On Christian Unity in 2009

"When He Wishes and When We Are Prepared, [God] Will Create Unity"

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 20, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall.



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Dear brothers and sisters,
 
We are in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an ecumenical initiative, which has been in the making now for more than a century, and which every year attracts attention to a topic: that of the visible unity between Christians, which calls to consciences and stimulates to commitment for all those who believe in Christ. And it does so above all with the invitation to prayer, in imitation of Jesus himself, who prays to the Father for his disciples: "That they may all be one ... so that the world may believe" (John 17:21).

The persistent call to prayer for full communion among the followers of the Lord manifests the most authentic and profound orientation of the whole ecumenical quest, because unity, before anything else, is a gift of God. In fact, as the Second Vatican Council affirms: "Human powers and capacities cannot achieve this holy objective -- the reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ" (Unitatis Redintegratio, 24). Hence, what is necessary, beyond our effort to carry out fraternal relations and to promote dialogue to clarify and resolve the differences that separate the Churches and ecclesial communities, is confident and concordant invocation of the Lord.
 
The theme of this year is taken from the Gospel of St. Luke, from the last words of the Risen One to his disciples: "You are witnesses of these things" (Luke 24:48). The proposal of the theme was requested by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in agreement with the Faith and Order Commission of the Ecumenical [World] Council of Churches, from an ecumenical group of Scotland. A century ago, the World Mission Conference for the consideration of problems in reference to the non-Christian world took place in fact in Edinburgh, in Scotland, June 13-24, 1910.

Among the problems discussed then was that of the objective difficulty of Christians divided among themselves credibly proposing the evangelical proclamation to the non-Christian world. If Christians present themselves disunited, moreover, often in opposition, will the proclamation of Christ as the only Savior of the world and our peace be credible to a world that does not know Christ or that has distanced itself from him, or that appears indifferent to the Gospel?

The relation between unity and mission since that moment has been an essential dimension of the whole ecumenical effort and its point of departure. And it is because of this specific contribution that the Edinburgh Conference remains as one of the firm points of modern ecumenism. At Vatican II, the Catholic Church took up and reaffirmed vigorously this perspective, affirming that the division between the disciples of Jesus "openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature" (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1).
 
Situated in this theological and spiritual context is the theme proposed in this week for meditation and prayer: the need of a common witness of Christ. The brief text proposed as theme, "You are witnesses of these things," must be read in the context of the whole of Chapter 24 of the Gospel according to Luke.

Let us recall briefly the content of this chapter. First the women go to the sepulcher, see the signs of the resurrection of Jesus and announce what they have seen to the apostles and to the other disciples (verse 8); then the Risen One himself appears to the disciples of Emmaus along the road, he appears to Simon Peter and, successively, to "the Eleven and those with them" (verse 33). He opens the mind to the understanding of Scriptures on his redeeming death and his resurrection, affirming that "repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations" (verse 47). To the disciples who are "gathered" together and who have been witnesses of his mission, the Risen Lord promises the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. verse 49), so that together they will give witness of him to all peoples. From this imperative -- "of these things" you are witnesses (cf. Luke 24:48), which is the theme of this Week for Christian Unity -- two questions arise for us. The first: What are "these things"? The second: How can we be witnesses of "these things"?
 
If we look at the context of the chapter, "these things" means above all the cross and resurrection: The disciples have seen the Lord's crucifixion, they see the Risen One and thus begin to understand all the Scriptures that speak of the mystery of the passion and of the gift of the resurrection. "These things," therefore, is the mystery of Christ, of the Son of God made man, who died for us and was resurrected, is alive forever and thus the guarantee of our eternal life.
 
However, by knowing Christ -- this is the essential point -- we know the face of God. Christ is above all the revelation of God. In all times, men have perceived the existence of God, an only God, but who is far away and does not show himself. In Christ this God shows himself; the distant God becomes close. "These things," therefore, above all with the mystery of Christ, is that God has become close to us. This implies another dimension: Christ is never alone; he came in our midst, died alone, but resurrected to attract everyone to himself. As Scripture says, Christ created a body for himself, gathers the whole of humanity in his reality of immortal life. And thus, in Christ who gathers humanity, we know the future of humanity: eternal life. All this, therefore, is very simple, in the last instance: We know God by knowing Christ, his body, the mystery of the Church and the promise of eternal life.
 
We now come to the second question: How can we be witnesses of "these things"? We can be witnesses only by knowing Christ and, knowing Christ, also knowing God. But to know Christ certainly implies an intellectual dimension -- to learn what we know of Christ -- but it is always much more than an intellectual process: It is an existential process, it is a process of an opening of my "I," of my transformation because of the presence and strength of Christ, and thus it is also a process of openness to all others, who must be body of Christ. In this way, it is evident that knowing Christ, as an intellectual and above all an existential process, is a process that makes us witnesses. In other words, we can be witnesses only if we know Christ first hand, and not only through others -- from our own life, from our personal encounter with Christ. Finding him really in our life of faith, we become witnesses and can contribute to the novelty of the world, to eternal life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also gives us an indication for the content of "these things." The Church has gathered and summarized the essential of what the Lord has given us in Revelation, in the "creed called Niceno-Constantinopolitan, (which) draws its great authority from the fact that it stems from the first two Ecumenical Councils (in 325 and 381)" (CCC, No. 195). The Catechism specifies that this Symbol "remains common to all the great Churches of both East and West to this day" (ibid.) Hence, in this Symbol are found the truths of the faith which Christians can profess and witness together, so that the world will believe, manifesting, with the desire and commitment to overcome existing differences, the will to walk toward full communion, the unity of the Body of Christ.
 
The celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity leads us to consider other important aspects for ecumenism -- above all, the great progress made in relations between Churches and ecclesial communities after the Edinburgh Conference of a century ago. The modern ecumenical movement has developed so significantly that, over the last century, it has become an important element in the life of the Church, recalling the problem of union among all Christians and also supporting the growth of communion among them. This not only favors fraternal relations between the Churches and ecclesial communities in response to the commandment of love, but it also stimulates theological research. Moreover, it involves the concrete life of the Churches and of the ecclesial communities with topics that touch upon pastoral care and the sacramental life as, for example, the mutual recognition of baptism, the issues relating to mixed marriages, the partial cases of comunicatio in sacris in well-defined particular situations. In the wake of this ecumenical spirit, contacts have spread also to Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic movements, for greater reciprocal knowledge, though serious problems are not lacking in this sector.
 
Since Vatican II and thereafter, the Catholic Church has entered into fraternal relations with all the Churches of the East and the ecclesial communities of the West, organizing, in particular, with the majority of them, bilateral theological dialogues, which have led to the finding of convergences and even consensus on several points, thus deepening the bonds of communion.

In the year that just ended, these dialogues have achieved positive steps. With the Orthodox Churches, the Mixed International Commission for Theological Dialogue has begun, in the 11th Plenary Session held in Paphos (Cyprus) in October of 2009, the study of a crucial topic in the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox: the role of the Bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium, that is to say, at the time in which Christians of the East and West lived in full communion. This study will be extended later to the second millennium. I have already asked Catholics many times for prayer for this delicate and essential dialogue for the whole ecumenical movement. Also with the Ancient Orthodox Churches of the East (Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian), the similar Mixed Commission met from the 26th to the 30th of January of last year. These important initiatives attest that at present there is a profound dialogue rich in hopes with all the Churches of the East not in full communion with Rome, in their own specificity.
 
Examined during last year, with the ecclesial communities of the West, were the results reached in the different dialogues over the past 40 years, reflecting in particular on those held with the Anglican Communion, with the World Lutheran Federation, with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and with the World Methodist Council. In this regard, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity made a study to see the points of convergence that have been reached in the respective bilateral dialogues, and to point out, at the same time, the remaining problems, about which a new phase of meeting will have to be initiated.
 
Among the recent events, I would like to mention the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, celebrated by Catholics and Lutherans together on Oct. 31, 2009; to stimulate the continuation of dialogue, as well as the visit to Rome of the archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Rowan Williams, who has also held conversations on the particular situation in which the Anglican Communion finds itself. The common commitment to continue relations and dialogue are a positive sign, which manifest how intense the desire for unity is, despite all the problems that oppose it. Thus we see that there is a dimension of our responsibility to do everything possible to really attain unity, but that there is another dimension, that of divine action, because only God can give unity to the Church. A "self-made" unity would be human, but we want the Church of God, made by God, who -- when he wishes and when we are prepared -- will create unity.

We must also keep in mind the real progress reached in collaboration and fraternity in all these years, [and] in these last 50 years. At the same time, we must know that the ecumenical endeavor is not a lineal process. In fact, old problems, born in the context of another time, lose their weight, while in the present context new problems and new difficulties arise. Therefore, we must always be ready for a process of purification, in which the Lord will make us capable of being united.
 
Dear brothers and sisters, because of the complex ecumenical reality, because of the promotion of dialogue, and also so that Christians of our time can give a new common witness of fidelity to Christ before this world of ours, I ask for everyone's prayer. May the Lord hear our invocation and that of all Christians, which in this week is raised to him with particular intensity.

[Translation by ZENIT]
 
[At the end of the audience, the Pope greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]
 
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
 
Today's Audience takes place during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when the Lord's followers are asked to reflect on the tragedy of their divisions and to pray with him "that they may all be one ... that the world may believe" (cf. Jn 17:21). The theme chosen for this year -- "You are witnesses of these things" (Lk 24:48) -- brings out this close bond between Christian unity and evangelization. This was a major concern of the Edinburgh Conference, which marked the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement one hundred years ago. Today's increasingly secularized society urgently requires a united witness to Jesus Christ grounded in a common profession of faith, as well as fraternal cooperation between separated Christians, dialogue and deeper reflection on the points of continuing divergence. During this Week I ask all of you to join me in praying for these intentions, in thanking God for the ecumenical progress made in the past year, and in asking that Christians of our time, by growing in unity, may offer an ever more convincing witness to the Risen Lord.
 
I extend warm greetings to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors here today, especially to the groups from Sweden, South Korea and the United States of America. In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity it is a particular joy to welcome the members of the Continuation Committee of Ecumenism in the Twenty-first Century. Upon all of you and your families I cordially invoke God's abundant blessings.

©Copyright 2010 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
 
[In Italian, he said:]
 
My thoughts go finally, as usual, to young people, the sick and newlyweds, whom today I would like to exhort to translate the prayer for Christian unity into concrete attitudes. These days of reflection constitute for you, dear young people, an invitation to be agents of peace and reconciliation in all places; for you, dear sick people, a propitious moment to offer your sufferings for an ever fuller communion of Christians; and for you, dear newlyweds, the occasion to live yet more fully your special vocation with only one heart and one soul.

[Translation by ZENIT]