By David Powell
Christmas Eve at the DMV – just where I wanted to be after my registration renewal never arrived in the mail! Fortunately, all went smoothly and amazingly fast. As I came back from the renewal window, I saw a gentleman, half my age, in complete Greek Orthodox clerical garb. He didn’t look too happy being here on Christmas Eve either. But I felt so happy I couldn’t help but ask foolishly: “What denomination are you?”
“Greek Orthodox” he replied, to which I responded, “Well, I am Roman Catholic, and soon, in our church we will have a week of prayer.”
He completed my sentence, “Yes, a week of prayer for Church unity, January 18 to 25.”
I went back to my seat somewhat embarrassed, but before I left I went to tell him how much I appreciated meeting him and he responded briefly, but warmly as he waited for his number to be called.
As I write this I wonder how many Roman Catholics even know that Jan. 18-25 is an official week of prayer for church unity in our liturgical calendar, much less observe it. These days we tend to get so caught up in renewal of our “Catholic identity” that we tend to overlook the scandal that horrified St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, namely that the church of Jesus is being divided into factions.
“Let me put it this way,” he wrote, “each one of us says something different, one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ another ‘I follow Peter’ and another ‘I follow Christ.’” Christ has been divided into groups. Was it Paul who died on the cross for you? Were you baptized as Paul’s disciples?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)
Commenting on this in the opening paragraph of their decree on ecumenism, the Vatican II bishops wrote the following in 1964: “Many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world.” In article three, the bishops admit that the Catholic Church shares in the responsibility of this open contradiction of Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17:21: “I pray that they may all be one, Father! May they be in us just as you are in me, and I am in you. May they be one that the world will believe that you sent me.”
If Paul were horrified at the mere thought of the Church of Jesus in Corinth being split into factions, imagine his shock at the centuries-old division of the Church into rigid denominations: instead of calling themselves Christian, they call themselves Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, etc. So let all denominations begin by acknowledging this horrific state of sin we live in: “We confess to almighty God, and to you, our brothers and sisters that we have sinned through our fault, through our fault, through our most grievous fault.” Once again, as the Vatican II bishops state in chapter two section seven of their decree, “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from newness of attitudes… that yearnings for unity take their rise and grow toward maturity.
On a positive note, since 1908 the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor in Garrison, N.Y., have been devoted to the cause of the church unity and were partially responsible for the establishment of the week of prayer. Then there is the extraordinary movement in Taize, France. When their founder, Brother Roger was murdered some years back, Pope Benedict arranged that an open-air funeral be celebrated by one of Rome’s leading cardinals who was instructed to announce to the thousands of Christians from all denominations who attended, “Today all are welcome to receive the Eucharist as a sign that today Christian unity is truly expressed.”
So yes, much progress has been made. As far back as 1908, the esteemed Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner came up with a very short, but detailed plan, called “Unity of the Churches: An Actual Possibility.” This article contains very specific proposals for the establishment of a concordat for partner churches including recognition of “the meaning and right of the Petrine service of the Roman pope to be the concrete guarantor of the unity of the church in truth and love.”
In addition to the wonderful brief prayers for Church unity throughout the canon of the Mass, there is this prayer from the Office of the Blessed Sacrament prayer book of the Nocturnal Adoration Society:
“Lord Jesus, you correct injustices and gather together the dispersed to guide and protect them – mercifully give all Christians the true spirit of unity that they may overlook their differences and unite to serve you worthily in a common faith.”
Then, there are the words of the classic hymn, “At that first Eucharist before you died, O Lord you prayed that all be one in you; at this our Eucharist again preside, and in our hearts your love renew. Thus, may we all one bread one body be, through this blest sacrament of unity.”
Amen. Let it be done according to Your Word.
Powell and his wife direct the faith formation program at Our Lady of Mercy Church, Forest Hills.