On Seeking Christian Unity

«We Should Respond With Generosity»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 21, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered during today’s general audience in Paul VI Hall.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began last Sunday and will conclude this Sunday, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Apostle. This is a beautiful spiritual initiative, which is spreading more and more among Christians, in harmony, and we could say, in response to the pressing invocation that Jesus directed to the Father from the Upper Room: «That they may all be one, that the world may believe that you sent me» (John 17:21).

On four occasions during this priestly prayer, the Lord asks that his disciples be one, according to the image of the unity between the Father and the Son. This is a unity that can only grow in the example of the surrender of the Son to the Father, that is, going out of oneself and uniting oneself to Christ. Twice, moreover, in this prayer, Jesus adds as the objective of this union: That the world may believe. Full unity is connected, therefore with the life and the very mission of the Church in the world. [The Church] should live a unity that can only be derived from her unity with Christ, with its transcendence, as a sign that Christ is the truth.

This is our responsibility: That the gift of unity be visible for the world, in virtue of which our faith is made credible. For this, it is important that each Christian community become aware of the urgency of working in every way possible to reach this grand objective. Only going out of ourselves and toward Christ, only in this relationship with him can we come to be truly united among ourselves. This is the invitation that, with the present week [of prayer], is directed to believers in Christ of every Church and ecclesial community; to him, dear brothers and sisters, we should respond with generosity.

This year, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity proposes for our meditation and prayer words taken from the book of the prophet Ezekiel: «That They May Become One in Your Hand» (37:17). The theme was chosen by an ecumenical group from Korea and then revised for its international use by the Mixed Committee of Prayer, formed by representatives of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Ecumenical Council of the Churches of Geneva. The process itself of preparation has been a stimulating and fruitful exercise of authentic ecumenism.

In the passage of the book of the prophet Ezekiel from which the theme has been taken, the Lord orders the prophet to take two sticks, one as a symbol of Judah and his tribes and the other as a symbol of Joseph and of the whole house of Israel united to him, and he asks him to «join» the two such that they form «just one stick» in his hand. The parable of unity is transparent. To the «sons of the people» who ask for an explanation, Ezekiel, enlightened from on high, will say that the Lord himself takes the two sticks and joins them, such that the two kingdoms with their respective tribes, divided among themselves, become «one in your hand.» The hand of the prophet, which joins the two shoots, is considered as the hand of God himself that gathers and unites his people and finally, the whole of humanity.

We can apply the words of the prophet to Christians, as an exhortation to pray and to work, doing everything possible so that the unity of all the disciples of Christ is fulfilled, to work so that our hand is an instrument of the unifying hand of God. This exhortation appears particularly moving and urgent in the words of Jesus after the Last Supper. The Lord wants his entire people to walk — and he sees in this the Church of the future, of future centuries — with patience and perseverance toward the fulfillment of full union. This is a commitment that implies the docile and humble adherence to the commandment of the Lord, who blesses it and makes it fruitful. The prophet Ezekiel assures us that it will be precisely him, our only Lord, the only God, who takes us in «his hand.»

In the second part of the biblical reading, the meaning and the conditions for the unity of the various tribes in just one kingdom are considered in depth. In the dispersion among the Gentiles, the Israelites had learned erroneous cults, had assimilated mistaken concepts of life, had taken on customs foreign to divine law. Now the Lord declares that they will no longer be contaminated with idols from the pagan peoples, with their abominations, with all of their iniquities (cf. Ezekiel 37:23). He reclaims the need to liberate them from sin, to purify their heart: «I will deliver them from all their sins of apostasy,» he affirms» and cleanse them.» And thus, «they may be my people and I may be their God» (ibid.)

In this condition of interior renovation, they will «live by my statutes and carefully observe my decrees.» And the prophetic text concludes with the definitive and fully salvific promise: «I will make with them a covenant of peace … and put my sanctuary among them forever» (Ezekiel 37:26).

Ezekiel’s vision is particularly eloquent for the whole ecumenical movement because it makes clear the unavoidable demand of an authentic interior renewal in every component of the People of God, which only the Lord can bring about. We too should be open to this renewal, because we too, dispersed among the peoples of the world, have learned customs very far from the Word of God: «Every renewal of the Church,» reads the decree on ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council, «is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling. Undoubtedly this is the basis of the movement toward unity» («Unitatis Redintegratio,» 6), that is, greater fidelity to the vocation from God.

