100 years in search of Christian unity

 — Jan. 11, 200811 janv. 2008
By Michael Swan,

If you pray for something for 100 years you might find the prayer refines itself in the light of new realities, and then perhaps the prayer itself deepens your understanding and broadens your horizon. For 100 years Christians have been formally setting aside seven or eight days in January to pray with Christ for unity. “It’s really about being on our knees together and praying for the unity that is willed by God, in the way God wants, when God wants,” [Marianist] Father Luis Melo told The Catholic Register.

Melo was appointed last year to the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The University of Manitoba Catholic Studies professor will attend his first set of meetings with the august international body in Rome Jan. 17 to 27.

Ecumenism is not the odd little hobby horse of a few high Anglicans and liberal Catholics, argues Melo. Nor is it simply an item on the agenda of Pope Benedict XVI, who in his inaugural homily, April 24, 2005, preached, “Grant that we may be one flock and one shepherd! Do not allow your net to be torn; help us to be servants of unity.” Ecumenism is central to Catholic identity, said Melo.

“The Our Father is really the prayer that Jesus gave His disciples, but Jesus’ own prayer is the prayer for unity just before He dies (Jn. 17:20-24). That’s the wish and the will of a dying man,” Melo said.

After 100 years of acknowledging Jesus’ last will and testament in prayer, the theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “Pray Without Ceasing.”

“We’ve come to a new level of maturity in terms of ecumenical activity,” said Atonement Friar Father Damian MacPherson, ecumenical and interfaith affairs officer for the archdiocese of Toronto. “Perhaps that’s why it’s becoming more difficult.”

Glib talk of an easy and obvious unity among Christians may have been common in the first decade or more after the Second Vatican Council, but as churches make substantial progress — the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Lutheran World Federation and the 1965 rescinding of the excommunications of 1054 between Orthodox and Catholic Churches — ecumenists begin to see how long the road to unity might be.

“We cannot be looking for giant steps. It’s painfully slow, painfully slow,” said MacPherson. “Patience is the hallmark of the good ecumenist.”

When the Octave of Christian Unity was first promoted by American Episcopal priest Paul Watson in 1908, beginning on the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the week was really all about a Protestant return to the Catholic fold. Watson and Mother Laurana White acted on this return theology in 1909 when they asked Pope Pius X for permission to be received with their Franciscan communities into the Catholic Church.

But this return theology treated Reformation churches as simply wayward children and made no reference to the Eastern churches.

In the 1930s the Catholic vision of ecumenism was refined by Fr. Paul Couturier and Dominican theologian Fr. Yves Congar. These serious scholars placed ecumenism in its historical context, and began to think about the implications for what the church truly is — thinking that disturbed some in the Vatican.

By the 1960s Congar was rehabilitated and ecumenism was the desire of church fathers gathered for the Second Vatican Council. After the council issued Unitatis Redintegratio (the “Decree on Ecumenism”), the Chair of Unity Octave became the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 1968.

Since then it has sunk into the fabric of the church across Canada.

In Vancouver this year the big, official opening of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will be a liturgy at Holy Rosary Cathedral, but the place where ecumenism has had its most enduring presence in Vancouver is in the drug-ravaged, desperately poor downtown east side, said Vancouver archdiocese ecumenical officer Fr. David Poirier.

“The churches down there work together, and always have,” he said. “There’s just so much poverty, and just so many problems to be faced. If you don’t work together you wind up working against each other, so there’s been a good working relationship between the pastors there.”

In Edmonton there’s that same link between ecumenism and social justice.

“There’s a concern very much in our city with homelessness,” said Virginia Sharek, ecumenical officer with the eparchy of Edmonton for Ukrainian Eastern Rite Catholics. The same people who work on ecumenism also collaborate on housing issues.

Money from the collection plate at Week of Prayer for Christian Unity liturgies goes to No Room In the Inn, the churches’ joint effort to house the growing population of homeless in Edmonton.

“The history of our place has been settlers of various traditions coming and building the place together,” said Julian Hammond, the archdiocese of Edmonton’s ecumenical officer. “It’s part of the ethos of where we live and what’s happened here historically.”

That sense of ecumenism wedded to the history of a place comes through in Saskatoon, perhaps the most ecumenical community in Canada, according to Prairie Centre for Ecumenism director Nicholas Jesson. Established at first as a Methodist Temperance colony, Saskatoon’s first settlers included a Catholic family and several other denominations who for the first 20 years all worshipped together in one church. Saskatchewan is the home of the Union Churches — Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian — that went on to form the United Church of Canada. Fr. Bernard de Margerie has dedicated his ordained life, since 1958, to ecumenical work. Jesson says that older priests in the diocese call him Fr. Ecumenism.

De Margerie established the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism and has persuaded the leaders of six local churches (Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, United, Presbyterian, Anglican and Lutheran) to meet every six weeks for prayer and study. That group has reached out further to maintain contacts with Orthodox, Mennonite, Evangelical, Alliance and Pentecostal groups.

In Saskatoon, the 100th year of formal prayer for Christian unity is just business as usual — including a sacred music festival, a jazz service, a Taizé service, a youth service, a healing service and a Gen-X service.

In Winnipeg the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is part of the cultural life of the city, and is presented as a Festival of Prayer —  a natural parallel with the city’s famous Folk Festival, its Writers Festival, the bilingual Festival du Voyageur, the Comedy Festival, Jazz Festival and others.

In Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins will kick off the Week of Prayer at St. Paul’s Basilica, the corner of Power and Queen Streets, the site where Protestants and Catholics came together in 1847 to aid 38,000 Irish refugees who landed in Toronto that summer.

The idea that ecumenism is stalled or insignificant doesn’t really hold up, said MacPherson.

“It’s been a transformation in relationships that has taken place between Catholics and Protestants,” he said.

“Those who know the past appreciate the significance of the present.”

Posted: Jan. 11, 2008 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=404
Categories: Catholic RegisterIn this article: WPCU
Transmis : 11 janv. 2008 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=404
Catégorie : Catholic RegisterDans cet article : WPCU

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