By FATHER JOHN KIERAN, Commentary | Published January 9, 2020
Once again the prayer of Jesus “that they be one” (Jn 17:21) is revisited, repeated and celebrated during the fourth week of January. The worldwide prayer time, the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was developed by Father Paul Wattson, SA, in Garrison, New York, and first observed Jan. 18-25, 1908. The octave of dedicated prayer is endorsed by the Vatican and all mainline Christian churches.
Father Wattson had an intense zeal for promoting unity in the corporate Body of Christ. His confrere said that Wattson “saw unity in the Holy Trinity, as well as unity in the Communion of Saints, as signs of what earthly unity should resemble.”
A man of deep prayer and contemplation, Father Wattson’s cause for canonization has advanced to the level of Servant of God.
All parishes are urged to observe Church Unity Week, Jan. 18-25. Some hold joint services with other local Christian groups now, or at another appropriate time. St. Andrew Church in Roswell has a yearly celebration on or about Reformation Day (Oct. 31) with a local Lutheran congregation.
St. Joseph Church in Marietta, and other parishes, regularly include prayers of petition at Sunday Masses for their partner churches. The archdiocese annually sponsors a joint evening of prayer and reflection with our sister Greek Orthodox diocese to enhance relations and understanding. A better attendance by laity and clergy could make for a greater impact by way of these ecumenical gatherings.
Many remember how Pope John XXIII led the church to a new awareness of Christ’s appeal for Christian unity. His call for all to be accountable and honor our Savior’s plea for unity, and humbly redress our sins of hostility toward other Christian groups, led to the Vatican Council’s historic decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, in November 1964.
The council’s decree on ecumenism continues to be our charter document and a place to find initial Catholic teaching. St. John Paul wrote in his encyclical letter (1995) on Ecumenism: “The Church [at the Council] committed herself irrevocably to the ecumenical venture” (#3).
The letter explained that ecumenism is not some sort of an appendix added to the church’s activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of the church’s activity (#20).
Fulfilling the command of Jesus is the duty of every Christian, and pre-requires interior conversion.
“There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart,” the letter states.
Catholics married to a person of another denomination can practice ecumenism in the home. They can draw out the best in each other by emphasizing their commonalities. We have much in common with other Christians—far, far more than what divides such as the practice and meaning of baptism. We can learn much from other Christian groups.
It was my Episcopal (Church of Ireland) mother who tutored me in memorizing the catechism, necessary for First Communion. She was the first to teach me to pray. Her devotion, her prayers every morning and night, her exemplary Christian living, implanted a strong faith formation which led to priesthood. My father was a “standby” Catholic.
Couples of different faith backgrounds can promote ecumenism in their congregations. By dialoguing with other couples, they can explore ways to enhance faith relationships and grow their union. The union between Christ and the church is the model for all married couples to live by. (see Eph 5:32).
Likewise, the union of all the baptized in Christ is foundational in pursuing the ecumenical journey. Like St. Paul, we are certain, “In him who is the source of my strength, I have the strength for all things.” (Phil 4:13).
By his grace we can deepen our union with other Christians and forward the Master’s command—that they be one.
All can make Jan. 18-25 a special time to interact with fellow Christians in love, in prayer and in fraternity—all done in his name.
Father John Kieran, senior priest, serves on the chaplaincy team at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur.