Why Christians Must Seek Unity
For the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, BISHOP VICTOR PHALANA explains why ecumenism is necessary for our faith.
The week leading to Pentecost is the Week for Prayer for Christian Unity. I encourage our parishes and communities to try and reach out to other Christians and to open their doors to them for ecumenical experiences.
Our objective for ecumenical dialogue is not just mutual recognition of each other as “churches”. Our quest is for a visible unity of the Body of Christ.
The Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That They May Be One”) teach us that the restoration of full visible communion of all Christians is the will of Christ and essential to the life of the Catholic Church.
When we implore the gift of unity, we make our own the desire expressed by Jesus Christ on the eve of his Passion and death in the prayer he addressed to the Father: “That they may all be one.”
The prayer for Christian unity is participation in the realisation of the divine plan for the Church.
We are reminded that all of us, baptised in the name of Christ — Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Methodist, Reformed, and so on — are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we are Children of the Father and temples of the Holy Spirit.
It is in that spirit that we ought to commit ourselves to search for unity. We must pray that our baptismal communion must lead one day to a full ecclesial communion.
What the Catechism says
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.
The Catechism urges that certain things are required in order to respond adequately to this call:
(1) A permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation; such renewal is the driving force of the movement towards unity;
(2) Conversion of heart, as the faithful try to live holier lives according to the Gospel, for it is unfaithfulness of the members to Christ’s gift which causes divisions;
(3) Prayer in common, because “change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name “spiritual ecumenism”;
(4) Fraternal knowledge of each other;
(5) Ecumenical formation, of the faithful and especially of priests;
(6) Dialogue…and meetings among Christians of the different churches and communities;
(7) Collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to mankind.
“Concern for achieving unity involves the whole Church, the faithful and clergy alike, but we must realise that this holy objective—the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ—transcends human powers and gifts. That is why we place all our hope in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 821).
A vital mission
Ecumenism is a project of overcoming divisions among Christians. It encourages fellowship and collaboration among Christians.
It should be considered a vital mission of the Church, for it was Christ who gave us the gift of unity when he said: “That all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may be also one in us; that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21).
I urge Catholics to get closer to other Christians by trying to understand them and how they express their faith.
We need to try harder to appreciate them, to join in fellowship with them, and to share our faith with them. Psalm 132 says: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
Christian unity is a condition if the world is to believe. The divisions between Christians are a serious scandal, a stumbling block for non-Christians.
This impelled St John Paul II to work tirelessly for unity and in 1995 to write his great encyclical on ecumenism.
In it he made it clear that “the entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern”.
John Paul emphasised that “it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does”.
He explained the meaning of Christ’s Ut Unum Sint prayer: “To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father’s plan from all eternity.”
n Bishop Victor Phalana of Klerksdorp chairs the bishops’ Department of Ecumenism. This year, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs in South Africa from May 10-20.