By Fr. Eamon Kelly, LC
Everyone wants their family to be united avoiding strife and division. Nobody wants their workplace to have big internal disputes. Such division only weakens and often destroys the family or any enterprise whatsoever.
Many of our divisions are caused by real issues but they are exacerbated when we fall into selfishness and decadence and when our pride gets in the way of the common good. If political and economic interests leverage these opportunities for narrow selfish interests, humanity suffers disastrously. Should this happen within faith communities or along religious margins and borders, our vices scandalously override our faith convictions and contradict and oppose our genuine faith teachings and aspirations. Ensuing divisions cause profound harm.
People are rightly horrified over the hostilities throughout the centuries between opposing Christian sides. We remember the Crusader Sack of Constantinople in 1204 or the Thirty Years War and the Northern Ireland Troubles. However, economic and political factors dominated and weaponized religious discord for their own selfish pursuits. Believers must outgrow our differences to become, instead, active agents for reconciliation in all conflicts.
These days we find ourselves in the middle of The Week of Prayer for #ChristianUnity with the theme “You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
What has this to do with me? What has this to do in our area which has always been a Catholic or a Protestant region?
When we look closer, maybe we discover that a neighbor or even a member of our extended family goes to a different Church. Maybe you know a friend who is quite upset over such a relative who no longer comes to mass with the family at Christmas time but goes to a different kind of Church. Maybe there are a lot of new and different churches in the neighborhood.
Maybe we remember how we learned to argue about our faith and defend ourselves “from them” and prove to them with arguments that we are right and they are wrong. Has our Church changed its convictions about professing the true faith?
We recall Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper: “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
It is very clear that Jesus wants his disciples to be one fold and one shepherd. This heart-felt prayer of Jesus at such a precious moment of his life, right before suffering for us, motivates every Christian to look at the division of Christians, how deep and widespread it is and ponder what we can do to heal it.
When we read through the New Testament we begin to realize that the temptation of division began to threaten our earliest communities. Paul asks the Corinthians to overcome the tendency to create opposing loyalties for Paul and Apollo! He encouraged them to recognize that we are all growing by God’s grace and built upon one foundation, Jesus Christ.
As Jesus’ disciples began to better understand the implications of the Sacred Scriptures, some serious divisions emerged in the debate on their proper understanding. Sometimes groups of disciples wandered away from the Church and caused schisms and heresies, break-away groups. A major case was the Arian heresy. But, nowadays, the separations all Christians more painfully feel are probably the Great Schism in 1054 and the 16th century divisions following Martin Luther’s protests.
Jesus knew of division in God’s People. He came of age when God’s People was also quite divided. There was great messianic expectation which harbored firm hope in the reassembling of the twelve dispersed tribes to reunite God’s People. Jesus’ appointment of the twelve apostles reflects this expected fruit of redemption.
In the New Testament we read of major opposition between Sadducees and Pharisees. The Samaritans were despised and alienated because of professing a different faith. Yet Jesus has a profound conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Jesus showcases a good example done precisely by a Samaritan to teach his fellow Jews about love of neighbor. He helps the Roman Centurion, who is not Jewish, and liberates the Canaanite’s daughter from a demon.
The awareness of the unity of Christ’s Body, the Church, continued through the centuries. The significant efforts at the Ecumenical Council of Florence in the mid fifteenth century to overcome the Great Schism didn’t prevail. But in 1964 Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople met on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and lifted the mutual excommunication imposed in 1054. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches together began a path of prayer, reflection, study and fraternal collaboration toward restoring full communion which continues to develop.
Likewise, the various confessions in western Christianity have overcome a lot of prejudice and work together on many issues. During the Second Vatican Council, the Church renewed its focus on what we share with all baptized Christians. We still have many differences to resolve, but our starting point is to appreciate the amazing grace and blessings we share in Christ and encourage each other on this path.
During the last two centuries, the Holy Spirit has inspired people in various Christian confessions to pray for Christian Unity. In 1908 the first Octave of Unity was prayerfully observed and since then on a regular basis. The yearly dates chosen are fixed: from January 18 to 25, which is the day we celebrate St Paul’s conversion. In Jerusalem, we start a few days later to accommodate Armenian Christians’ later Christmas celebrations.
Over the last fifty years, the prayers for this Week of Prayer are prepared in a different country each year by the local ecumenical gathering. Over time, this brings out the universality of the Church beautifully and also adds the particular flavor of the life and struggles of each local Church in their own challenging contexts. The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches together with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity publish the program for each year. The reader can find extensive background information at www.christianunity.va besides thematic and program archives, going back many decades, plus the program for 2024.
The theme for 2024 is “You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Christians from various Churches in Burkina Faso prepared the materials. Each country can adapt them to their own particular situation, as needed.
This January, Pope Francis issued a special prayer request that the Holy Spirit may help us recognize the gift of different charisms within the Christian community and to love all the ecclesial and liturgical diversity of the many rites within the Catholic Church. We benefit by appreciating this diversity: “They have their own traditions, their own characteristic liturgical rites, yet they maintain the unity of the faith,” he said. “They strengthen it, not divide it.”
Maybe some readers are aware of the Maronites or the Coptic or the Armenian Catholics in their own countries or some of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Why not visit one of these Churches! Do you know some Catholics who belong to them? Oftentimes they have come to your country through emigration and have settled near you.
The Januarys of the ten years which I was blessed to live in Jerusalem were delightful because of the encounters in the various Churches. We gathered in a different one each day for the respective prayer program with particular nuances of each Church. In a very small area of the city we experience so many different Christian Churches. Most Pilgrims to Jerusalem at least become familiar with the six Churches which have Status Quo rights at the Holy Sepulcher, for instance.
Prayer moves mountains! At the Last Supper we found Jesus praying for Christian unity. The Holy Spirit harmonizes our diversity and moves each of us to conversion and to grow into the full stature of Christ. So, prayer is co-natural and a top priority on the path toward Christian unity. What prayer will you offer these days for Christian unity? Could you join or invite Christians of other confessions to pray together and have a coffee or an ice-cream together afterwards? Have you googled the prayer program for this 2024 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in your own country, or maybe you already received it from a friend? Did you check the hashtag: #ChristianUnity?
Fr. Eamon Kelly LC works at Magdala where he delights in welcoming Christians from every confession of Christian faith and sharing the treasures which Providence opened up for all of us in Magdala.