David J. McBriar, O.F.M.
January 18, 2008
It’s a joy for me as Ecumenical Officer of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh to join my welcome to that of our bishop, Michael Burbidge. I have gotten to know many of you these past ten years and I can only say how grateful I am for your faith and for your unflinching commitment to the cause of Christian unity. My own faith has been nourished and enriched because of prayer with you, dialogue with you, and witness with you. The cause of Christian unity has indeed been advanced in Raleigh and in our state through your prayer and your dedicated work.
For one hundred years now we have been praying for the unity of the Christian church, praying with the Lord Jesus that “they all may be one.” It’s a wonderful tribute to those who had the initial grace to set aside first a day and then a week to pray for the unity of the Christian church. The grace of that beginning has matured until now the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is celebrated throughout the world. Again, it shows what the grace of God can accomplish through those who are willing to walk out into deep waters. While 1908 was a little before my time, yet I can attest that in my fifty years as a Franciscan Friar committed to the cause of the ecumenical movement, I never would have dreamed at the start of that involvement that we would be where we are today. Despite so many roadblocks we are far along the path to Christian unity. Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, writes:
“Much has been achieved over the last decades. Separated Christians no longer consider one another as strangers, competitors or even enemies, but as brothers and sisters. They have largely removed the former lack of understanding, misunderstanding, prejudice, and indifference; they pray together, they give together witness to their common faith; in many fields they work trustfully together. They have experienced that ‘what unites us is greater than what divides us’. Such a change was hardly conceivable only half a century ago; to wish to go back to those times would entail being forsaken not only by all good spirits but also by the Holy Spirit.
Let me reflect briefly upon the history of this Week of Prayer, point out where we are now, and then suggest that we prayerfully renew our effort of invoking the Holy Spirit to unite us as the one church of Jesus Christ.
What we prayed for in 1908 is not what we are praying for today. The octave of prayer for Christian unity, begun by two American Episcopalians, Father Paul Wattson and Sister Lurana White, had as its goal the reunion of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. They knew that great obstacles stood in the way of the goal of reunion. “But the conviction and faith of these two Anglican Franciscans in the power of the spirit to transform minds and hearts far outweighed their fears about the success of their new prayer venture.” In his little magazine, The Lamp, in 1903, Fr. Wattson asked:
“Is then Christian unity a visionary dream? Will the prayer of the Son of God never be answered?” He responded: “God’s will is omnipotent: the fiat of the most high must prevail; the prayer of Jesus Christ has got to be answered…Sooner or later every petition of Christ will invariably be granted. Were the mountains of difficulty to be surmounted a thousand times higher and vaster than they are God is able to cast them into the sea.
Fr. Paul and Sister Lurana explicitly prayed for the return of non-Catholic Christians to the Roman Catholic Church. And in these early days, Catholics were not allowed to pray with other Christians, only for them that they would come “home.” Outside the Roman Catholic Church, from 1910 until 1948, ecumenical discussions, first begun in Edinburgh, began to take place throughout the Protestant world. The heart of these discussions was the nature of the church, the whole church, as an essential component of the gospel. It was an escape from parochialism. And while it did not sit well with the Vatican on the whole, it was in 1927 that the Vatican first considered the cause of ecumenism. I think it’s true to say that the Faith and Order movement of 1927, and then the World Council of Churches documents on Common Service, Common Fellowship, Common witness and Common Renewal, greatly influenced the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism” (Unitatis Redintegratio) of Nov., 1964, as well as the “Decree on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes) a year later. The Protestant observers at the Second Vatican Council brought more than a silent presence to that gathering. They brought fifty years of solid prayer and reflection on the nature of the church and their own co-responsibility for its unity. The American Methodist theologian Albert Outler, one of the official observers, challenged the bishops of the council to take up the ecumenical cause once more and make it their own. “My plea,” said Outler, “is that in your zeal for God’s reign you should never ease the cause of Christian unity over the margins of your commitments. Never rank it as a deferred priority; never rest content with the ecumenical status quo, which is still a scandal — in God’s eyes and even in the eyes of the world.” Join this with issues of a more global nature, e.g., the growing disparity between nations, the rich and the poor, women, injustice, war, the global environment, and you had the fruitful soil for the partnership of the Roman Catholic Church in the ecumenical dialogue.
