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Prayer for the Unity of Christians - 2008

Pray without ceasing
Theme from 1 Thessolonians 5, 12a & 13b-18

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 USA – meeting held in Graymoor, Garrison, USA

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,
The Feast of the Conversion of St Paul brings us once again into the presence of this great Apostle, chosen by God to be a "witness for him to all men" (Acts 22: 15). For Saul of Tarsus, the moment of his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus marked a decisive turning point in his life. His total transformation, a true and proper spiritual conversion, was brought about at that very moment. By divine intervention, the relentless persecutor of God's Church suddenly found himself blind and groping in the dark, but henceforth with a great light in his heart, which was to bring him a little later to be an ardent Apostle of the Gospel. The awareness that divine grace alone could bring about such a conversion never left Paul. When he had already given the best of himself, devoting himself tirelessly to preaching the Gospel, he wrote with renewed fervour: "I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me" (I Cor 15: 10). Tirelessly, as though the work of the mission depended entirely upon his own efforts, St Paul was nevertheless always motivated by the profound conviction that all his energy came from God's grace at work in him.

This evening, the Apostle's words on the relationship between human effort and divine grace resound with a very special meaning. At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are even more conscious that the task of restoring unity, which demands all our energy and efforts, is infinitely above our own possibilities. Unity with God and our brothers and sisters is a gift that comes from on high, which flows from the communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in which it is increased and perfected. It is not in our power to decide when or how this unity will be fully achieved. Only God can do it! Like St Paul, let us also place our hope and trust "in the grace of God which is with us". Dear brothers and sisters, this is what the prayer that together we are raising to the Lord desires to implore: that it may be he who enlightens and sustains us in our ongoing quest for unity.

And it is here that Paul's exhortation to the Christians of Thessalonica acquires its fullest value: "Pray without ceasing" (I Thes 5: 17), which has been chosen as the theme for the Week of Prayer this year. The Apostle was well acquainted with that community, which had been born from his missionary activity, and nourished great hopes for it. He knew both its merits and its weaknesses. Indeed, there was no lack of behaviour, attitudes and arguments among its members that were likely to create tension and conflict, and Paul intervened to help the community walk in unity and peace. At the end of his Letter, with as it were fatherly goodness, he added a series of very concrete exhortations, inviting Christians to encourage the participation of all, to sustain the weak, to be patient and not to repay evil for evil to anyone but to always seek good, to rejoice and to give thanks on every occasion (cf I Thes 5: 12-22). Paul puts the imperative "pray without ceasing" in the midst of these exhortations. In fact, the other recommendations would lose their power and coherence were they not sustained by prayer. Unity with God and with others is built first of all through a life of prayer, in the constant search for "the will of God in Christ Jesus for us" (cf I Thes 5: 18).

The invitation St Paul addressed to the Thessalonians is still timely. In the face of the shortcomings and sins that still prevent the full communion of Christians, each one of these exhortations has retained its relevance, but this is particularly true of the order "pray without ceasing". What would the ecumenical movement become without the personal or communal prayer that "they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you" (Jn 17: 21)? Where would we find the "extra impetus" of faith, hope and charity, of which our search for unity has a special need today? Our desire for unity must not be limited to isolated occasions; it must become an integral part of our whole prayer life. Men and women formed in the Word of God and in prayer have been artisans of reconciliation and unity in every historical period. It was the way of prayer that opened the path for the ecumenical movement as we know it today. Indeed, from the middle of the 18th century various movements of spiritual renewal came into being, eager to contribute through prayer to the promotion of Christian unity. Groups of Catholics, enlivened by outstanding religious figures, played an active role in such initiatives from the outset. Prayer for unity was also supported by my Venerable Predecessors, such as Pope Leo XIII, who in 1895 was already recommending the introduction of a Novena of Prayer for Christian unity. These endeavours, made in accordance with the possibilities of the Church of that time, intended to put into practice the prayer spoken by Jesus himself in the Upper Room "that they may all be one" (Jn 17: 21). There is thus no genuine ecumenism whose roots are not implanted in prayer.

This year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the "Church Unity Octave" which subsequently became the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity". One hundred years ago, while he was still an Episcopalian minister, Fr Paul Wattson conceived of an octave of prayer for unity that was celebrated for the first time at Graymoor, New York, from 18 to 25 January 1908. This evening, with great joy I address my greeting to the Minister General and the international delegation of the Franciscan Brothers and Sisters of the Atonement, the Congregation founded by Fr Paul Wattson and an advocate of his spiritual legacy. In the 1930s, the Octave of Prayer underwent important adaptations subsequent to the impulse given to it in particular by Fr Paul Couturier of Lyons, another great champion of spiritual ecumenism. His invitation "to pray for the unity of the Church as Christ wills it and in accordance with the means he wills" enables Christians of all traditions to join in one prayer for unity. Let us thank God for the great prayer movement which for 100 years has accompanied and sustained believers in Christ in their quest for unity. The ship of ecumenism would never have put out to sea had she not been lifted by this broad current of prayer and wafted by the breath of the Holy Spirit.

