For more than 100 years, the Catholic Church has joined with other churches and Christian communities in the celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which is observed from January 18th to the 25th.
On the night Jesus gave himself to us in the Eucharist, he prayed for his disciples, “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” (John 17:21). We recognize, however, that contrary to what the Lord wants for us, certain divisions have arisen over time within the Christian family. Thus, this week is specially set aside to join in his prayer “that [we] may all be one.”
As Catholics, we have a special responsibility to be agents of unity since we profess that the oneness Christ bestowed in his Church subsists in the Catholic Church. “Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 820).
The promotion of unity among Christians is called “ecumenism,” and we practice it in a variety of ways in our daily lives. Many of our families are made up of Christians of different faith traditions and we have prayed together at family celebrations confident in our shared belief in Jesus who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. As parishes we join neighboring Christian communities for ecumenical Thanksgiving celebrations and other services. In many of our schools, students come from a variety of Christian backgrounds and learn to pray and study together. We can also take pride in the number of charitable ministries that are partnerships among neighboring Christian groups. All of these experiences are the fruit of the renewal of the Church’s commitment to ecumenism following the Second Vatican Council’s call for increased commitment to dialogue, collaboration and fraternity.
This annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, though, is a more contemplative form of ecumenism. This year’s theme, “Give me a drink,” was chosen to highlight that unity can only be achieved in and through Jesus Christ. “Give me a drink” is the request of the Samaritan women that Jesus encountered at the well (John 4:4-42). Like the woman, whose mind and heart begin to open to the gift Jesus offers her, we know that unity sometimes requires a change of mind and heart – a conversion. In addition to shared ministry and dialogue, a shared commitment to a more fervent prayer for unity is a call to conversion.
Now, more than ever, as we expand our evangelizing efforts we must see that the lack of unity among Christians is itself an obstacle to evangelization. Pope Francis writes, “The credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize ‘the fullness of catholicity (universality) proper to her in those of her children, who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 244, quoting the Decree on Ecumenism, 4). Moreover, our Holy Father adds, our efforts toward Christian unity, journeying alongside one another as fellow pilgrims, “can be seen as a contribution to the unity of the human family” (Evangelii Gaudium, 244-5).
May we set aside time in our own lives to pray more fervently that we who call Jesus ‘Lord and Savior’ may be one in a more perfect communion.