We owe so much to the World Council of Churches, as we continue to owe so much to the North Carolina Council of Churches, for their unflagging work and prayer in the cause of Christian unity. The former World Council of Churches general secretary, Eugene Carson Blake, was a man much on the move, but he set aside one full day for prayer for Christian unity each week in the midst of his many travels and demanding schedule. “Prayer is the way we give God’s Spirit the room to move where the Spirit wants to move.
And so the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity changed. It entered its second stage. We began to pray for friendship and cooperation. We began to pray for the recognition and respect of differences. We began to pray for understanding of one another’s position rather than hurling anathemas at one another. We began to pray for a common courage to face together the systemic issues facing the world. And we began to pray together, in one another’s churches. Again, in Cardinal Kasper’s words:
“The ecumenical aim is…not a simple return of the others into the fold of the Catholic Church, or the conversion of individuals to the Catholic Church. In the ecumenical movement the question is the conversion of all to Jesus Christ. As we move nearer to Jesus Christ, in him we move nearer to one another. Such unity is ultimately a gift of God’s Spirit and of his guidance.”
The soul of the ecumenical movement then, is spiritual. Only by a renewal of the spiritual: by common prayer, and common listening to the Word of God can we hope to overcome the present ecumenical impasses and difficulties. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “The door to ecumenism is opened only on our knees.”
Now here we are, forty-four years after the Second Vatican Council, still praying for Christian unity, the unity of the churches, that the Lord’s prayer might be realized: “that they all may be one.” What does that mean for us? What are we praying for as we begin this Centenary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? Let me turn to Paul’s image of the Body of Christ. It’s not a soft metaphor. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects upon this metaphor in his article on the Week of Prayer. He writes: “The “Body of Christ” means more than co-operation. It’s about a kind of mutual creation. We constitute each other. What I do is essential to who you are in Christ; what you do is essential to who I am in Christ; we are contributing to shaping what’s possible for people we’ll never know or meet. When the Christian community is one, it is functioning inter-actively; it is a process in which life is being communicated, a life whose source is the free gift of Christ through his Spirit.” “Ecumenism is…a reciprocal learning process. [It is] the exchange of gifts.” Recognizing the giftedness of each of our communities is to strengthen and unite the Body of Christ.
And so our prayer is for the openness to one another’s gifts. And let me also suggest that our prayer is that the Holy Spirit will lead us to a common table. At the Eucharistic table we are fed by Christ, and because we are fed by him we are able to feed each other. Somehow, no account of unity that doesn’t bring us to this place is going to be adequate. Indeed difficult steps must be taken, wide rivers crossed, before we come to that moment. But the Holy Spirit will lead us. Cardinal Kasper puts the question this way:
“How do we recognize in one another the full and abundant life of Christ in his body?” He invites us to open up again the LIMA statement (of the World Council of Churches),
“Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.” It appeared in 1982, and Cardinal Kasper in an address in Baltimore called for a further development of these groundbreaking texts as a way forward. The same holds for the early Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) documents, especially the one on ministry. My prayer is that we can move toward a renewal, recognition, and a development of what is already in place.
Again, Rowan Williams said that the right and proper goal for all ecumenical endeavors is the fundamental reality of a community in which people are “feeding” each other, communicating life to each other, because they are fed by Christ. A powerful reason for making prayer for unity a top priority is that prayer’s first effect is in us. “When we pray sincerely and honestly, we dispose ourselves to accept and to act in accordance with God’s will. Prayer changes hearts, and it is essentially hearts that need to be changed. In the intimacy of prayer, we experience the God who loves all the members of the different churches. In prayer we enter into a deeper solidarity with them, recognizing that they are members of the same Lord: ‘there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’”Pope Benedict XVI, the day after his installation as Bishop of Rome, said that the unity of the Christian churches is a priority for him. “With the help that comes from on high,” he said, “we will also find practical solutions to the different questions which remain open, and in the end our desire for unity will come to fulfillment, whenever and however the Lord wills.”
Let this week, then, indeed this New Year 2008, be a time of daily prayer for unity among Christians. May the Holy Spirit accomplish in us and among us what we ourselves can never achieve. The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches offers this prayer. We make it our own tonight.
“O God, holy and eternal trinity, we pray for your church in the world.
Sanctify its life; renew its worship; empower its witness; heal its divisions;
make visible its unity. Lead us, with all our brothers and sisters, towards communion in faith, life, and witness, so that, united in one body by the one spirit,
we may together witness to the perfect unity of your love.”