Each year in January we have a celebration of hope. It is called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It reflects Jesus prayer to the Father “they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you.” (John 17:21)
This week of prayer began 105 years ago as an Octave for Church Unity. It was the idea of Father Paul Wattson, co-founder of the Friars of the Atonement. Father Paul was an Episcopal priest at the time and his conversion to Catholicism, with his community, was among the first fruits of the movement.
I refer to it as a celebration of hope because the full unity that Jesus prayed for has not been achieved but remains a hope. We are on a journey with an uncertain culmination. Yet, we are certain we must make the journey.
That journey has taken us a long way since that first Octave for Church Unity. At that time the Ecumenical Movement was aborning. We Catholics would boycott it for years, except for a handful of informal contacts. Catholics and Protestants and other Christian bodies were largely ignorant and suspicious of one another. Thankfully that gradually began to change in the 40s and 50s.
With the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council which began 50 years ago, the movement of the Spirit quickened and the hope for unity became brighter. In 1960 Pope John XXIII established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity under the direction of Cardinal Augustin Bea. The secretariat was the first time that any official entity for communication with other Christian churches had been established. Orthodox, Protestant and other Christian churches were invited to participate in the Vatican Council as observers and responded in great numbers.
In November 1964, after a series of debates during the Council’s first three sessions, the Council Fathers approved the Decree on Ecumenism by a vote of 2137 for, to 11 against. The document was promulgated by Pope Paul VI and became part of the official teaching Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
Conceding that perfect unity still does not exist, the document recognized that the Holy Spirit is at work in other churches despite the absence of perfect unity, noting “The Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as a means of salvation, yet they are not blessed with that unity proclaimed by scripture and tradition.”
Looking back at the Reformation, the Council Fathers accepted the fact that the Church shares in the responsibility for the scandal of separation and affirmed that members of other Christian churches today in no way share in the responsibility and that the members of separated churches through the sacrament of baptism are joined to the Church in a sacramental bond of unity, which remains to be perfected.
One of the decree’s major clarifications of the Church’s teachings regarding other Christian churches and communities was that while the fullness of God’s self-revelation subsists in the Catholic Church, nevertheless many elements of “sanctification and truth” can be found “outside her visible structure” and that these elements are potential steps toward unity.
The decree concludes that the search for unity “transcends human powers and gifts,” and places its hope in Christ’s prayer “…that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”(John 17)
And so, in faith, we join with our Christian brothers and sisters beginning January 18 to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I invite you to join me in this celebration of hope.