|Great progress and new difficulties along the path
to Christian unity
At the General Audience in
the Paul VI Audience Hall on Wednesday, 20 January , the Holy
Father commented on the ecumenical goal of visible unity among
Christians. The following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis,
which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are in the middle of the
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an ecumenical initiative which has
now been making progress for more than a century. Every year it focuses
attention on the theme of the visible unity of Christians, which
involves the consciences and stimulates the commitment of all who
believe in Christ. And it does so first of all with the invitation to
pray, in imitation of Jesus who asks the Father on his disciples'
behalf: "That they may all be one... so that the world may believe" (Jn
The persistent call to
prayer for full communion between the followers of the Lord expresses
the most genuine and profound approach of the whole ecumenical search
because, in the first place, unity is a gift of God.
Indeed, as the Second
Vatican Council states: "this holy objective
the reconciliation of all Christians in the
unity of the one and only Church of Christ
transcends human powers" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 24).
Hence, confident and harmonious prayer to the Lord is necessary, in
addition to our effort to develop brotherly relations and to promote
dialogue to clarify and to solve the divergences that separate the
Churches and Ecclesial Communities.
This year's theme is taken
from Luke's Gospel, from the last words of the Risen One to his
disciples: "You are witnesses of these things" (Lk 24:48). The
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in agreement with the
Faith and Constitution Commission of the World Council of Churches asked
a Scottish ecumenical group to propose the theme. A century ago the
World Missionary Conference: To Consider Missionary Problems in Relation
to the Non-Christian World, was held in Edinburgh, Scotland,
from 13 to 24 June 1910.
Among the problems
discussed then was that of the practical difficulty of proposing in a
credible way to the non-Christian world the Gospel proclamation by
Christians who were divided among themselves. If Christians present
themselves divided, or indeed often at odds, to a world that does not
know Christ, that has distanced itself from him or that has shown itself
to be indifferent to the Gospel, will the proclamation of Christ as the
one Saviour of the world and our peace be credible?
From that time the
relationship between unity and mission has represented an essential
dimension of all ecumenical action, as well as its starting point. And
it is because of this specific contribution that the Edinburgh
Conference remains a reference point for modern ecumenism.
At the Second Vatican
Council, the Catholic Church took up and vigorously reaffirmed this aim,
asserting that the division among Jesus' disciples not only "openly
contradicts the will of Christ, but scandalizes the world, and damages
that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature" (Unitatis
Redintegratio, n. 1).
The theme proposed in this
Week for meditation and prayer fits into this theological and spiritual
context: the need for a common testimony to Christ. The brief text
proposed as a theme, "You are witnesses of these things", must be
interpreted in the context of the whole of chapter 24 of the Gospel
according to Luke. Let us briefly recall the content of this chapter.
First the women go to the tomb, they see the signs of Jesus'
Resurrection and tell the Apostles and the other disciples what they
have seen (v. 8); then the Risen One himself appears to the disciples on
the road to Emmaus, he appears to Simon Peter and subsequently to the
"Eleven gathered together and those who were with them" (v. 33). He
opens their minds to understand the Scriptures about his redeeming death
and his Resurrection, saying that "repentance and forgiveness of sins
should be preached in his name to all nations" (v. 47).
To the disciples who were
"gathered" together and who were witnesses of his mission, the Risen
Lord promised the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. v. 49), so that together
they might bear witness to him to all the peoples. For us, from this
imperative, "of all these things", of which you are witnesses (cf. Lk
the theme of this Week for Christian Unity
two questions arise. The first is: what are "all these things"? The
second: how can we be witnesses of "all these things"?
If we look at the context
of the chapter "all these things", means first and foremost the Cross
and the 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 the gift of the
"All these things",
therefore, refers to the mystery of Christ, to the Son of God made man,
who died for us and rose, who lives for ever and thus guarantees our
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 epochs human beings have perceived the existence of God, one God,
but a God who is distant and does not show himself. In Christ this God
shows himself, the distant God becomes close. "All these things",
therefore, especially with the mystery of Christ, God made himself close
to us. This implies another dimension: Christ is never alone; he came
among us, he died alone but was raised to draw us all to him. Christ, as
Scripture says, created a body for himself, he gathered all humanity in
his reality of immortal life. Thus, in Christ who reunites humanity, we
know humanity's future: 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 "all these things"? We can only be
witnesses by knowing Christ, and in knowing Christ, also knowing God.
However, knowing Christ implies, of course, an intellectual dimension
learning what we know of Christ
but it is always much more than an intellectual process: it is an
existential process, a process of the opening of my ego, of my
transformation by the presence and power of Christ.
Thus it is also a process
of openness to all the others who must be the Body of Christ. In this
way, it is obvious that knowing Christ, as an intellectual and,
especially, an existential process, is a process that makes us
In other words, we can only
be witnesses if we know Christ personally
and not solely through others
from our own lives and from our own personal encounter with Christ.
In truly meeting him in our
life of faith we become witnesses and thus can contribute to the newness
of the world, to eternal life.
The Catechism of the
Catholic Church also gives us a clue to the content of "all these
things". The Church has gathered together and summed up the essential of
all that the Lord gave us in the Revelation in the "Niceno-Constantinopolitan
or Nicene Creed", which "draws its great authority from the
fact that it stems from the first two ecumenical Councils (in 325 and
381)" (n. 195).
explains that this Creed "remains common to all the great Churches of
both East and West to this day" (ibid.).
Consequently in this Creed
the truths of faith are found that Christians can profess and witness to
together, so that the world may believe, expressing, with their desire
and commitment to overcome the existing divergences, the will to walk
together towards full communion, the unity of the Body of Christ.
The celebration of the Week
of Prayer for Christian Unity brings us to consider other important
aspects for ecumenism and first of all the great progress achieved in
the relations between Churches and Ecclesial Communities since the
Edinburgh Conference more than a century ago.
The modern ecumenical
movement has developed so significantly that over the past century it
has become an important element in the life of the Church, recalling the
problem of unity among all Christians and sustaining the growth of
communion between them.
Not only does it encourage
fraternal relations between the Churches and Ecclesial Communities in
response to the commandment of love, but it also encourages theological
research. In addition, it involves the practical life of the Churches
and Ecclesial Communities with topics that touch on pastoral and
sacramental life, such as, for example, the mutual recognition of
Baptism, questions concerning mixed marriages, the partial cases of
comunicatio in sacris in specific, well-defined situations.
Following the trajectory of
this ecumenical spirit, contacts have continued to broaden so as to
include Pentecostal, Evangelical and Charismatic movements for greater
reciprocal knowledge, despite the many serious problems in this sector.
Since the Second Vatican
Council and thereafter the Catholic Church has entered into fraternal
relations with all the Churches of the East and with the Ecclesial
Communities of the West, in particular by organizing bilateral
theological dialogues with most of them. These have led to finding
convergences or even consensus on various points, thereby deepening the
bonds of communion.
In the year that has just
ended the groups in dialogue have recorded some positive steps. At the
11th Plenary Session that was held in Paphos, Cyprus, in October 2009,
the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue with the
Orthodox Churches embarked on the examination 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, during the time in which the Christians of East and West lived
in full communion.
This study will later be
extended to the second millennium. I have several times asked Catholics
to pray for this delicate and essential dialogue for the whole
The same Joint Commission
also met from 26 to 30 January last year with the Ancient Orthodox
Churches of the East (Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian). These
important initiatives testify that a profound dialogue full of hope is
continuing with all the Churches of the East which are not in full
communion with Rome, in their own specificity.
In the course of the past
year, the results achieved by the various dialogues that have taken
place in the past 40 years with the Western Ecclesial Communities were
examined. Special thought was given to those with the Anglican
Communion, with the Lutheran World 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
survey to list the points of convergence which have been reached in the
relative bilateral dialogues and at the same time to point out the
problems that remain open on which it will be necessary to start a new
phase of discussions.
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 31 October 2009 to
encourage the pursuit of the dialogue, as well as the visit to Rome of
Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, who also had meetings about
the specific situation of the Anglican Communion at the present time.
The common commitment to
continue relations and dialogue are a positive sign that show the strong
desire for unity despite all the problems that stand in its way. Thus we
see that a dimension of our responsibility exists in doing everything
possible to attain real unity, but there is the other dimension, that of
divine action, because God alone can give unity to the Church.
A "self-made" unity would
be human but we want the Church of God, made by God, who will create
unity when he wishes and when we are ready. We must also bear in mind
how much real progress has been achieved in collaboration and
brotherhood in all these years, in the past 50 years.
At the same we must realize
that ecumenical work is not a linear process. Indeed, old problems that
arose in the context of another epoch lose their relevance while in
today's context new problems and new difficulties arise. We must
therefore always be open to a process of purification, in which the Lord
will make us capable of being united.
Dear brothers and sisters,
I ask everyone to pray for the complex ecumenical reality, for the
promotion of dialogue, as well as in order that the Christians of our
time may give a new common witness of faithfulness to Christ in the eyes
of this world of ours, May the Lord hear our invocation and that of all
Christians which we are raising to him with special intensity during