The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By Bishop Brian Farrell

The following address was given by Bishop Brian Farrell (secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome) at the inaugral service for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, on Thur 18th Jan 2007, at the Romanian Orthodox Church, Leeson Park.

Every time the baptized come together to pray, it is the Spirit who guides them and teaches them how to pray. It is the same Spirit who builds the Church’s unity. Naturally, people have been praying for the unity of Christ’s followers since the beginning. Christians who take to heart the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel know that things are not as they should be and that the scandal of division weakens the proclamation of the Gospel; they know that the ecumenical movement is not a luxury in the life of the Church. We cannot separate our following of Christ from our passion for the unity of the Body of Christ that is the Church. 

This year, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is 99 years old. Ninety-nine years ago, Father Paul Watson, an Anglican priest and co-founder of the Society of the Atonement, introduced a Prayer Octave for Christian Unity that was celebrated for the first time Jan. 18-25, 1908. 

Unity for Father Watson meant a “return” to the Roman Catholic Church, hence the symbolic dates of the feast of the Chair of Peter, which at that time was celebrated Jan. 18, and the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan. 25. This is usually regarded as the beginning of the Week as we know it today. In 1936, a pioneer of ecumenism in French Catholicism, the Abbé Paul Couturier, brought in a new interpretation of the Unity Octave, when he saw that the idea of “return” made it difficult for many Christians to join with Catholics in prayer. He began what he called the “Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,” keeping the same dates of Jan. 18-25, but urging people to pray for the unity of the Church “as Christ wills it.” That is what we are here for this evening: to pray together for the unity, the full communion, of all the baptized, in the way and at the time that the Lord, through the work of the Holy Spirit, will arrange.

This year's theme, from South Africa

The scriptural theme of this year’s Week of Prayer is taken from the story in Mark’s Gospel [7:31-37] of the healing of the man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs and says, “Ephphata — be opened,” and the man can hear and speak. “He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” 

Jesus brings the person back to his normal condition, in which he can, without hindrance, seek his fulfillment in contact and communion with others. The cured man becomes a symbol of a healed and reconciled humanity, capable of cherishing and practicing all those values and qualities that make life a reflection of the inner life of God himself: communication, harmony, solidarity, love, justice and peace. 

But who decides the theme for each year? The process starts at the local level in a different country each year. In this way, Christians around the world pray out of the real-life experience of people trying to meet the challenges of a particular situation. For last year’s week of prayer, an ecumenical group gathered here in Ireland with the help of Father Brendan Leahy, and sponsored by the Irish episcopal conference, suggested the theme of Christ present wherever his followers gather to invoke him. Why that theme? The decades of sectarian violence had sharpened many people’s sense of the inadequacy of every merely political effort to bring about reconciliation. Christians belonging to different traditions had discovered the power of prayer to bring them together beyond every boundary:

“Where two or three gather in my name, there I am in their midst” [Matthew 18:18-29].

This year the inspiration comes from South Africa, specifically from Umlazi, near Durban. Umlazi is a “township,” one of those segregated areas in which the black population was forced to live during the apartheid era. Umlazi is a place of unemployment and poverty, with all that goes with that in terms of privation in health care, housing, education, social cohesion, and hope. It, and other townships like it, are places where the HIV/AIDS tragedy has reached pandemic levels, with more than 50% of the population infected. 

But there is a tragedy within the tragedy. “Ubunqunu” in the local language means something like being uncovered, “nakedness,” and it refers to all those things that people do not ever talk about. There is a code of silence surrounding certain aspects of life. 

There is a code of silence surrounding AIDS. It is a stigmatized disease. When they can no longer hide the symptoms, people retire to their huts and are seldom seen again. They do not seek help. Their families no longer mention them. South Africa as a country is only slowly coming to admit publicly that there is a problem. 

The Churches in South Africa are working together to overcome this code of silence that leads to death. They have developed ecumenical prayer services, with “breaking the code of silence” as the central theme. Through prayer, people, especially young people, are given the confidence and courage to “speak the unspeakable.” 

