Full Christian Unity Can Be Achieved

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

General Audience 30 August 1995

1. In view of the present divisions among Christians, there might be a temptation to think that the unity of Christ's Church does not exist or that it is merely a beautiful ideal to strive for but which will only be achieved in eschatology.

However, the faith tells us that the Church's unity is not only a future hope: it already exists. Jesus Christ did not pray for it in vain. Nevertheless, unity has not yet reached its visible achievement among Christians and indeed, as is well known, down the centuries it has been subject to various difficulties and trials.

Similarly, it should be said that the Church is holy, but her holiness requires a constant process of conversion and renewal by the faithful as individuals and by communities. This also includes the humble request for the forgiveness of sins committed. Moreover, the Church is catholic, but her universal dimension must increasingly be expressed in missionary activity, inculturation of the faith and ecumenical effort guided by the Holy Spirit, until the divine call to faith in Christ is fully achieved.

2. Thus the problem of ecumenism is not to bring about from nothing a unity that does not yet exist, but to live fully and faithfully, under the action of the Holy Spirit, that unity in which the Church was constituted by Christ. In this way the true meaning of prayer for unity and of the efforts made to further understanding among Christians becomes clear (cf. Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, n. 21). Creating agreements is not merely a question of gathering together people of goodwill; rather, it is necessary to accept fully the unity desired by Christ and continuously bestowed by the Spirit. This cannot be reached simply by convergences agreed on from below: rather it is necessary for each to be open to sincerely accepting the impulse that comes from on high, docilely following the action of the Spirit who wants to unite men in "one flock" under "one Shepherd" (cf. Jn 10:16), Christ the Lord.

3 The Church's unity must therefore be considered primarily as a gift that comes from on high. A redeemed people, the Church has a unique structure that differs from that which regulates human societies. When the latter have reached the necessary maturity and through their own procedures, they give themselves a governing authority and seek to ensure the contribution of all to the common good.

The Church, instead, receives her institution and structure from Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, who founded her. He founded her by his own authority, choosing 12 men and making them Apostles, that is, messengers to continue his work in his name.

Among these Twelve he chose one, the Apostle Peter, to whom he said: "Simon, Simon ... I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22:31-32).

So Peter was one of the Twelve, with the same tasks as the other Apostles; however, Christ wished to entrust him with an additional task: that of confirming his brethren in the faith and in the concern of mutual charity. The ministry of the Successor of Peter is a gift which Christ gave his Bride, so that in every age the unity of the whole People of God would be preserved and fostered. The Bishop of Rome is therefore the servus servorum Dei, established by God as the "perpetual and visible source and foundation of unity" (Lumen gentium, n. 23; cf. Ut unum sint, nn. 88-96).

4. The Church's unity will not be expressed to the full until Christians make Christ's desire their own, accepting among his gifts of grace the authority he gave to his Apostles, that authority which today is exercised by the Bishops, their successors, in communion with the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter. Around this divinely instituted "cenacle of apostolicity", that same unity of all the faithful in Christ, for which he prayed intensely, must be achieved at the visible level through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It would not be in keeping with Scripture and Tradition to hypothesize a type of authority in the Church modeled on the political systems that have developed throughout the history of humanity. On the contrary, according to her Founder's idea and example, those who are called to belong to the apostolic college are required to serve, as Christ did. In the Upper Room he began the Last Supper by washing the Apostles' feet. "The Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). To serve the People of God so that they might all have one heart and one mind!

5. This is the basis of the Church's structure. But history reminds us that this ministry has left in the minds of the Christians of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities painful memories which need to be purified. The human weakness of Peter (cf. Mt 16:23), of Paul (cf. 2 Cor 12:9-10) and the Apostles emphasizes the value of God's mercy and the power of his grace. The Gospel traditions, in fact, teach us that it is precisely this power of grace that transforms those called to follow the Lord and unites them in him. The ministry of Peter and his successors, within the college of the Apostles and their successors, is "a ministry of mercy, born of an act of Christ's own mercy" (Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, n. 93).

The Good Shepherd desired that down the centuries his voice of truth should be heard by the whole flock he purchased by his sacrifice. This is why he entrusted to the Eleven with Peter as head, and to their successors, the mission to watch like sentries so that the una, sancta, catholica et apostolica Ecclesia might be realized in each of the particular Church-es entrusted to them. Thus in the communion of Pastors with the Bishop of Rome there is achieved the witness to truth that is also a service to unity, in which the role of the Successor of Peter has a very special place.

6. At the dawn of the new millennium, how can we not invoke for all Christians the grace of that unity merited for them by the Lord Jesus at so high a price? The unity of faith, in adherence to revealed Truth; the unity of hope, in the journey towards the fulfillment of God's kingdom; the unity of charity, with its multiple forms and applications in all areas of human life. In this unity all conflicts can be resolved, and all separated Christians can find reconciliation, in order to reach the goal of full and visible communion.

"And should we ask if all this is possible, the answer will always be `yes'. It is the same answer which Mary of Nazareth heard: with God, nothing is impossible" (Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, n. 102). At the end of this cycle of catecheses, the Apostle Paul's exhortation comes to mind: "Mend your ways, heed my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.... The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor 13:11, 14).


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 September 1995, p. 7

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