Address Highlights Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Everyone Has Duty to Restore Full Communion, Says John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 22, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

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1. The Lord founded the «one» and «only» Church: We profess this in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan symbol: «I believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.» «And yet, Vatican Council II reminds us, there are many Christian communities that propose themselves to men as the true legacy of Jesus Christ; all affirm that they are disciples of the Lord, but they have discordant opinions and walk on different paths, as if Christ himself were divided» («Unitatis Redintegratio,» 1).

Unity is a great gift, a gift, however, which we carry in fragile and breakable earthen vessels. The reality of this affirmation is shown in the vicissitudes of the Christian community down the centuries.

In virtue of the strength of the faith that unites us, we Christians, therefore, are obliged, each one according to his own vocation, to restore full communion, precious «treasure» left to us by Christ. With a pure and sincere heart we must work tirelessly in this evangelical task. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reminds us of this fundamental task and offers us the opportunity to pray in assemblies of different Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as to participate in joint meetings among Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, to implore with one voice and one heart for the precious gift of full unity.

2. «We hold this treasure in earthen vessels» (2 Corinthians 4:7). St. Paul says this when speaking of the apostolic ministry, which consists in making the splendor of the Gospel shine among men, and he observes: «For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus» (Ibid., 5). He knows the weight and difficulty of evangelization, as well as human fragility; he reminds us that the treasure of the Christian kerygma entrusted to us in «earthen vessels» is transmitted through weak instruments «to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us» (Ibid., 7). However, no enemy will ever succeed in supplanting the proclamation of the Gospel, or in suppressing the voice of the Apostle: «We are afflicted in every way,» St. Paul recognizes, «but not constrained» (verse 8). «We too believe,» he adds, «and therefore speak» (verse 13).

3. Jesus prayed for his disciples in the Last Supper, «so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you» (John 17:20-21). Unity, therefore, is the «treasure» he has given them. A treasure that presents two peculiar characteristics: On one hand, unity expresses fidelity to the Gospel; on the other, as the Lord himself has indicated, it is a condition in order that all will believe that he is the one sent by the Father. The unity of the Christian community, therefore, is oriented to the evangelization of all peoples.

Despite the sublimity and grandeur of this gift, human weakness is such that it has not received it and appreciated it completely. In the past, relations between Christians have at times been characterized by opposition, and in some cases even by mutual hatred. And all this, as the Second Vatican Council has rightly recalled, constitutes «scandal» for the world and «harm» for the preaching of the Gospel (see «Unitatis Redintegratio,» 1).

4. Yes! The gift of unity is contained in «earthen vessels,» which can break, and because of this require the greatest of care. It is necessary to cultivate among Christians a love that is committed to surmounting the differences; it is necessary to make the effort to overcome every barrier with incessant prayer, with persevering dialogue, and with a fraternal and concrete cooperation in favor of the poorest and neediest.

The yearning for unity should not be lacking in the daily life of the Churches and ecclesial Communities, as also in the life of individual faithful. From this perspective, it seem useful to me to propose a joint reflection on the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, constituted as «perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity» («Lumen Gentium,» 23), in order to «find a form of exercise of the primacy that, although in no way giving up the essence of his mission, is open to a new situation» («Ut Unum Sint,» 95). May the Holy Spirit enlighten the pastors and theologians of our Churches in this patient and surely profitable dialogue.

5. Looking at the whole ecumenical scene, I feel I must thank the Lord for the progress made to date, both for the quality of fraternal relations knitted among the different Communities, as well as for the fruits resulting from the theological dialogues, although diverse in their forms and levels. We can say that Christians today are closer and more in agreement, even if the road toward unity remains uphill, with obstacles and bottlenecks. Following the way indicated by the Lord, they advance confidently, because they know they are accompanied, as the disciples of Emmaus, by the risen Lord toward the goal of full ecclesial communion, which then leads to the common «breaking of the Bread.»

6. Dear Brothers and Sisters! St. Paul invites us to vigilance, perseverance and confidence, indispensable dimensions of the ecumenical commitment.

With this objective, we turn united to the Lord in this «Week of Prayer» with the invocation taken from the texts prepared for this occasion: «Holy Father, despite our weakness, you have made us witnesses of hope, faithful disciples of your Son. We carry this treasure in earthen vessels and we fear we will fail in face of sufferings and evil. At times we even doubt the power of the word of Jesus, who said ‘that they be one.’ Give us again knowledge of that glory that shines on the face of Christ, so that with our actions, our commitment, and all our life, we proclaim to the world that he is alive and that he is at work among us.» Amen

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the general audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Christ founded his Church to be one, and all Christians are called to work tirelessly for the full unity of those who follow Jesus. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity offers us the opportunity to pray together, with one voice and one heart, for the precious gift of unity. To borrow an image from St. Paul, we may say that this gift comers to us in «earthen vessels» (see 2 Corinthians 4:7). It is, therefore, fragile and must be handled with utmost care. The cause of unity is served by encouraging understanding, respect, and cooperation among all Christians. May the Lord grant us prudence, perseverance, and trust in our ecumenical undertaking.

I am pleased to extend a warm greeting to the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s audience, particularly those from Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Japan, and the United States of America. I invite all of you to offer special prayers for Christian unity during this week, and I gladly invoke upon you the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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