January 17, 2014


Pray for Christian unity

“Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13).

That’s the biblical theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity observed by the Catholic Church and many other Christian churches from Jan. 18-25. It’s sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin and representatives of other Christian communities in Indianapolis will gather at 5 p.m. on Jan. 19 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, 1347 N. Meridian St. in Indianapolis, for the opening prayer service for the Week of Christian Unity.

Originally known as the Church Unity Octave, it was started by Father Paul Wattson at Graymoor in Garrison, N.Y., in 1908. At the time, Father Wattson was an Episcopal priest. He and an Episcopal sister, Lurana White, founded the Society of the Atonement in 1898 with the mission of promoting Christian unity. They both decided to join the Catholic Church in 1909.

For a long time, there was more enthusiasm for ecumenism among Protestants than among Catholics. Our older readers will remember when the Catholic Church told Catholics that they could not enter Protestant churches to attend weddings or funerals.

It was also a time when the King James translation of the Bible was distributed in public schools, and Catholic children were forbidden to accept them. Catholics were even told that they should not join the YMCA because they would be associating with “heretics.”

Fortunately, all that changed with the Second Vatican Council, especially with its “Decree on Ecumenism.” It said that the restoration of unity among Christians was one of the principal concerns of the council, and of the Catholic Church.

It urged Catholics to “gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren.” Perhaps you had to actually live during that time to fully appreciate the difference in attitude that the council fathers were preaching.

The teaching today is much closer to the words of St. Paul. He wrote to the people of Corinth, Greece, “I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).

Of course, Paul was writing about divisions within the Church at Corinth, something we should take to heart. But it also applies to the divisions among Christians today that Paul could not have foreseen.

Ecumenism should be, and we believe is, vitally important here in central and southern Indiana where Catholics make up only about 11 percent of the population. There are many opportunities for Catholics and Protestants to work together to try to improve our secular society, and to spread the teachings with which we’re in agreement.

Pope Francis has spoken about the urgency of Christian unity throughout his pontificate. In his interview for Jesuit publications, he said, “In ecumenical relations, it is important not only to know each other better, but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.”

He devoted several lengthy paragraphs to ecumenism in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” He said that the credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions. “Ecumenism can be seen as a contribution to the unity of the human family,” he wrote (#245).

Pope Francis is so insistent on the need for Christian unity that he used exclamation points in his exhortation: “How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another” (#246).

Besides ecumenism, which concerns relations among Christians, the pope also called for interreligious dialogue with Jews and Muslims. He has said repeatedly that Jesus died for “everyone, not only Catholics.” That even includes atheists, he has said.

During this week, perhaps you could pray daily one of the prayers suggested by the Church: “We give you thanks, O God, that you bless each and every member of the body of Christ with the gifts of your Spirit. Help us to be supportive of one another, to be respectful of our differences, and to work for the unity of all throughout the world who call upon Jesus as Lord. Amen.”

—John F. Fink

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