By Bishop James Massa
Christ’s last prayer on earth was for unity. In John 17, He prayed that all of His followers may be one, just as He and the Father are one in the bond of their Holy Spirit. For most of the two millennia of the Church’s history, unity has been an elusive attainment.
Already in the New Testament we see signs of fracture between those who believed that faith in Christ was sufficient for membership in the body, and those who insisted on the necessity of adopting Jewish practices. Through many conflicts on her earthly pilgrimage, the Church has been preserved from complete dissolution by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the bond of love Who unites believers with the Father and Son and believers with one another. To be a Christian is to long for unity, to pray for unity and to work for unity in both the Church at large and in the local Christian community.
For more than a hundred years, a week has been set aside on the liturgical calendar for Christians to unite in prayer so that the Church may be a sign of what God wants for all human beings. Beginning in 1908, Father Paul Wattson, a former Anglican and founder of the Society of Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, began celebrating an entire week of prayer for Christian Unity, from the original feast of the Chair of St. Peter (Jan. 18) to the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan. 25). This year, the theme is “Reconciliation – the love of Christ compels us.”
This year’s choice of reconciliation, along with the quote from 1 Cor. 5:14, grows out of a desire to commemorate the beginning of one of the great divisions in Christian history. This Oct. 31 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s publication of the Ninety-five Theses, a tract denouncing abuses over the selling of indulgences in the Church of his day. Whether the theses were actually nailed to the main north door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg, Germany, is a matter of historical judgment. But what is certain is that the aim of the Theses was to reform a penitential practice that had indeed become corrupt.
Today, Catholics and Lutherans have grown together in their understanding of Luther’s reform and in some of the arguments he advanced about salvation. Thanks to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestants and Evangelicals can say together that the path to God begins with the gift of faith in Jesus Christ and continues with works of love that both express and deepen that faith. If Luther and the other 16th-century Reformers shouted from the rooftops of old Europe: “Faith alone,” today their spiritual heirs echo back to them, and in the company of their Catholic brothers and sisters: “But never faith that is alone!” For it to be genuine, faith must be accompanied by her two sister virtues, hope and love.
In these late January days, Pope Francis and Christian leaders of all confessions invite us to examine our consciences on the basis of this year’s Christian Unity theme. Does the Lord’s love compel me to build bridges of peace and understanding with my neighbor?
Does Jesus’ prayer in John 17 correspond to the way I treat those of other beliefs and backgrounds at work and on the street?
“May they all be one” was his last prayer. How am I to answer it today?
Bishop James Massa is an Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn and the Moderator of the Curia. His episcopal motto comes from John 17:21: “Ut omnes unum sint.” (“May they all be one.”)