At the heart of the materials prepared for this year’s prayer for Christian unity you will hear an urgent call to “break the silence.” In every culture there are enormous unmet needs: The poor, the sick, the homeless, the refugee and the outcast, are our neighbors. Injustice, discrimination, violence, even slavery, take their toll on the streets of Dublin, as they do in every city of our sin-marked world.

The deaf and dumb man of St. Mark’s Gospel stands for all of us, individually and collectively. As in the case of the man who could neither hear nor speak, if the Lord loosens our tongues, our ability to understand and to speak out, in truth and honesty, would surely be a blessing for our society. 

But note that Jesus first heals the man’s inability to hear: Ephphata — be opened! Surely what Jesus wants is not just that the man be able to hear the sound of words, but that he be able to listen to those around him. It is not “hearing” but “listening” that creates bonds of communication and communion, and therefore makes possible that unity of purpose without which no problem can be faced and managed. In the materials offered by the people of Umlazi there is a prayer to break the silence, and it says: “Open our ears that we might hear the voices muffled by the trials and suffering of the transient world.” If we listen to this cry in our hearts and in our consciences we may become better people, more committed followers of the Jesus who alone has the words of eternal life, who can teach us what it means to be genuinely human in a very dehumanized world. 

However, there is something else to be learned from the people of Umlazi. In their severe deprivation and in their anguish for the AIDS pandemic, they look to the Churches for light and support. And what do they see? Let me read their own words: “In Umlazi, there is one courthouse, one hospital, one post office, one clinic, one set of shops, and one cemetery reflecting one overwhelming challenge facing the people. In this same township, the people, almost all of whom are Christian, adhere to scriptures which profess that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all [cf. Ephesians 4:4-6]. Yet there are many churches, which are not in full communion with each other, and which remain a sign of divided Christianity. In Umlazi, there is an impatience and frustration with inherited divisions generated many centuries ago in other lands.” 

The sin and the scandal of division tear at the very heart of God’s people. Our divisions run deep, and all our Churches are wounded and in need of conversion, purification and healing. Clearly, the search for Christian unity will be long and difficult.  So where do we stand?

What hope for Ecumenism? 

Believe me, we are not in an ecumenical winter, as some say. This past year alone has seen one important ecumenical event after another; the theological dialogues have gone on, with many good results; visits and meetings between the heads of Churches have been continuous; more and more people and local communities are taking part in what is now referred to as “spiritual ecumenism.” Let me speak only of some of the things that I have personally experienced, and limited to this past year.

  • The general assembly of the [World Council of Churches] in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in February 2006, brought together more than three hundred different churches from practically all Christian traditions; the International Catholic-Orthodox Theological dialogue in Belgrade in September; the theological dialogue with the Ancient Oriental-Orthodox Churches (Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Malankara Church, the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches). There are continuous contacts, meetings and dialogues with practically all the Christian World Communions. The [Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity] is directly involved in twelve official dialogues with Churches and ecclesial communities at the international level, and takes part in many other meetings and activities of ecumenical interest.

Official international delegations to visit Benedict XVI:

  • From the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; from the Lutheran Church of Finland, of Norway, of Sweden; from the World Methodist Council; the Lutheran World Federation; the visit of the archbishop of Canterbury; the archbishop of Athens and All Greece. As every year there was an exchange of delegations between the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch, at the end of June for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome, and at the end of November for the feast of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Constantinople. Except that this year the Catholic delegation to Constantinople was led by Pope Benedict himself.

