This is the end of the Week (originally, the Octave) of Prayer for Christian Unity. It ends on the 25th of January, the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and it’s a good time for us to pray for our own continued conversion to our Lord.
The concept goes back to 1908 and Rev Paul Wattson, a Graymoor Franciscan (Graymoors are still in the forefront of ecumenical activities. Also known as Atonement Friars, they run the important Centro pro Unione—Center for Unity– in Rome.) Wattson was himself a convert, and he thought that there was truth in a version of the old saying, “The family that prays together stays together.” His idea: “The family that prays together comes back together.” And so we pray. And in various places (like here at Our Savior this past Thursday) events are sponsored that encourage fraternal dialogue, understanding, and respect.
But I wonder: how much do Catholics really understand about the official teaching of the Catholic Church on our relations with other Christians? For example, we all know that the Catholic Church (as well as the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches) regard reception of the Eucharist as the seal of unity and not a vehicle for it: we do not practice “open communion.” But Vatican II teaches that the fundamental basis for being incorporated into the Body of Christ is not reception of Eucharist but of Baptism (Lumen Gentium 14). This means that Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists… being baptized in water in the Name of the Trinity are ALL members of the Body of Christ. It means that we are in a real, even if imperfect, communion” with one another (Unitatis Redintegratio 3). It means that we reject the language of “heretics and schismatics” who must repent and return; it means that we all, as “separated brethren,” must work together and move forward to that unity desired by Jesus (John 17:20-23), without which our witness and efforts of evangelization are compromised.
Can we come together effectively in the face of so many disagreements of substance—church polity (is the congregation in charge, or the pastor, or a bishop, or a pope?), sexuality (should we recognize and bless same-sex relationships?), life (how must we face the issue of abortion?) and so on. The future seems bleak in many ways. But I am reminded of the Gospel which was read a few days ago for the Memorial of St Anthony of the Desert, in response to the disciples’ question about being able to be saved (since the rich will have the hardest time). Jesus’ response: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). And so we pray and work, and we beg that we be vehicles and not obstacles to His will and work.