You’re Invited!

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.

icon_holyapostlesThe 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.

Does Reunion Include Dissolution?

Vatican IIThe Second Vatican Council met in the autumn months between 1962 and 1965. Therefore, some fiftieth anniversaries have already come and gone: the Council’s opening, the death of Pope St. John XXIII, and the election of Paul VI. Saint Joseph’s College has contributed its own recognition. This year and next, though, will mark the real fiftieth anniversaries—the passing of conciliar documents like Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. When you hear or read somebody comment “Vatican II revolutionized the Church,” these documents provide the sparks for that change. We do not suffer a shortage of accounts detailing the changes of Vatican II and their impact throughout the Church. As many of us know, conciliar enthusiasm has not swept everybody off their feet. Perhaps that is why these fiftieth anniversaries of the Council are so important. We are still, as Peter Huff has said, “on the sacred mountain,” seeking to make sense of the Council and its legacy.

Another conciliar document witnessing its golden anniversary this November is Unitatis Redintegratio, the Council’s decree on ecumenism. St. John’s Gospel includes Christ’s prayer to the Father that all His followers may be one, just as He and the Father are one (17:21). So, after the Church’s self-assessment (Lumen Gentium) but before turning its attention to the modern world, the Council duly considered the readily evident fact that Christianity stood torn asunder, represented by many churches instead of one, true, unified Church. Addressing and correcting this sad reality figured among Pope St. John XXIII’s inspiration for the Council. While he did not live to see its promulgation, Unitatis Redintegratio aptly addressed Pope John’s hope.   Non-Catholic Christians were recognized as possessing some, but not all, elements of the Gospel (#3). Furthermore, the Catholic faithful—lay and clergy—are called to “recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part” in ecumenical work (#4). Honestly studying the beliefs of other Christians is no longer the purview of a specialized academic few, but now expected of everybody (#9).

Each conciliar document poses so many questions and new avenues of discovery, and Unitatis Redintegratio does not disappoint. A simple one might be: Do we thus give up everything for the Council’s vision? Out with the old, in with the new? Within twenty years of the Council’s conclusion some Catholic theologians called for a complete reorganization of the Church’s perception of itself and other churches and religious traditions. From now on, the argument went, being truly Christian meant de-emphasizing uniquely Christian elements and eschewing many proudly Catholic expressions. So it seemed that Roman Catholic Christian renewal involved dissolving oneself, or at least one’s ecclesiology and theology.

True to form, though, Unitatis Redintegratio contains answers to the very questions it has prompted. The Council fathers made very clear that while common prayer might foster unity, common worship services could often give the wrong impression. Catholics should remain Catholic, while Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals attended their own affairs (#8). Common concerns such as feeding the poor and serving those afflicted by disaster, though, demonstrated to the world that unity for which Christ had prayed (#12). Finally, almost twenty years ago Pope St. John Paul II addressed the Council’s call to ecumenical dialogue. The papacy, so long a visible obstacle to Protestants, still could serve the pursuit of unity. Some critics seemed dismayed that Catholic intransigence had, once again, reared its ugly head. But John Paul’s reaffirmation of the Council should not have surprised many. Unitatis itself had declared: “Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (#6). That call included the realization that God alone can bring about true Christian unity (#24). Therefore, the road to reunion runs right through the heart of the Church itself.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.