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Prayer for the Unity of Christians - 2006

Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them
Theme from Matthew 18, 18-20

Resources for prayer throughout the year - in English, FrenchPortuguese & Spanish
Jointly prepared and published by The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, The Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches

Preparatory material from Ireland - meeting held in Prosperous, Co. KildareIRELAND

Pope Benedict XVI's Homily at Vespers
at Conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Unity
- in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On this day when we celebrate the Conversion of the Apostle Paul, we conclude the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity united in fraternal liturgical assembly. It is meaningful that the Feast of the Conversion of the Apostle to the Gentiles coincides with the final day of this important Week, in which we are asking God with particular intensity for the precious gift of unity among all Christians, making ours the invocation that Jesus himself raised to the Father for his disciples: "that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (Jn 17: 21). The desire for unity on the part of every Christian Community and every individual believer and the power to achieve it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and goes hand in hand with a more profound and radical fidelity to the Gospel (cf. Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, n. 15). We realize that at the base of the commitment to ecumenism there is the conversion of heart, as the Second Vatican Council clearly affirms: "There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion. For it is from newness of attitudes of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way" (Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 7).

Deus caritas est (I Jn 4: 8, 16), God is love. The faith of the Church, in its entirety, is founded on this solid rock. In particular, the patient pursuit of full communion among all of Christ's disciples is based upon it: by fixing one's gaze on this truth, summit of divine revelation, it seems possible to overcome divisions and not to be discouraged, even though they continue to be gravely serious. The Lord Jesus, who broke down the "dividing wall of hostility" (Eph 2: 14) with the blood of his Passion, will not fail to grant to those who faithfully invoke him the strength to heal every wound. But it is always necessary to start anew from this point: "Deus caritas est". It is to the theme of love that I wanted to dedicate my first Encyclical, which was published today; this happy coincidence with the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity invites us to consider, even more than our gathering together, the entire ecumenical journey in the light of God's love, of the Love that is God. If, under the human profile, love manifests itself as an invincible force, what must we, who "know and believe the love God has for us" (I Jn 4: 16), say? True love does not eliminate legitimate differences, but harmonizes them in a superior unity that is not ordered from the outside but gives form from within, so to speak, to the whole. As the mystery of communion unites man and woman in that community of love and life known as matrimony, it too forms the Church into a community of love, uniting a multiform wealth of gifts and traditions. The Church of Rome is placed at the service of that unity of love which, according to a saying by St Ignatius of Antioch, "presides in charity" (Ad Rom 1, 1). Before you, dear brothers and sisters, I wish to renew today the entrustment to God of my particular Petrine ministry, invoking upon it the light and power of the Holy Spirit so that it will always encourage fraternal communion among all Christians.

The theme of love profoundly links the two short biblical readings of today's Liturgy of Vespers. In the first, divine charity is the strength that transforms the life of Saul of Tarsus and makes him the Apostle to the Gentiles. Writing to the Christians at Corinth, St Paul confesses that God's grace worked the extraordinary event of conversion in him: "By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain" (I Cor 15: 10). On the one hand, he feels the weight of having hindered the spread of Christ's message; but on the other, he lives in the joy of having met the Risen Lord and having been enlightened and transformed by his light. He keeps a constant memory of that life-changing event, an event so important for the entire Church that in the Acts of the Apostles reference is made to it three times (cf. Acts 9: 3-9; 22: 6-11; 26: 12-18). On the road to Damascus, Saul hears the disturbing question: "Why do you persecute me?". Falling to the ground and interiorly troubled, he asked: "Who are you, Lord?", receiving that answer which is the basis of his conversion: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9: 4-5). Paul understood in an instant what he would later express in his writings: that the Church forms a single body of which Christ is the Head. And so, from a persecutor of Christians he became the Apostle to the Gentiles.