The decree emphasizes as well the interior dimension of the conversion of the heart. «There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name,» it adds, «without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way» («Unitatis Redintegratio,» 7). The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity becomes for all of us, in this way, a stimulant toward a sincere conversion and an ever more docile listening to the Word of God, toward an ever deeper faith.

The week is also a conducive occasion for thanking the Lord for how much he has conceded already «to join» one to another, divided Christians, and the Churches themselves and ecclesial communities. This spirit has animated the Catholic Church, which, during the last year, has progressed with firm conviction and sure hope, maintaining fraternal and respectful relations with all the Churches and ecclesial communities of East and West. In the diversity of situations, sometimes more positive, and sometimes more difficult, it has worked to never fail in the effort of implementing every effort for the restoration of full unity. The relationships between the Churches and the theological dialogues have continued giving encouraging signs of spiritual convergence. I myself have had the joy of meeting, here in the Vatican and in the course of my apostolic trips, Christians coming from every horizon.

I have welcomed with joy on three occasions the ecumenical patriarch, His Holiness Bartholomew I, and — an extraordinary happening — we heard him take the floor, with fraternal ecclesial warmth and with convinced trust in the future, during the recent assembly of the synod of bishops. I have had the pleasure of receiving the two catholicoi of the Armenian Apostolic Church, His Holiness Karekin II of Etchmiadzin and His Holiness Aram I of Antelias. And finally, I have shared the sorrow of the Patriarchate of Moscow at the passing of our beloved brother in Christ, Patriarch His Holiness Alexy II, and I continue remaining in communion of prayer with these our brothers who prepare to choose the new patriarch of that venerated and great Orthodox Church.

Likewise, I have had the chance to
meet with representatives of the diverse Christian Communions of the West, with whom continues the dialogue about the important testimony that Christians should give today in harmony, in a world ever more divided and facing so many challenges of a cultural, social, economic and ethical character. For these and for so many other meetings, dialogues and gestures of fraternity that the Lord has permitted us to be able to carry out, let us give thanks together with joy.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us take advantage of the opportunity that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity offers us to ask the Lord for a continuation, and if it is possible, an intensification of ecumenical dialogue and commitment. In the context of the Pauline year, which commemorates the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul, we cannot fail to refer to what the Apostle Paul left written for us regarding the unity of the Church.

Every Wednesday, I am dedicating my reflections to his letters and his beautiful teaching. I take up again here simply what he wrote to the community of Ephesus: «One body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism» (Ephesians 4:4-5). Let us make our own the desire of St. Paul, who dedicated his entire life for the one Lord and for the unity of his mystical body, the Church, giving with his martyrdom, a supreme testimony of fidelity and love for Christ.

Following his example and counting on his intercession, may each community grow in the determination for unity, thanks to the diverse spiritual and pastoral initiatives and the assemblies of common prayer, which tend to become more numerous and intense in this week, bringing us to already foretaste, in a certain way, the joy of full union.

Let us pray so that between the Churches and ecclesial communities, dialogue in the truth continues, indispensable for resolving divergences, and [dialogue] in charity, which conditions the theological dialogue and helps to live united for a common testimony. The desire that dwells in our hearts is that the day of full communion arrives soon, when all of the disciples of our one Lord can finally celebrate the Eucharist together, the divine sacrifice for the life and salvation of the world. We invoke the maternal intercession of Mary so that she helps all Christians to cultivate a more attentive listening to the Word of God and a more intense prayer for unity.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Last Sunday we began the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity dedicated this year to the theme: «that they may become one in your hand» (Ezek 37:17). This scripture passage recalls God’s command to Ezekiel to take two sticks, one representing Judah and the other Israel, and join them together as a symbol of the Lord’s power to gather his people into one. As Christians, we read these words as an exhortation to pray and work for the full unity of Christ’s disciples. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, «there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart» (Unitatis Redintegratio, 7). This week offers us an opportunity to thank God for all he has done and continues to do to bring Christians closer to one another. I am personally grateful for the many opportunities I have had to meet with representatives of Churches and Ecclesial Communities, both in the Vatican and during my travels abroad. Let us pray that the various initiatives this week at the local and universal levels will encourage all who confess «one Lord, one faith, and one baptism» to listen more attentively to the Word of God, to deepen prayer, and to intensify dialogue, so as to imitate Saint Paul’s example of a life completely devoted to the Lord and the unity of his Body, the Church.

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience. My particular greeting goes to the pilgrimage group from Malta led by Archbishop Paul Cremona. Upon all of you I cordially invoke an abundance of joy and peace in the Lord.

© Copyright 2009 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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