To coincide with the Week of Prayer, many religious and monastic communities have invited and helped their members to "pray without ceasing" for Christian unity. On this occasion for which we have gathered here, let us remember in particular the life and witness of Sr Maria Gabriella of Unity (1914-36), a Trappist Sister of the convent in Grottaferrata (today in Vitorchiano), [Italy]. When her superior, encouraged by Fr Paul Couturier, asked the Sisters to pray and make a gift of themselves for Christian unity, Sr Maria Gabriella became immediately involved and did not hesitate to dedicate her young life to this great cause. This very day is the 25th anniversary of her Beatification by my Predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The event was celebrated in this Basilica precisely on 25 January 1983, during the celebration for the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Unity. In his Homily, the Servant of God emphasized the three elements on which the search for unity is built: conversion, the Cross and prayer. Sr Maria Gabriella's life and witness were also based on these three elements. Today, as in the past, ecumenism stands in great need of the immense "invisible monastery" of which Fr Paul Couturier spoke, of that vast community of Christians of all traditions who quietly pray and offer their lives so that unity may be achieved.

Furthermore, for exactly 40 years Christian communities worldwide have received meditations and prayers for this Week prepared jointly by the World Council of Churches' "Faith and Order" Commission and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. This felicitous collaboration has made it possible to broaden the vast circle of prayer and to prepare better its content. This evening I cordially greet the Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, who has come to Rome to join us on the centenary of the Week of Prayer. I am pleased that members of the "Joint Working Group" are present and I greet them with affection. The Joint Group is the means of cooperation between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches in our common search for unity. As I do every year, I also address my fraternal greeting to the Bishops, priests and pastors of the various Churches and Ecclesial Communities who have their representatives here in Rome. Your participation in this prayer is a tangible expression of the bonds that unite us in Christ Jesus: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Mt 18: 20).

The Year dedicated to the Apostle Paul's witness and teaching will be inaugurated in this historic Basilica this 28 June. May his tireless zeal in building the Body of Christ in unity help us to pray without ceasing for the full unity of all Christians. Amen!

BXVI - Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome - Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, 25 January 2008

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

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which will be ending this Friday, 25 January, the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. In these days, Christians of various Churches and Ecclesial Communities are joining in a unanimous chorus of entreaty to ask the Lord Jesus to re-establish full unity among all his disciples. It is a plea made with one accord by one soul and one heart in response to the desire of the Redeemer himself, who prayed to the Father at the Last Supper with these words: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, 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: 20-21). In asking for the grace of unity Christians join in Christ's own prayer and engage to work actively so that all humanity may accept and recognize him as the one Pastor and one Lord, and thus experience the joy of his love.

This year, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity acquires special value and significance because it is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Indeed, when it was introduced, it proved a truly fruitful intuition. Fr Paul Wattson was an American Anglican who later entered the communion of the Catholic Church and founded the Society of the Atonement (Community of Brothers and Sisters of the Atonement); in 1908, with another Episcopalian, Fr Spencer Jones, he launched the prophetic idea of an octave of prayer for Christian unity. The idea found favour with the Archbishop of New York and with the Apostolic Nuncio. Later, in 1916, the appeal to pray for unity was extended to the entire Catholic Church, thanks to the intervention of my venerable Predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, with the Brief Romanorum Pontificum. The initiative, which had given rise to much interest in the meantime, gradually continued to put down roots and, with time, increasingly perfected its structure. Its celebration developed thanks to Abbé Couturier's contribution (1936). Then, when the prophetic wind of the Second Vatican Council began to blow, the urgent need for unity was felt even more deeply. The patient journey of the search for full communion between all Christians continued after the Council; it was a patient ecumenical journey which from one year to the next found the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity to be precisely one of its most appropriate and fruitful events. A hundred years after the first appeal to pray together for unity, this Week of Prayer has now become a solid tradition which preserves the spirit and dates chosen at the outset by Fr Wattson. Indeed, he chose them for their symbolic character. In the calendar at that time, the Feast of the Chair of St Peter, who is the firm foundation and sure guarantee of the unity of the entire People of God, was celebrated on 18 January, while on 25 January, then as today, the liturgy celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. As we thank the Lord for these 100 years of prayer and common commitment among so many disciples of Christ, let us remember with gratitude Fr Wattson, the initiator of this providential spiritual initiative, and with him, those who promoted and enriched it with their contributions and made it the common patrimony of all Christians.