In the Gospel passage of Matthew that we heard a little while ago, love acts as the principle that unites Christians and guarantees that their unanimous prayer is heard by the Heavenly Father. Jesus says: "If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven" (Mt 18: 19). The word that the Evangelist uses for "agree" is synphonesosin: there is reference made to a "symphony" of hearts. This he took from the heart of God. Agreement in prayer is therefore important as it is welcomed by the Heavenly Father. Asking together already marks a step towards unity between those who ask. This certainly does not mean that God's answer is in some way determined by our request. We know well: the hoped-for fulfilment of unity depends in the first place on the will of God, whose plan and generosity surpass the understanding of man and his own requests and expectations. Relying precisely on divine goodness, let us intensify our common prayer for unity, which is more than ever a necessary and very effective means, as John Paul II reminded us in the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint: "Along the ecumenical path to unity, pride of place certainly belongs to common prayer, the prayerful union of those who gather together around Christ himself" (n. 22).

Analyzing these passages in greater depth, we understand better the reason why the Father responds positively to the request of the Christian Community: "For", Jesus says, "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them". It is the presence of Christ that makes the common prayer of those gathered in his Name effective. When Christians gather to pray together, Jesus himself is in their midst. They are one with Christ, who is the only mediator between God and man. The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy refers precisely to this Gospel passage to indicate one of the ways that Christ is present: "He is present when the Church prays and sings, for he has promised "where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them' (Mt 18: 20)" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7).

Commenting on this text of the Evangelist Matthew, St John Chrysostom asks: "Well then, are there not two or three who gather in his name? There are", he responds, "but rarely" (Homily on the Gospel of St Matthew, 60, 3). This evening I experience an immense joy in seeing such a large and prayerful assembly that implores the gift of unity in harmony. To each and all I extend my cordial greeting. I greet with particular affection the brothers of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities of this City, united in the one Baptism that makes us members of the one Mystical Body of Christ. 40 years have passed since, in this very Basilica on 5 December 1965, the Servant of God Paul VI, of happy memory, celebrated the first common prayer at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council with the solemn presence of the Council Fathers and the active participation of the Observers of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. Following this, beloved John Paul II persevered in the tradition of closing the Week of Prayer here.

I am certain that this evening both of them are looking down from Heaven and joining in our prayer. Among those who are taking in this assembly I would especially like to greet and thank the group of Delegates from Churches, Episcopal Conferences, Christian Communities and Ecumenical Organizations that are beginning to prepare for the Third European Ecumenical Assembly to be held in Sìbiu, Romania, in September 2007 on the theme: "The light of Christ shines upon all. Hope for renewal and unity in Europe". Yes, dear brothers and sisters, we Christians have the duty to be, in Europe and among all peoples, the "light of the world" (Mt 5: 14). May God grant us a quick arrival at the hoped-for full communion. The reformation of our unity will make evangelization more effective. Unity is our common mission; it is the condition that enables the light of Christ to be spread better in every corner of the world, so that men and women convert and are saved. The road stretches before us! And yet, we must not lose trust; instead, with greater vigour we must once more continue our journey together. Christ walks before us and accompanies us. We count on his unfailing presence and humbly and tirelessly implore from him the precious gift of unity and peace."

BXVI - Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome - Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, 25 January 2006

Papa Benedetto's Address on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
-in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven" (Mt 18: 19). This solemn assurance of Jesus to his disciples also sustains our prayer. The "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity", by now a tradition, begins today. It is an important event for reflecting on the tragedy of the division of the Christian community and to ask with Jesus himself "that they may all be one... so that the world may believe" (Jn 17: 21). We also do so here today, in harmony with a great multitude throughout the world. Indeed, prayer "for the union of all" involves Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, brought together in different forms, times and ways by the same faith in Jesus Christ, the one Lord and Saviour.

Prayer for unity is part of the central nucleus which the Second Vatican Council calls "the soul of the whole ecumenical movement" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 8), a nucleus that includes public and private prayers, conversion of heart and holiness of life. This vision takes us back to the heart of the ecumenical problem, which is obedience to the Gospel in order to do God's will with his necessary and effective help. The Council explicitly pointed this out to the faithful, declaring: "The closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love" (ibid., n 7).

