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Christian unity – ‘unimaginable’ progress

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity took place worldwide from 18-25 January, 2019. Tom Layden SJ, Jesuit Coordinator of Ecumenism in Ireland, wrote to the Province, encouraging all to participate in the week and reported “unimaginable” progress in recent years.

The material for the Week of Prayer came from Christians in Indonesia. The theme ‘Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue…’ (Deuteronomy 16: 18-20) spoke powerfully to their situation of ethnic and religious diversity where there is a strong emphasis upon the need for a unity that is found in diversity and built on solidarity and collaboration.

The inauguration was marked in Rome on 18 January with the celebration of evening Vespers in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. At the event, Pope Francis and other Christian leaders prayed at the tomb of Saint Paul and participated in the service.

The Pope spoke about enriching one another’s traditions: “The worship befitting the kingdom, the worship demanded by justice, is a celebration that includes everyone, a feast in which gifts received are available to and shared by all. To take the first steps towards the promised land that is our unity, we must first of all recognize with humility that the blessings we have received are not ours by right, but have come to us as a gift; they were given to be shared with others.

“Then, we must acknowledge the value of the grace granted to other Christian communities. As a result, we will want to partake of the gifts of others. A Christian people renewed and enriched by this exchange of gifts will be a people capable of journeying firmly and confidently on the path that leads to unity”.

The Week of Prayer began in Ireland with an Interdenominational Service at the Church of St John the Baptist, Church of Ireland, Clontarf, where Fr Fachtna McCarthy from St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, gave the sermon.

Reverend Leslie Robinson, parish priest of the hosting parish, reported excellent relationships between the churches in Clontarf – three Catholic parishes, a Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland parish.

She said: “We just work together and try to provide a united front and provide a Christian witness in a world which is becoming increasingly secular and anti-Church and anti-religion, or anti-formal religion at least. So I think we feel we have a common purpose.”

In his letter to the Irish Province, Fr Layden said that the Indonesian perspective invited the faithful to reflect more deeply on the divisions encountered in Ireland and to work actively to promote cooperation and solidarity among all in the spirit of the Gospel.

He referred to other times throughout the year when Christians of many traditions gathered together, including Evensong in Thanksgiving for the Life of Blessed John Sullivan in St Macartin’s Cathedral in Enniskillen last April and the inter-church gatherings to celebrate St Patrick’s Day and Pentecost. “There is now an ease in praying together that would have seemed unimaginable not so many years ago”, he said.

At the same time, Fr Layden noted that the Week of Prayer offered the Province a particular opportunity to “celebrate what we have in common, to express regret for the pain caused by our divisions and to ask the Lord to strengthen us in the hope that we will all be one someday in the future”.

He offered some suggestions to participate in the week including remembering the intentions in personal and communal prayer, attending a Sunday Service in a church of another tradition and inviting a Christian of another tradition to join a community for shared prayer or for a meal.

The eight-day ecumenical event dates to 18-25 January 1908 because at the time 18 January marked the Feast of the Chair of St Peter in Rome and 25 January the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. The vision was broadened in the 1930s when the Abbé Courier of Lyon insisted that “we must pray not that others may be converted to us but that we may all be drawn closer to Christ”. He stressed that the week must be prayer for the “unity Christ wills and by the means he wills”.

The Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council, published in 1964, emphasised that prayer is the soul of the ecumenical movement and encouraged observance of the Week of Prayer.

The World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity were responsible for filtering the initial work of the Christian communities in Indonesia for use worldwide.

Fr Layden ended his letter this year in prayer. “May the Spirit of Unity continue to be active in our midst. We give thanks for the growth in unity which we have seen in the past half century and we ask the Lord’s blessing on the work that still needs to be done.”