At his traditional Sunday message in Vatican Square Pope Benedict XVI gave a short address about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Once again the Vatican has underscored her commitment to the doctrinal reforms of Vatican II and to the hard work of praying and working for unity among all Christians.
Dear brothers and sisters!
Today the liturgy proposes the Gospel passage about the wedding at Cana, an episode narrated by John, an eye witness of the event. This episode is part of this Sunday that immediately follows the Christmas season because, together with the visit of the Magi from the east and with Jesus’ baptism, it forms the trilogy of the epiphany, that is, of the manifestation of Christ. The manifestation at the wedding at Cana is, in fact, “the first of the signs” (John 2:11), that is, the first miracle performed by Jesus, with which he publicly manifested his glory, awakening the faith of his disciples. Let us briefly recall what happened at the wedding feast of Cana in Galilee. It happened that the wine had run out, and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, pointed this out to her Son. He told her that his hour had not yet come; but then followed Mary’s intervention and, six large stone jars being filled with water, he transformed the water into wine, an excellent wine, better than the wine that had been served earlier. With this “sign” Jesus revealed himself as the messianic bridegroom, come to establish the new and eternal Covenant with his people, according to the words of the prophets: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). And the wine is the symbol of this joy of love; but it also alludes to the blood that Jesus will pour out at the end to seal the nuptial pact with humanity.
The Church is the bride of Christ, who makes her holy and beautiful with his grace. Nevertheless, this bride, made up of human beings, is always in need of purification. And one of the gravest faults that disfigures the countenance of the Church is the injury to her visible unity, in particular the historical divisions that have separated Christians and that have not yet been overcome. Precisely at this time, from January 18 to 25, the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is observed, a time that is always welcome to believers and to communities, which reawakens in everyone the desire and spiritual commitment to full communion. In this sense the prayer service that I was able to celebrate with thousands of young people from all over Europe and with the ecumenical community of Taizé in this piazza was very significant: it was a moment of grace in which we experienced the beauty of being one in Christ. I encourage everyone to pray together so that we can realize “what the Lord requires of us” (Micah 6:8), which is the theme of this year’s Week; it was a theme proposed by some communities in India, which invites us to move decisively toward visible unity and to overcome, as brothers of Christ, every type of unjust discrimination. Next Friday at the conclusion of these days of prayer, I will preside at Vespers in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in the presence of representatives of other Churches and ecclesial communities.
The pope’s words echo themes heard around the world this week as various ecumenical gatherings for prayer and worship are held by Christians of all backgrounds and confessional traditions. These events are held in academic institutions, local parish churches, between Catholics and Protestants, in retreat settings and in private homes. Some of these gatherings are widely known and have been announced in certain churches with profound encouragement to participate. Other efforts for this unique week have slowly begun to die away in recent years. The interest in this week is a kind of rise and fall reality. It comes, like waves of the sea, and then it goes out. We seem to be in a time where there are low tides for serious ecumenical efforts. Catholic diocesan offices in the United States have experienced monetary shortfalls and many have cut back in this particular area, even laying off officers of the diocese who work for ecumenism. Others, like the archdiocese of Chicago, remain deeply committed. Protestant participation is alive in some mainline contexts but the losses among mainline churches in America have also impacted their role in the planning and processing of events and efforts for unity. Older Christians, who were great champions for such ecumenism, are slowly dying off. Younger Christians are not taking up the slack, at least not in these older paths. On the Catholic side many younger leaders were not deeply taught about these imperatives, underscored by Vatican II so powerfully and stressed by every pope since the 1960s. On the Protestant side prayer for unity has become all quite pro forma, a kind of addendum to the structures of dying denominational life. This is another tragedy of the breakdown of the older forms of Protestantism in America.
The most evident witness that I have seen of the Spirit’s work in this field of ecumenical gatherings to pray for unity is among some Catholic lay movements and young evangelicals who are deeply drawn to a vision of the future that include the entire catholic church, not just their tribe or group. Far too many of these evangelicals, however, have never heard a clear, reasonable, biblical appeal for such united prayer. Yet I believe when they do hear this call many will respond. I have seen the evidence of this first-hand. Young evangelicals meet Catholic believers and pray with them. They are attracted to the conversation and the effort. They grow more focused on the teaching of Jesus in John 17. This is why I invest so much energy into these young evangelicals who have embraced what my late friend Robert D. Webber called, “An ancient-future faith paradigm.” This paradigm holds promise for the recovery of the ecumenical vision. It opens a big window to Christian ecumenism and responsible interfaith dialogue. This emphasis has never been a major item in the evangelical Protestant agenda but I see stirrings that suggest this will change. I see a new day dawning for unity. I am banking my mission on this future, albeit one I see by faith at this precise moment in history!