The elements that, despite the persistent division, still unite Christians, make it possible to raise a common prayer to God. This communion in Christ sustains the entire ecumenical movement and indicates the very purpose of the search for unity of all Christians in God's Church. It is what distinguishes the ecumenical movement from any other initiative of dialogue and relations with other religions and ideologies. In this too, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism is precise: "Taking part in this movement, which is called ecumenical, are those who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour" (ibid., n. 1). The common prayers that are prayed throughout the world, particularly in this period or around Pentecost, also express the desire for a common commitment to re-establish communion among all Christians. These prayers in common "are certainly a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity" (ibid., n. 8). With this affirmation, the Second Vatican Council basically interprets what Jesus said to his disciples when he assured them that if two of them were to agree on earth about anything for which they were to ask the Father who is in Heaven, he would grant it, "because" where two or three are gathered in his name he is in their midst. After the Resurrection he assured them further that he would be with them "always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28: 20). It is Jesus' presence in the community of disciples and in our prayer itself which guarantees its effectiveness, to the point that he promised: "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 18: 18).

However, let us not limit ourselves to imploring. We can also thank the Lord for the new situation that, with effort, has been created in ecumenical relations among Christians in brotherhood rediscovered through the establishment of strong ties of solidarity, the growth of communion and the forms of convergence achieved - certainly, in an unequal manner - between the various dialogues. There are many reasons to give thanks. And if there is still so much to hope for and to do, let us not forget that God has given us a great deal on our way towards unity. Let us therefore be grateful to him for these gifts. The future lies before us. The Holy Father John Paul II of happy memory - who did and suffered so much for the ecumenical cause - has opportunely taught us that "an appreciation of how much God has already given is the condition which disposes us to receive those gifts still indispensable for bringing to completion the ecumenical work of unity" (Ut Unum Sint, n. 41). Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us continue to pray, because we know that the holy cause of the restoration of Christian unity exceeds our poor human efforts and that unity, finally, is a gift of God.

In this regard and with these sentiments, I will be following in John Paul II's footsteps next Wednesday, 25 January, the Feast of the Conversion of the Apostle to the Gentiles, in the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls to pray with our Orthodox and Protestant brethren: to pray to thank the Lord for what he has granted us; to pray that the Lord will guide us in the footprints of unity.

In addition, my first Encyclical will finally be published that same day, 25 January; its title is already known: "Deus Caritas Est", "God is love". The theme is not directly ecumenical, but the context and background are ecumenical because God and our love are the condition for Christian unity. They are the condition for peace in the world.

In this Encyclical I desire to show the concept of love in its various dimensions. Today, in the terminology with which we are familiar, "love" often appears very far from what a Christian thinks when he speaks of charity. For my part, I would like to show that this is a single impulse with various dimensions. The "eros", this gift of love between a man and a woman, comes from the same source, the Creator's goodness, as the possibility of a love that gives itself for the sake of the other. The "eros" becomes "agape" to the extent that the two truly love each other and no longer seek themselves, their own joy and their own pleasure, but seek above all the good of the other. Thus, this love which is "eros" is transformed into charity in a process of purification and deepening. From its own family it is opened to the greater family of society, the family of the Church, the family of the world.

I also endeavour to show that the very personal act that comes to us from God is a unique act of love. It must also be expressed as an ecclesial and organizational act. If it is true that the Church is an expression of God's love, of that love God feels for his human creature, it must also be true that the fundamental act of faith, which creates and unites the Church and gives us the hope of eternal life and of God's presence in the world, gives rise to an ecclesial act. In practice, the Church must also love as a Church, as a community, institutionally.

And this so-called "Caritas" is not a mere organization like other philanthropic organizations, but a necessary expression of the deepest act of personal love with which God has created us, awakening in our hearts the impulse to love, a reflection of the God-Love who makes us in his image.

It took time to prepare and translate the text. It now seems to me a gift of Providence, the fact that the text should be published on the very day on which we will pray for Christian unity. I hope that it will be able to illuminate and help our Christian life.

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday 18 January 2006 - © Copyright 2006 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana