Saint Ignatius High School

That They May Be One

January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians share a common baptism, but what makes us different? Read this week's blog to find out how we can reunite the Christian faith and make us one.

That They May Be One

On the night before He died, Jesus called together the Twelve, and in the most intimate act imaginable - He gave His very Self to them in the appearance of bread and wine.  In this first act of Holy Communion, the essence of Who Jesus is was wed to the very cell structure of His closest friends.  And, like most meals, that act of eating brought the group closer to each other.

We are reminded of this beautiful event in the Eucharistic prayers said at Mass.  What we sometimes forget is what Jesus did in the lead-up to the breaking of the Bread. John the Evangelist recounts that before He reclined at table with His friends, Jesus prayed to the Father.

I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so 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…And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one (Jn 17: 20-22).

Jesus, even in His humanity, was a careful observer of human nature.  He understood that people fall away from each other over time: groups dissolve, people go their separate ways.  Knowing this, He foresaw divisions even among His followers.

It had already happened. Told they needed to “eat [His] Flesh and drink [His] Blood” in order to have eternal life, “many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him” (Jn 6:66). His prayer in the Upper Room proved prescient:  within only a few decades St Paul would complain to the Corinthians of the “rivalries” among them, said there should be “no divisions” among them, and asked the Christians in that community if “Christ [were] divided” (1 Cor.1:13)?

Christ, of course, was not divided, but His Mystical Body was and continues to be. This division clearly goes against the will of Christ Whose prayer for unity was made on our behalf as well as that of the Twelve.

January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  This initiative has its antecedents in various short-lived movements which arose in the 1840s and 50s, but the movement really gained momentum among Catholics with Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism which declared “the restoration of unity among Christians” to be one of its “principle concerns” (Unitatis Redintegratio [UR] #1). The week as we observe it this year dates to the early 1990s when the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity explicitly encouraged Catholics to dedicate themselves in prayer to the task of unity.

The week is sponsored by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches as well as the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity among other Christian groups.

In a very real sense, there already remains a unity—however hidden—among Christians.  Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians share a common baptism. Those baptized Christians, wishing to be received into the Catholic Church, are not re-baptized. Baptism makes us all part of a—to this point, sadly dysfunctional—family with God as our Father. (We are, in the words of Vatican II, “Separated Brethren,” but brothers and sisters nonetheless.) All Christians can say the Nicene Creed Catholics profess at Sunday Mass and honestly believe every word.  We all recognize the New Testament—and most of the Old—as the inspired word of God.  

And I could go on.

But as we should rightly note and celebrate the (albeit imperfect) unity which already exists among followers of Christ, we need to honestly and humbly acknowledge the differences which persist, even as we try to resolve them.  The Eucharist is literally Jesus or it isn’t.  We are either saved by God’s grace alone or we need to cooperate with that grace, but not both.  The pope is either the Vicar (representative) of Christ—the visible head of the Christian Church on earth—or he isn’t. These are not mere academic or pedantic concerns: they go to the core of our Christian faith. To gloss over them, water down their meaning, or pretend they aren’t important so as to achieve “unity” is both intellectually and spiritually dishonest, and insulting to those who hold those doctrines dear.  And any “unity” achieved in such a way will be short-lived.  Speaking to the Catholic faithful:

This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal, which can hinder real progress toward unity. Their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed. (UR #24)

Truth matters. The Eucharist is Jesus, we need to cooperate with God’s grace by doing good works, and though Jesus is the Head of the Church, the pope is his vicar on earth.  But perhaps Catholics can grow in greater appreciation for the unmerited aspect of God’s grace and how popes can exercise the Petrine ministry. That Christians of all stripes have been unable to resolve these--and other issues--are some of the reasons why the efforts at unity are long in showing results.  

The Council moreover professes its awareness that human powers and capacities [alone] cannot achieve this holy objective - the reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ. It is because of this that the Council rests all its hope on the prayer of Christ for the Church, on our Father's love for us, and on the power of the Holy Spirit (UR #24)

But we need to do our part. As we strive to reunite the Christian faith, Catholics are called to work together with our “separated brethren” in social and humanitarian endeavors, to learn more about their traditions and practices, and strive to lead lives of faith and virtue.  From January 18-25 we are also asked to join with our fellow Christians and call on the Lord to make us one.

Our divided and hurting world needs Jesus now more than ever. Christians have an obligation to share His message with “all nations” (Mt. 18:19). 

And we need to do it as one.

A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.