For 99 years, Christians from different churches and denominations have observed the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This “eight day” week, or Octave, begins on January 18th and ends on January 25th, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. It is meant to foster the unity “of one body and one Spirit” among all those who proclaim “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (cf. Ephesians 4: 4- 5). Such observances can help us appreciate how much already unites us as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ – and such observances remind us that the unity for which Christ prayed on the night of his passion is ultimately a grace given by God. As Christians, we must continue to ask the Lord for the gift of that grace – so that we might indeed be one “so that the world will believe”. (John 17:21)
This year’s theme, which is selected and prepared by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and representatives of the World Council of Churches, is “Open our ears and loosen our tongues”. This theme is derived from Mark 7: 37: the evangelist remarks on the amazement of the crowds at the person of Jesus and his power to heal, “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”. The theme embodies two invitations this Octave offers to Christian Churches and peoples: one, to pray and work together for Christian Unity; and two, to join together in responding to human suffering. Both responsibilities are intertwined for both relate to healing the Body of Christ wounded by human sin.
The Body of Christ is broken by the scandal of our disunity. This disunity began with the Great Schism which divided the Eastern and Western branches of the Church at the beginning of the Second Millennium in 1054 and then was followed in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformation and the resulting fragmentation of Western Christendom. Too often, as the history of the relations between Orthodox and Catholics, Catholics and Protestants shows “the gospel spirit did not always shine forth” At the beginning of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II called for a “purification of memory” through the seeking of and granting forgiveness for the sins of the members of Christ’s Body – on all sides – which lie at the cause of the ruptures and still slow the movement towards reconciliation and full communion.
Unity among all Christians is difficult because it cannot be achieved through religious indifferentism; that is, by compromising our witness to the truth. As Christians –whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant – we need to hear once again Jesus’ word, Ephphata, “Be opened”. Then, tongues loosened and ears opened, our ecumenical discourse about the truth will be more than a “dialog of the deaf”. In a world that is increasingly under the sway of secularism and ethical relativism, Christians need to listen to and understand one another better if we wish speak the good news with new confidence.
How long until there is the unity in faith that will permit full communion among the Churches and the various ecclesial communities is in God’s hands; yet, even now there can be great unity in charity. The same Spirit which makes us brothers and sisters in Christ also empowers us to reach out to every human being in need. In Central Florida there are edifying examples of ecumenical cooperation like Orlando’s Christian Service Center supported by a coalition of downtown churches, including St. James’ Cathedral. Also our parishes participate with Protestant denominations in faith based coalitions like FOCUS (Federation of Congregations United to Serve) in the greater Orlando area, PEACE (Polk Ecumenical Action Council) and FAITH (Fighting Against Injustice Toward Harmony) in Volusia County to promote social justice. These efforts show what can be done together – but, of course, much more can and must be done. Christ has not distanced himself from the burdens of human suffering: the closer we come to his cross in our service to those who suffer, the closer we come to each other.
Every easing of human suffering makes our oneness more visible; every step towards unity strengthens the whole body of Christ. As the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, said, “The ecumenical journey is certainly difficult and will perhaps be long; but we are encouraged by the hope that comes from being led by the presence of the Risen One and the inexhaustible power of his Spirit always capable of new surprises.” (Novo Milennio Ineunte 12)
Please join Bishop Thomas Wenski and other Christian religious leaders for a prayer service as part of Observance of Christian Unity Week on January 25, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. at St. James Cathedral in downtown Orlando.