I mentioned just now that the Second Vatican Council paid great attention to the topic of Christian unity, especially in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), in which, among other things, the role and importance of prayer for unity is forcefully emphasized. Prayer, the Council observed, is at the very heart of the entire ecumenical process. "This 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" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 8). Thanks precisely to this spiritual ecumenism - holiness of life, conversion of heart, private and public prayer - the common search for unity has in recent decades recorded considerable development. This has been diversified in multiple initiatives: from mutual knowledge to brotherly contact between the members of different Churches and Ecclesial Communities, from ever more friendly conversations to collaboration in various fields, from theological dialogue to the search for concrete forms of communion and collaboration. What has enlivened and continues to enliven this journey towards the full communion of all Christians is first and foremost prayer. "Pray without ceasing" (I Thes 5: 17) is the theme of the Week this year; at the same time, it is an invitation that never ceases to ring out in our communities to make prayer the light, strength and orientation of our footsteps, in an attitude of humble and docile listening to our common Lord.

Secondly, the Council places the emphasis on prayer in common, prayer raised jointly to the one Heavenly Father by Catholics and by other Christians. The Decree on Ecumenism says in this regard: "Such prayers in common are certainly a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 8). And this is because, in praying together, Christian communities place themselves before the Lord and, becoming aware of the contradictions to which division has given rise, manifest their desire to obey the Lord's will with trusting recourse to his almighty assistance. The Decree then adds that such prayers "are a genuine expression of the ties which still bind Catholics to their separated (seiuncti) brethren" (ibid.). Prayer in common is not, therefore, a voluntaristic or purely sociological act, but rather an expression of faith that unites all Christ's disciples. In the course of the years, fertile collaboration has been established in this field, and since 1968, the then Secretariat for Christian Unity, which subsequently became the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the World Council of Churches prepare jointly these booklets for the Week of Prayer for Unity; they then distribute them throughout the world, covering areas that they never would have managed to reach on their own.

The conciliar Decree on Ecumenism refers to prayer for unity when, at the very end, its states that the Council realizes 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. It therefore places its hope entirely in the prayer of Christ for the Church" (n. 24). It is the consciousness of our human limitations that impels us to trusting abandonment in the hands of the Lord. Clearly, the profound meaning of this Week of Prayer is precisely that of relying entirely on the prayer of Christ, who continues to pray in his Church that "they may all be one... so that the world may believe..." (Jn 17: 21). Today, we feel the weight of these words strongly. The world is suffering from the absence of God, from inaccessibility to God; it longs to know God's Face. But how could and can people today recognize this Face of God in the Face of Jesus Christ if we Christians are separated, if one contradicts the other, if one is against the other? Only in unity can we truly show to this world - which needs it - God's Face, Christ's Face. It is also obvious that it is not with our own policies, with dialogue and all that we do - which is nevertheless so necessary - that we shall be able to obtain this unity. What we can obtain is our willingness and ability to welcome this unity when the Lord gives it to us. This is the meaning of prayer: to open our hearts, to create within us this willingness that paves the way to Christ. In the liturgy of the ancient Church, after the homily the Bishop or the one who presided at the celebration, the principal celebrant, would say: "Conversi ad Dominum". Then he and everyone would rise and turn to the East. They all wanted to look towards Christ. Only if we are converted, only in this conversion to Christ, in this common gaze at Christ, will we be able to find the gift of unity.

We can say that it was the prayer for unity which enlivened and accompanied the various stages of the ecumenical movement, especially after the Second Vatican Council. In this period, the Catholic Church came into contact with the various Churches and Ecclesial Communities of East and West with different forms of dialogue, and with each one tackled the theological and historical problems that had emerged down the centuries and had taken root as elements of separation. The Lord has ensured that these friendly relations have improved our reciprocal knowledge and intensified communion, while at the same time sharpening the perception of the problems that are still open-ended and foment division. Today, during this Week, let us thank God who has sustained and illuminated us on the journey we have made thus far, a fruitful journey which the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism described as "fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit" and which "increases from day to day" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 1).

Dear brothers and sisters, let us accept the invitation to "pray without ceasing", which the Apostle Paul addressed to the first Christians of Thessalonica, a community which he himself had founded. And precisely because he heard that disagreements had arisen, he counselled them to be patient with everyone, abstain from returning evil for evil and on the contrary to always seek good among themselves and with everyone, joyful in every circumstance, joyful because the Lord is near. The advice that St Paul gave to the Thessalonians can still inspire the behaviour of Christians in the context of ecumenical relations today. Above all he said: "Be at peace among yourselves", and then, "pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances" (I Thes 5: 13, 18). Let us also accept the Apostle's pressing exhortation, both to thank the Lord for the progress achieved and to implore full unity. May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, obtain for all disciples of her divine Son that they may be able to live in peace and reciprocal charity as soon as possible, so as to bear a convincing witness of reconciliation before the whole world, in order to make accessible the Face of God in the Face of Christ, who is God-with-us, the God of peace and unity."

BXVI - General Audience, 23 January 2008 - © Copyright 2009 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana