The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins this Friday and ends a week later, on the Jan. 25 feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
Every year on this occasion, Benedict XVI presides over a liturgical celebration in St. Peter’s Basilica, with the leaders of the most important Christian Churches and communities. Their common objective is clear: to advance in unity.
Ecumenical activities are also carried out in dioceses, parishes, movements, schools and seminaries, or wherever a Christians are open to dialogue and coming together for prayer. This annual weeklong effort, which began in the 19th century at the initiative of the Anglican Communion, has found a great promoter in the Holy See, which works hand in hand with the World Council of Churches to select an annual topic and offer materials for reflection and prayer.
The entity in charge of promoting this felicitous initiative in the whole Catholic Church is the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. ZENIT talked with its prefect, Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is also in charge of the important dialogue with Judaism.
Here is Part I of the interview.
ZENIT: How did the history of this Week of Prayer begin?
Cardinal Koch: The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began in the 19th century. It was an ecumenical initiative of the Anglicans, accepted by the Catholic Church with Pope Leo XIII. Then it became a good custom and today it’s the most important event of the year for ecumenism, because prayer for unity is the foundation of the whole ecumenical movement. Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism talks about “spiritual ecumenism,” which is at the heart of it all.
ZENIT: How many Christian Churches respond to this appeal?
Cardinal Koch: The preparation we carry out is done jointly with the World Council of Churches, and I believe many Churches and ecclesial communities engage in this prayer, but I’m not sure if everyone participates.
ZENIT: The topic this year in fact is “Walk Together.” What are the important efforts that have been made in the last years?
Cardinal Koch: After 50 years, that is, after the opening, we have been able to gather much fruit. Now we have 16 dialogues with 16 other Churches and ecclesial communities in the world. We have been able to create a network of friendship with the different Churches and ecclesial communities, which are no longer enemies but acknowledge themselves as brothers and sisters. This grows essentially on the basis of baptism, which is the real foundation of everything.
ZENIT: However, it’s not yet sufficient, no?
Cardinal Koch: The mutual acceptance of baptism is the bridge of the whole ecumenical movement. Clearly after 50 years it’s not been possible to attain the objective of ecumenism, which is the visible unity of all the Christians of all the Churches.
ZENIT: Are there common elements in worship?
Cardinal Koch: I believe that on one hand there is a difference in the ecumenism with the Orthodox Churches, also the Eastern Orthodox, and on the other with the communities that were born of the Reformation. With all the Eastern Churches there is a basic foundation in the common faith, but we have a different culture. With the communities born of the Reformation, we don’t have the same community in the faith, but we have the same culture. And this difference has very great importance in the contents of the dialogue.
ZENIT: And the same happens in the liturgy?
Cardinal Koch: For Catholics it’s possible to pray with all Christians on the basis of baptism, also with many Orthodox. I have gone to Constantinople for the feast of Saint Andrew and I have always taken part in the liturgy and been greatly welcomed by the patriarchs. On the other hand, however, there are some Orthodox who give the impression that it’s not possible to pray together with Catholics.
ZENIT: In regard to the topic of religious liberty, for which many Christian suffer, what should the attitude be in these situations?
Cardinal Koch: I think the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the religious freedom of the human person is very important. This is a great commitment with our Churches, to deepen and support religious liberty for all Christians of all countries. The challenge is very great because of the believers in the world who are being persecuted for reasons of faith, 80% are Christians.
ZENIT: Some of whom have already died or are suffering life imprisonment.
Cardinal Koch: In this connection, Blessed John Paul II spoke of an “ecumenism of martyrs.” For me this is a very profound idea, because all the ecclesial communities have their own martyrs. Martyrdom is already living — in John Paul II’s words — a “full communion,” and we on earth not yet … So the prayer of the martyrs in Heaven can help to deepen unity and ecumenism on earth.[Translation by ZENIT]
2013 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity materials: