Every year from Jan. 18, the former Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, through the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan. 25, Christians throughout the world pause to celebrate an octave of prayer for Christian unity.
The popular practice began in 1908 in New York when a group of Augustinian Atonement Friars brought along the best of their former Anglican traditions when they entered into communion with Roman Catholicism and began a new apostolate of prayer for Christian unity.
We gathered with ecumenical partners for that prayer last Sunday at St Dominic Church in Brookfield.
The history of church division had been long, sometimes bitter, and always painful. The Eastern Orientals broke off shortly after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. because they could not accept a non-biblical word (consubstantial) to explain the mystery of Christ’s divinity.
After centuries of doctrinal misunderstanding, occasioned, for example, when Charlemagne’s theologians added the “filioque (and the son”) to the Creed without conciliar authorization, and finally provoked by the sometimes brutal attacks of Crusaders against Byzantine Christians, the East broke from the West in 1204 A.D. with bitter mutual excommunications. Although there was plenty of arrogance and guilt on all sides, the result was tragic.
Multiple doctrinal debates over grace, abundant medieval abuses and greed for extended monastic holdings during the 16th century, countered at times by futile efforts at reconciliation, produced the Churches of the Reform in Europe and the Anglican Communion.
By the beginning of the 20th century, however, virtually everyone understood that the deep division of Christian Churches in matters of doctrine, ministerial structures, sacramental practice and apostolic governance was a terrible open wound. The great Missionary Congress at Edinburgh in 1910 recognized the scandal of church division among the ancient peoples of the Far East and the new nations of Africa.
The World Council of Churches was established at Geneva in 1948. On Jan. 25, 1959, shortly after his election, Pope John XXIII announced his dream of an ecumenical council to address the immense pastoral problems which troubled the lives of so many people after the Second World War, as well as the church’s need for renewal at every level.
Slightly less than a year later, a curious turning point occurred. Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived in Rome on Dec. 2, 1960 for a private, almost secret meeting with Pope John XXIII.
They quietly discussed their mutual desire for the reunion of their respective churches. Pope John casually admitted his deep personal desire for the return of the separated churches to Rome. Dr. Fisher, however, countered with a corrective from his perspective, and suggested the real goal was their “reconciliation,” especially after so many centuries of relatively independent growth and spiritual development. Pope John paused, thought about it and agreed. A new age of ecumenical witness had begun.
When the Second Vatican Council finally opened solemnly on Oct.11, 1962, Pope John announced his three goals for that august assembly: 1) the renewal of the Catholic Church without losing any of its essential characteristics, 2) the reconciliation of renewed Christian churches and 3) the transformation of the world by those renewed churches working in mission together.
For more than 40 years, formal theological dialogues among all the major Christian churches have worked meticulously on the national and international level to study the debates of the past. Very competent scholars have explored each issue carefully to determine whether the disagreements were truly church-dividing or simply legitimate differences in understanding the great mysteries of grace and salvation.
For 12 years I was privileged to serve as the Catholic co-chair of the national Lutheran/Catholic dialogue.
While the deepest debates of the past have most often been resolved, some new questions have surfaced, especially regarding qualification for ministry and issues of gender and sexuality. The moral questions of our contemporary world seem to have taken their place as critical questions beside the doctrinal debates of the past.
The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity serves to place the spotlight of public attention back on the essential question of our common need to pray for the gift of ecclesial reconciliation and reunion. Moreover, it is crucial to remember that our prayer is not merely petition for God to change, but rather that we gather together humbly in prayer for the transformation of our own stubborn wills and darkened minds. We must change, not God.
The Second Vatican Council’s degree on ecumenism listed the areas of involvement which were, and continue to be, recommended to all Catholics everywhere: 1) the need to eliminate all words, judgments and actions which do not respond to the truth, 2) the establishment of formal dialogues to seek mutual understanding, 3) engagement in joint efforts for the common good of the larger human community, 4) prayer together whenever possible and 5) renewal of our own faithfulness to Christ’s will for his renewed church (§4)!
The council insisted that “[t]here can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart (§7).” It is not the others who must change, but we ourselves … every one of us. We pray this week for the grace to be humble before Christ’s will for his church.