January 19, 2024

That All May Be One / Fr. Rick Ginther

Like a priest and a pope, let us pray that ‘all may be one’

Fr. Rick GintherThere are multiple origins of the “ecumenical movement” among Christians. Many men and women of note have prayed for, worked for and promoted it.

As we pray for unity on Jan. 18-25 during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let me unfold the lives and work of two such individuals.

(A disclaimer: both are men, and both are Roman Catholic clergy. This is not to say that no Catholic women were involved in original 20th-century ecumenical endeavors. There is, however, a shortage of accounts of their involvement from which to draw.)

Father Paul Couturier was born in Lyon, France, in 1881. A priest of the Society of St. Irenaeus, he taught science at a college run by his order for 40 years.

In his early 40s while on retreat, the retreat director encouraged him to expand his ministry to refugees. Russian Orthodox Christians fleeing the Russian revolution became his focus. His 12 years of work with these destitute people moved him to desire that all Christians could be joined in love and service.

The writings of Belgium Cardinal Desire-Joseph Mercier inspired him. “In order to unite, we must love one another; to love one another, we must know one another; to know one another we must go and meet one another,” Cardinal Mercier wrote.

Father Couturier adapted the original Octave of the “Prayer for Christian Unity” so that it became a prayer of Christians together. Rather than pray “for one another,” Christians “must pray with one another.”

Dialogue, he affirmed, must be “surrounded by an atmosphere of mutual prayer to avoid tension and sterile debate.”

Father Couturier’s passionate efforts in France ultimately spilled out into the world.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who we know as St. John XXIII, served in the Italian army, in parishes, as an army chaplain and in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps (in Bulgaria, Greece, France, UNESCO). He came to see the Church’s and the world’s need for unity.

“The central point” of Jesus’ teaching “is the love which binds all men to him as the elder brother, and binds us all with him to the Father,” he said.

His first love was pastoring. As pope, John XXIII chose to pastor the Church.

He called the Second Vatican Council, not to change fundamental doctrines or condemn heresies, but “to bring forth the truth in such a way that would speak to the people of this time and advance the cause of Christian unity.”

Observers from all the major Christian denominations were invited—an extraordinary step! They were allowed to comment on the council Fathers’ discussions.

Good Pope John, as he was affectionately known, was “clearing away obstacles” to “foster unity and reconciliation among churches and cultures.” He once quipped, “Whenever I see a wall between Christians, I try to pull out a brick.”

He named cardinals from India and Africa—a first. He established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. He appointed the first-ever Catholic representative to the assembly of the World Council of Churches. And he welcomed to the Vatican numerous leaders of other Christian denominations, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.

His council gave the Church “Unitatis Redintegratio” (“Restoration of Unity”), a document on ecumenism. Though Pope John never saw it, it was one of the most significant documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Both Father Couturier and St. John XXIII—pioneers as they and other unnamed men and women were—labored in the field of ecumenical relations. Their banner was the Gospel of John: “That all may be one” (Jn 17:21).

May that banner wave strongly in our hearts and minds. May it lead us to prayer both for and with our Christian brothers and sisters.

(Father Rick Ginther is director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs. He is also the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis.)

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