People want to see results from all this activity. But the communion we seek is neither a question of Church diplomacy nor of strategic agreements made in ecclesiastical back-rooms. In its original sense it has to do with “participation,” having a part in, sharing in God’s gift of redemption and grace. We are brought into communion — with God and with one another — when we all share in the same grace: one Lord, one baptism, one Spirit, one Father of all. And the visible sign of this communion will be as St. Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Our ecumenical journey is not towards a mere appearance of unity —  

  • towards some sort of ecclesiastical good neighborliness. The communion we seek has its source, its model and its fulfillment in the very life of the Trinity. Superficial gestures will not bring about the unity for which the Lord prayed. 
  • Very often it is the significant though almost imperceptible gesture that marks the progress being made. Let me give a few examples. Monsignor Eleuterio Fortino has worked in the Pontifical Council almost since it began, during the Second Vatican Council, and he has been a witness of everything that has happened since then.  He understands Orthodoxy as few other Catholics do.  He is an Eastern Catholic himself, belonging to the Italo-Albanian rite.  After the visit of Pope Benedict to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios at the end of November, Fortino pointed to a few indicators which escaped the attention of most. 
  • He observed, first, that the Patriarch and the Pope exchanged the sign of peace during the Divine Liturgy itself. Up to now, at the Phanar, this gesture had always taken place after the celebration itself, given that for our Orthodox brothers the sign of peace within the liturgy expresses a very weighty commitment, introduced by the deacon with this exhortation: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may together make our profession of faith.” And then follows the Creed. This may seem like a small thing; but it has much spiritual meaning. 
  • Another important factor: in the common declaration signed by the Pope and the Patriarch, they recall “the solemn ecclesial act banishing from memory the ancient anathemas which for centuries have had a negative effect on relations between our Churches.” They then go on to say: “We have not yet drawn from this act all the positive consequences which can flow from it in our progress towards full unity.”They are clearly saying: let us move in very real and practical ways to eliminate the remaining barriers keeping us apart. And it is significant that Pope Benedict chose the solemn liturgy at the Patriarchate to meet head-on one of the major challenges of the ecumenical journey. In his words: “The issue of the universal service of Peter and his successors has unfortunately given rise to our differences of opinion, which we hope to overcome, thanks also to the theological dialogue which has been recently resumed.” And then with emphasis he renewed a commitment undertaken by Pope John Paul II: “Pope John Paul extended an invitation to enter into a fraternal dialogue aimed at identifying ways in which the Petrine ministry might be exercised today, while respecting its nature and essence, so as to ‘accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned’ [‘Ut Unum Sint,’ 95]. It is my desire today to recall and renew this invitation.” The journey towards full communion may be slow and mostly imperceptible; but the Holy Spirit is at work, and someday, without us knowing how, he will bring to completion the work that he has begun.

So, what should we do?

Because the Church is not just her ministers and leaders but the whole body of the faithful, more and more people need to be involved in what is being called “spiritual ecumenism.” Christians, no matter what tradition they belong to, can say with joy and gratitude that “what unites us is much greater than what divides us.” [1] They believe in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior, and in the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the giver of life and holiness. They recognize that through the sacrament of baptism they are spiritually reborn and united with Christ and with one another. Together they honor Sacred Scripture as the word of God and as an abiding norm of belief and action. They share in prayer and in many other common sources of the spiritual life. The Holy Spirit is operative among all the baptized with his sanctifying power. He calls all to true holiness, and it is he who in every generation has prepared Christians of all traditions to face martyrdom for Christ. 

Spiritual ecumenism appreciates and values all these gifts in the Churches of East and West. So we need opportunities for a spiritual exchange of gifts. Christians from different traditions need to meet each other, and in prayer, through a healing of memories, inspire each other to ever greater fidelity to Christ and to the Gospel. 

That, in great part, is the value of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Having a special week does not exhaust our commitment, but it reminds us that to love Christ’s Church is to yearn for her holiness and her unity. There are wrinkles, even unpleasant scars, on the face of the Church: and a strong ecumenical commitment is an essential factor in restoring her beauty. Only when Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper is fulfilled, only when we are all one as he ardently wished, only then will the Church clearly appear as the sign and sacrament of the world’s salvation. Only then will God’s purpose be fulfilled: “that the world may believe.” 
(Jn 17:21).

[1] Words of Pope John XXIII; cf.UUS, n.10.