Prayer is the Soul of Ecumenical Renewal
Writing in Ut Unum Sint (1995), the late Holy Father said that the "way of ecumenism [is] the way of the Church" and he explained it thus:
"The Catholic Church embraces with hope the commitment to ecumenism as a duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love. Here too we can apply the words of Saint Paul to the first Christians of Rome: 'God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit'; thus our 'hope does not disappoint us' (Rom 5:5). This is the hope of Christian unity, which has its divine source in the Trinitarian unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed 'that they may all be one' (Jn 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ's mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape.
In effect, this unity bestowed by the Holy Spirit does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals. It is a unity constituted by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion. The faithful are one because, in the Spirit, they are in communion with the Son and, in him, share in his communion with the Father: 'Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ' (1 Jn 1:3). For the Catholic Church, then, the communion of Christians is none other than the manifestation in them of the grace by which God makes them sharers in his own communion, which is his eternal life. Christ's words 'that they may be one' are thus his prayer to the Father that the Father's plan may be fully accomplished, in such a way that everyone may clearly see 'what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things' (Eph 3:9). To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father's plan from all eternity. Such is the meaning of Christ's prayer: 'Ut unum sint'."
Having set out these principles, John Paul II then offers suggestions for how the unity we hope for may be advanced:
"In the teaching of the Second Vatican Council there is a clear connection between renewal, conversion and reform. The Council states that 'Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. Therefore, if the influence of events or of the times has led to deficiencies . . . these should be appropriately rectified at the proper moment'. No Christian Community can exempt itself from this call. By engaging in frank dialogue, Communities help one another to look at themselves together in the light of the Apostolic Tradition. This leads them to ask themselves whether they truly express in an adequate way all that the Holy Spirit has transmitted through the Apostles...
The increase of fellowship in a reform which is continuous and carried out in the light of the Apostolic Tradition is certainly, in the present circumstances of Christians, one of the distinctive and most important aspects of ecumenism. Moreover, it is an essential guarantee for its future. The faithful of the Catholic Church cannot forget that the ecumenical thrust of the Second Vatican Council is one consequence of all that the Church at that time committed herself to doing in order to re-examine herself in the light of the Gospel and the great Tradition.
My Predecessor, Pope John XXIII, understood this clearly: in calling the Council, he refused to separate renewal from ecumenical openness. At the conclusion of the Council, Pope Paul VI solemnly sealed the Council's commitment to ecumenism, renewing the dialogue of charity with the Churches in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople"
As to the vital importance of ecumenism, the late Holy Father adds:
"Thus it is absolutely dear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of 'appendix' which is added to the Church's traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature.
This is what Pope John XIII believed about the unity of the Church and how he saw full Christian unity. With regard to other Christians, to the great Christian family, he observed: 'What unites us is much greater than what divides us'. The Second Vatican Council for its part exhorts 'all Christ's faithful to remember that the more purely they strive to live according to the Gospel, the more they are fostering and even practicing Christian unity. For they can achieve depth and ease in strengthening mutual brotherhood to the degree that they enjoy profound communion with the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit'."
Above all else, the late Holy Father commends us to prayer and a genuine conversion of hearts and minds. He says:
"'This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and can rightly be called 'spiritual ecumenism'.'
We proceed along the road leading to the conversion of hearts guided by love which is directed to God and, at the same time, to all our brothers and sisters, including those not in full communion with us. Love gives rise to the desire for unity, even in those who have never been aware of the need for it. Love builds communion between individuals and between Communities. If we love one another, we strive to deepen our communion and make it perfect. Love is given to God as the perfect source of communion-the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit-that we may draw from that source the strength to build communion between individuals and Communities, or to re-establish it between Christians still divided. Love is the great undercurrent which gives life and adds vigour to the movement towards unity.
This love finds its most complete expression in common prayer. When brothers and sisters who are not in perfect communion with one another come together to pray, the Second Vatican Council defines their prayer as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement. This prayer is 'a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity', 'a genuine expression of the ties which even now bind Catholics to their separated brethren'. Even when prayer is not specifically offered for Christian unity, but for other intentions such as peace, it actually becomes an expression and confirmation of unity. The common prayer of Christians is an invitation to Christ himself to visit the community of those who call upon him: 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them' (Mt 18:20).
When Christians pray together, the goal of unity seems closer. The long history of Christians marked by many divisions seems to converge once more because it tends towards that Source of its unity which is Jesus Christ. He 'is the same yesterday, today and forever!' (Heb 13:8).
In the fellowship of prayer Christ is truly present; he prays 'in us', 'with us' and 'for us'. It is he who leads our prayer in the Spirit-Consoler whom he promised and then bestowed on his Church in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, when he established her in her original unity."
And finally, John Paul the Great leaves us with these encouraging words of exhortation:
"The power of God's Spirit gives growth and builds up the Church down the centuries. As the Church turns her gaze to the new millennium, she asks the Spirit for the grace to strengthen her own unity and to make it grow towards full communion with other Christians.
How is the Church to obtain this grace? In the first place, through prayer. Prayer should always concern itself with the longing for unity, and as such is one of the basic forms of our love for Christ and for the Father who is rich in mercy. In this journey which we are undertaking with other Christians towards the new millennium prayer must occupy the first place.
How is she to obtain this grace? Through giving thanks, so that we do not present ourselves empty-handed at the appointed time: 'Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness . . . [and] intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words' (Rom 8:26), disposing us to ask God for what we need.
How is she to obtain this grace? Through hope in the Spirit, who can banish from us the painful memories of our separation. The Spirit is able to grant us clear-sightedness, strength and courage to take whatever steps are necessary, that our commitment may be ever more authentic.
And should we ask if all this is possible, the answer will always be yes. It is the same answer which Mary of Nazareth heard: with God nothing is impossible."
May Mary, the Mother of the Church, lead all her children into deeper unity with her Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Above right is a photo of Pope Benedict XVI meeting His Beatitude Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and All Turkey in Cologne in August 2005.