But what has animated and continues to give life to this journey towards full communion among all Christians is prayer above all.
"Pray without ceasing" (1 Thes 5,17) is the theme of the Week this year. It is also the invitation that never ceases to echo in our communities, so that prayer may be light, strength, and orientation for our steps, in an attitude of humble and obedient listening to our one Lord.
In the second place, Vatican-II placed emphasis on common prayer, that which is jointly raised by Catholics and other Christians to our one heavenly Father. The decree on ecumenism says in this regard: "These prayers offered in common are doubtless a very effective means to beseech for Christian unity" (UR, 8).
And this is because, in praying together, the Christian communities place themselves together before the Lord, and aware of the contradictions generated by the divisions among them, they manifest the will to obey his will in having recourse to his omnipotent help. The decree adds that such prayers are "a genuine manifestation of the links with which Catholics continue to be joined to their separated brothers" (ibid.)
Praying together is therefore not a voluntaristic or purely sociologic act, but an expression of the faith that unites all the disciples of Christ.
In the course of years, a fecund collaboration has been established in this field, and since 1968, the former Secretariat for Christian Unity, which became the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Unity among Christians, and the Ecumenical Council of Churches have been raising together funding for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, to be spread jointly around the world to help zones which would never be able to do it on their own.
The Conciliar decree on ecumenism refers to the prayer for unity towards the end when it affirms that the Council is aware that "this holy proposition to reconcile all Christians in the unity of the Church of Christ, the one and only, surpasses all human forces and gifts. Therefore, it places all its hope in the Christ's prayer for the Church" (Ur 24).
It is this awareness of our human limitations which impels us to trustful abandon in the hands of the Lord. The profound sense of this Week of Prayer is precisely that of relying firmly on the prayer of Christ, that in his Church, everyone continues to pray that "all may be one ... so that the world may believe.." (Jn 17,21).
Today we feel very strongly the realism of these words. The world suffers from the absence of God, for the inaccessibility of God, it has a desire to know the face of God. But could men today know this face of God in the face of Jesus Christ if we Christians are divided, if we preach against one another, if we are against each other?
Only in unity can we truly show this world - which needs it - the face of God, the face of Christ.
It is also evident that we will not obtain this unity with our own strategies, with dialog and all that we do - even if all that is necessary. What we can obtain is our willingness and ability to welcome this unity when the Lord grants it. And that is the sense of praying: to open our hearts, to create in us that availability which opens the way to Christ.
In the liturgy of the early Church, after the homily, the Bishop or the principal celebrant would say: Conversi ad Dominum - turn to the Lord. Upon which he himself and everyone else would stand up and 'face East'. Everyone facing towards Christ. Only if we convert, only if we turn towards Christ, in this common looking to Christ, can we find the gift of unity.
We can say that it was the prayer for unity that animated and accompanied the various stages of the ecumenical movement, especially since Vatican-II. In this time, the Catholic Church has entered in contact with the various Churches and ecclesial communities of the East and the West through different forms of dialog, facing with each of them those theological and historical problems that emerged in the course of centuries and had become established as elements of division.
Indeed, the Lord has granted that such friendly relations have improved our reciprocal knowledge and intensified communion, while at the same time, clarifying the perception of the problems which remain open and which foment division.
During this Week, let us give thanks to God who has supported and illumined the path we have taken so far, a fecund undertaking that the conciliar decree on ecumenism says "emerged by the grace of the Holy Spirit" and "growing more ample every day" (UR 1).
Dear brothers and sisters, let us welcome the invitation to 'pray without ceasing' that the Apostle Paul addressed to the first Christians of Thessalonia, a community that he himself had founded. Precisely because he was aware that dissensions had arisen, he wanted to ask them to be patient with everyone, to guard against answering evil with evil, instead looking always for what is good among them and in everyone, remaining joyful in very circumstance, joyful because the Lord is near.
May the advice from St. Paul to the Thessalonians inspire today the behavior of Christians in the field of ecumenical relations. Above all, he told them: "Live in peace among yourselves" and then, "Pray without ceasing, and in all circumstances, give thanks" (cfr 1 Thes 5,13-18).
Let us ourselves welcome this urgent exhortation by the Apostle, both to thank the Lord for the progress that has been achieved in the ecumenical movement, and to implore him for full unity.
May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, obtain for all the disciples of her divine Son that they may live together in peace and reciprocal charity as before, in order to render a convincing testimony of reconciliation before the entire world, to make the face of God accessible in the face of Christ, who is God-with-us, the God of peace and unity.