Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ut Unum Sint

Last night, to mark the feast of the Conversion of St Paul and the end of the 100th annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Pope presided at an ecumenical Vespers in the Basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls:

[T]he celebration was made especially significant this year by the customary participation, at the basilica, of representatives from other Christian confessions, beginning with the secretary general of the World Council of Churches, Samuel Kobia. The presence of Reverend Kobia, as the pope recalled, also served to celebrate the 40 year span in which "the Christian communities of the entire world have received, for this week, meditations and prayers prepared jointly by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity".

Today's feast of the conversion of Saint Paul, in the words of Benedict XVI, should prompt reflection on the fact that the apostle himself, convinced that he had been converted by divine intervention and "always motivated by the profound conviction that all of his strength came from the grace of God working within him", exhorted Christians to pray constantly. "The words of the Apostle on the relationship between human effort and divine grace resound with a meaning all their own. At the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are all the more aware of how the work to restore unity, although it requires all of our energy and efforts, is still infinitely beyond our capacity. Unity with God and with our brothers and sisters is a gift that comes from Above". "It is not in our power to decide when or how this unity will be fully realised. Only God can do this!"

As the pope recalled in his address for the general audience last Wednesday, Paul's appeal to the Christians of Thessalonica, "pray without ceasing", gives "strength and consistency" to the exhortations contained in this same epistle, to "admonish the idle, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good for each other and for all. Rejoice always . . . In all circumstances give thanks" (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22).

Prayer concerns the ecumenical movement in a special way. "Our desire for unity must not be limited to sporadic occasions, but must become an integral part of our entire prayer life. Men and women formed in the Word of God and in prayer have been the authors of reconciliation and unity in every phase of history. It is the journey of prayer that has cleared the way for the ecumenical movement, as we know it today". In this regard, the pope recalled that "one hundred years ago, Fr Paul Wattson, who at the time was an Episcopal minister, came up with the idea for an octave of prayer for unity, which was celebrated for the first time in Graymoor (New York) from January 18 to 25, 1908". "During the 1930's, the octave of prayer went through important adaptations, above all through the initiative of Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyons, himself a great promoter of spiritual ecumenism. His appeal to 'pray for the unity of the Church as Christ wishes and according to the means that He wishes' allowed Christians from all traditions to unite in prayer for unity. Let us thank God for the great movement of prayer which, for one hundred years, has accompanied and sustained believers in Christ in their search for unity. The ship of ecumenism", he concluded, "could never have left the port if it had not been moved by this great tide of prayer and blown by the wind of the Holy Spirit".

...and earlier this week, with Paul and unity as his focus, a pan-Christian group of leaders turned out for the General Audience:

The world is suffering "from the absence of God, from the inaccessibility of God; it desires to know the face of God", but how can Christians respond to this need if they are divided, "if one teaches against another, if we are pitted against one another"? This is the question that Benedict XVI posed to the six thousand persons present in the Paul VI audience hall for today's general audience, which took place during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The "necessity" of prayer for unity was precisely at the centre of the pope's reflection, which also briefly mentioned the progress of ecumenical efforts over the past 100 years. The pope recalled that in 1908, an American Anglican, Paul Watson, who later became a Catholic, launched an Octave of prayer for unity, which later became the present week-ling celebration. It was a "fertile intuition", a "prophetic idea", which in 1916 Benedict XV decided to extend to the entire Catholic Church. It then spread to the entire Christian world. Today, the pope reminded his listeners to remember and acknowledge "the originator of this initiative, together with those who have turned it into a common patrimony for all Christians". The ecumenical journey has found one of its most significant realisations in this Week.

Vatican II called even more urgently for unity, and after its conclusion the search for full communion continued. The pope said that the decree "Unitatis Redintegratio" emphasised "forcefully the role and importance of prayer, which lies at the very heart of the ecumenical journey". "Thanks to this spiritual ecumenism, through holiness of life, the conversion of the heart, and prayer", "for 100 years this prayer has truly accompanied the stages of a path that, especially after the Council, has confronted the theological and historical problems that have arisen over the centuries". The "friendly relations" established in this period have allowed "the improvement of mutual understanding" and "clearer perception of the problems that divide us". But above all, Christians have prayed together to obtain "the grace" of full unity.

"It is evident", the pope added, "that it is not through our strategies that we can obtain unity among Christians, but we can produce our own willingness, which opens the way to Christ: in conversion, we can find the gift of unity". Let us accept, therefore, Benedict XVI continued, "the invitation to pray without growing weary that the apostle Paul addressed to the first Christians of Thessalonica, a community that he himself had founded". Precisely because he had learned about "dissensions among [them]", he exhorted them to "be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good . . . Rejoice always . . . In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God."

PHOTOS: AP/Gregorio Borgia (1); L'Osservatore Romano (2); Reuters/Tony Gentile (3)