The Well is Deep (Tá an Tobar Domhan) is this year’s theme chosen by the churches in Brazil for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January). It’s accompanied by the text: “Jesus said to her: ‘Give me a drink'” (John 4:7). This week marks a special time each year to reflect on our own attitude to ecumenism and to engage with other churches, according to Brian O’Leary SJ, delegate for ecumenism in the Irish Province.
He notes also that Pope Francis has so come to dominate our conversation that it is difficult to begin commenting on any issue without reference to him, and the area of ecumenism is no exception. ”Francis,” he says, “is attempting to breathe new energy into the ecumenical project, urging us not to be content with the status quo. His reaching out to the Orthodox, to Anglicans, to Lutherans and to the Reformed Churches continues the example of his predecessors.”
But surprising and potentially ground-breaking, according to Brian, has been the Pope’s friendship with Evangelicals. “In Latin America from which he came, Evangelicals are perceived as Catholicism’s great rivals, proselytising and winning converts with remarkable success. But instead of running scared or hitting back Francis befriends them, calling them his brothers and sisters, asking them to pray for him.” Brian also notes that in this context the Pope has referred to the divisions within Christianity, not as the result of human sinfulness or prejudice but as signs of the different ways in which the Spirit is present and active among believers. “How liberating a perspective! It leads him to stress how we can all enrich one another so long as we don’t keep other Christians at a distance but rather invite them closer to us.”
These insights from Brian O’Leary are important particularly in the light of the challenge to ecumenism in the country from which this year’s reflections emanate. In the introduction to the prayer booklet for the week available on ‘Churches Together in Britain and Ireland’, it is pointed out that a traditionally tolerant country like Brazil is now going through a time of real intolerance resulting in violence against minorities and vulnerable people such as women, the gay community, black and indigenous people.
This is due in no small part, it says, to competition for adherents by some Christian groups who are not part of the traditional Christian confessions. As the latter are experiencing a drop in numbers and the competition has reinforced the idea that a strong and dynamic church should have a large membership, some traditional churches are distancing themselves from the search for visible Christian unity.
The path toward Christian unity has always been a challenging one and regularly new challenges appear as others fade or are conquered. But as Brian O’Leary points out, this is now an opportune time to commit, in personal reflection and communal prayer, to making Jesus prayer ‘that we all may be one’, a reality.