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The Very Rev. Thomas A. Baima is Vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: An Occasion for Joy

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” With these words, Pope Francis opened his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Since the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church elected him Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church, Francis has expressed himself with a simple directness that calls all Christians back to the essential core of the Lord Jesus’ teaching.

His topic in the apostolic exhortation is evangelization, proclaiming the Gospel to all the nations. Certainly, Pope Francis himself has been doing this since he stepped out onto the balcony above Saint Peter’s square in Rome. Now, he invites us to do so as well in a myriad of ways – some dramatic in their simplicity.

Cardinal George has commented that the choice of the papal name “Francis” represented a program for the pontificate. We see that program in the dramatic, universal gestures through which Pope Francis speaks. And now, in the apostolic exhortation, we hear the program in his own words.

There are three distinct messages in the exhortation: a recovery of the meaning of baptism, a demand of economic justice for the poor, and a call for dialogue, especially social, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue as the way the Church will engage the world in the third millennium.

The Pope named the full range of dialogue necessary for the Church to engage “all the nations.” He spoke first of social dialogue, of the need to place justice and charity at the center of the witness which Christians offer to the world. Quite simply, the world will recognize us as disciples of Jesus Christ by our love. If they cannot see love in our actions, they will never listen to our words. The Pope writes:

I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). (EG no. 99)

The same is true when it comes to the explicit proclamation of the Gospel. Our credibility will be judged on how we Christians live in communion with other Christians. The division of the Churches and ecclesial communities is a scandal. It stands in the way of people hearing the good news that Jesus is Lord. The Pope writes:

Commitment to ecumenism responds to the prayer of the Lord Jesus that “they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). 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 proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her”. We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face. (EG 244)

All of this points to the sad fact that we cannot begin an effective evangelization of the nations, so long as the Churches and Christian communities are divided. We must attend to our division so that the joyful message of the Gospel can be heard with all its beauty. Each year, Christians throughout the world set aside one week in January to do just that.

From the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter to the Conversion of Saint Paul (January 18 to 25), Christians engage in “spiritual ecumenism” through prayer and joint worship to bring about the restoration of unity among us. Each year, the Holy See and the World Council of Churches collaborate in planning the observance by producing resources for local churches and communities to use in prayer. This year’s theme was developed by church organizations in Canada and invites us to explore the biblical text of Corinthians focusing on the question “Has Christ Been Divided?”

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. The Cross of Christ must not be emptied of its power!" (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:1—17)

The Archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs assists parishes in preparing for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. At a minimum, we hope that every parish will add a petition to the Universal Prayer at each Mass from January 18-25: “That Christians everywhere might have sincere trust in one another as fellow pilgrims, and put aside all suspicion or mistrust, turning their gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face in Jesus Christ, we pray to the Lord.”

For many other resources visit: www.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/

Additionally, as the Week of Prayer in the United States falls at the same time as the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, one ecumenical event will bring together Christians who share a conviction about the protection of innocent life. Christians from a number of different communities will join together for the Chicago March for Life, Sunday, January 19 from 1 - 3 p.m. at the Federal Plaza (50 W. Adams, Chicago) making common cause in defense of life. More information can be found at www.marchforlifechicago.com

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