As January ushers in the New Year, with an expectation of a better year and a brighter future, it also offers another reason for us to hope, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This event is celebrated every year, from January 18 to 25, by different Churches and ecclesial communities worldwide.

Big trees come from small seeds. This celebration started as the commitment of a prayer movement that initially attracted very few followers, but now it has gained impetus in practically all Christian Churches and ecclesial communities. This is but one of many small steps being taken towards the restoration of unity among all Christians, i.e., the ecumenical movement, which started outside the Catholic Church and achieved a decisive breakthrough with the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

Although the Popes starting from Leo XIII to Benedict XV paved the way for ecumenism, for a long time most of the Catholic Church looked upon the ecumenical movement with suspicion. In a precious document back in 1950, Pope Pius XII expressly attributed this movement to the influence of the Holy Spirit. Finally, in 1964, the Second Vatican Council published Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism. In its introduction we read: “Christ the Lord founded one church and one church only; division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel”.
Giant strides in ecumenism have been made. Far from being exhaustive, here are a few recent significant examples.

In late 2016, Pope Francis, at the invitation of the Lutheran World Federation, travelled to Lund, Sweden, for the opening commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. A few months later, the Holy Father received an ecumenical delegation from Finland before whose members he reiterated that Martin Luther’s intention, five hundred years ago, was to renew the Church and not divide her. Eighteen years ago the Lutheran World Federation and the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued a joint declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Recently, another joint document produced, entitled: “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017”.

On February 12, 2016, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia met at the Havana Airport in Cuba. This was the first time, since the division of the Church in 1054, that the highest authority of the Russian Orthodox Church had a personal encounter with the Catholic Supreme Pontiff. Their joint declaration affirmed their determination to do all that was necessary to overcome the historical divergences they have inherited.

In May 2014, a private meeting took place in Jerusalem between Pope Francis and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, also in Jerusalem, which led to the removal of the acts of mutual excommunication in 1054. In their common declaration Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew defined their meeting as a “new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity”.

The audience accorded by Pope Francis, last August 24, 2017, to the World Council of Churches’ general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit and its Central Committee moderator Dr. Agnes Abuom demonstrates the cordial relations between the Catholic Church and the Council after a past of diffidence. Two Popes have since visited the WCC headquarters in Geneva.

This is the crown of a tree whose roots dig deep into the life of Christians individually, but even more, collectively. Chiara Lubich, who played an important role in the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the other Christian Churches, often reminded us of an important lesson from history. There is no guarantee of success in the ecumenical field if the common people are not involved in the process. A past attempt at unification
at the top failed because the people remained divided. The step towards unity did not trickle down to the single members of both churches.

Dialogue is a demanding process. So far three types of dialogue have passed the test: that of charity as when Patriarch Athenagoras sent gifts to Pope Paul VI and the Pope reciprocated the gift; the dialogue of prayer, like when we pray together during the Week of prayer for Christian unity; and theological dialogue, a very important dialogue among experts. Now, a fourth dialogue needs to be strengthened, a dialogue that goes on day after day with every person who comes our way. This is the dialogue of life, or the dialogue of a people that is Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, of the Reformed Church, but is already one people, the Christian people of our century.

A utopia? No, because this people already exists! For example, in the Focolare Movement which Chiara Lubich founded, its members include Christians of different denominations who feel that they cannot be separated from each other because they are one in Christ. They are united and fully respect each other’s diversity. A foretaste of the Church when full communion shall be achieved? Why not? After all Christ himself indicated the way: “Love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15: 12-13).

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