Martin Luther King and Working for Christian Unity

CNS photo by Matthew Barrick: Cardinal Wuerl joins religious leaders during an interfaith service marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28 at Shiloh Baptist Church in the nation’s capital.

Today, our nation celebrates Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Although he is best known as a civil rights leader, he also played a vital role in the important work of Christian unity.

On the night before his Passion, Jesus fervently prayed to the Father that his disciples might all be one, just as he and the Father are one (John 17:11, 20-21).  In wanting us to be one, the Lord did not leave us to our own devices, but sent us the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.  With that grace, the faithful from many different lands were able to understand each other as one (Acts 2:6-11).  So it is that at Mass, we can profess our belief in One Church.

In spite of this plea of the Lord, and the grace to make it so, the Christian family has not always sought to live in unity.  For various reasons – some the result of sincere differences of understanding, but others due to a lack of patience and charity – the Church has struggled with conflicts, tensions and divisions that have pulled some members in different directions, with a number of factions no longer in communion with the Successor of Peter.   As a result, “the Church does not have the face we should like her to have,” Pope Francis observes, “she does not express love, the love that God desires. It is we who create wounds!  And if we look at the divisions that still exist among Christians – Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants – we are aware of the effort required to make this unity fully visible.”

In recent generations, important steps have been taken toward reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness.   One particular initiative is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which the Christian family throughout the world – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant – is observing from January 18 to 25.  All of this is part of a patient process of dialogue that moves us closer to truly being one body in Christ in the world as well as in the spirit.  In this ecumenical process, as with the various differences within the Catholic Church, we seek to maintain the diversity in all that is good and true, but in harmony as one family in Christ.

Especially when faced with common causes, the Christian community has been able to join together and stand united.  Rather than focusing on the differences between us, we are able to focus on what we agree on.  Among those common causes are violations of human rights, including the civil rights struggles in which Dr. King played such a crucial role.  But he did not seek to act alone – he appealed often to the basic faith of Christians of all persuasions.  Thus, Baptists and Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and more found themselves working together.

In a couple of days, we Catholics will again march side-by-side with non-Catholic Christians, this time to seek a culture of life, as we have for 40 years.  To be sure, many adults who have become Catholic did so after their exposure to the Church in the pro-life cause.

Another common cause is the violations of religious liberty, including violent persecution, that followers of Christ face throughout the world.  Accordingly, Christians are coming together to work for peace, such as the initiatives undertaken by groups like the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.  We also see that non-Catholic employers of faith and Catholic organizations are standing together in the legal fight for religious freedom and rights of conscience against the HHS mandate.

All this shows that progress toward unity is possible.  Issues like doctrine still require further dialogue.  I have the privilege of serving on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and can affirm that these efforts continue in dialogues with a number of faith communities.  However, because of the efforts of people like Dr. King, Christian brothers and sisters are walking together in a way that they have not done for a long time.   With the Holy Spirit, the Lord who creates unity in diversity, we can pray that his people be one.

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