Christians throughout the world and in our own Diocese will celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Jan. 18-25, an important time for us to focus especially on what unites us as children of God, as believers in the “one foundation of Jesus Christ” and on our similarities rather than our differences.
I encourage you to remember this week not only in your own prayer, but also by reaching out in peace and harmony to other Christians or taking part in an ecumenical service in your community. Please join us, as well, at our beautiful, newly renovated Sacred Heart Cathedral at 7 p.m. Jan. 22 for an ecumenical prayer service with people of many denominations.
Especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has recommitted itself to reaching out to people of other Christian faiths and finding common ground, seeking not only to be understood but also to understand. We must be ever mindful of Jesus’ plea to God the Father in John’s Gospel: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, that they may be one, as we are one…” Thus the fervent prayer of the Church remains that the Lord’s desire for unity be fulfilled, along with a sense that all is not right until it is.
One of the great documents of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, speaks to this yearning: “In all of Christ’s disciples, the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth.”
In addition, the church is in dialogue with Jewish and Muslim people, as well. In the past 25 years especially, the Holy Father has been a beacon of hope and source of inspiration for our own work in this regard, speaking out not only on the importance of unity among our brothers and sisters in Christ but also reaching out to those of other belief systems — becoming the first pope to preach in Israel and to visit a mosque. These are more than just symbolic signs of the church’s desire to assuage the pain and divisions of the past among the people of the Abrahamic faiths. Was this ever more timely in the post-Sept. 11 era?
Beyond a week of prayer in January, the work toward Christian unity is, of course, ongoing and quite complex. In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That They May Be One”), John Paul II reminds us that differences in beliefs are not the only obstacle; the legacy of the past is a formidable one. “Besides the doctrinal differences needing to be resolved, Christians cannot underestimate the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices,” the Holy Father wrote. “Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse. Consequently, the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories.”
To these ends, my brother bishops and I most recently approved at our November meeting a proposal for participation in the new ecumenical forum Christian Churches Together in the USA. The new entity is intended to include all the major Christian denominations in the country, including Pentecostals and Evangelicals. The purpose is to enable churches and national Christian organizations to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian example to the world. I pray our work will be fruitful and lead to mutual efforts that will help our nation cope with these challenging times.
In our own diocese, we have a number of initiatives aimed at unity among not only Christians, but also continuing the blessing of harmony with local Jewish and Muslim people, and indeed all religions. For example, through the ongoing work of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of Parish Support Ministries, we partner with our sisters and brothers of other denominations through the Greater Rochester Community of Churches, taking part in ecumenical programming and services aimed at breaking down the walls of misunderstanding and of building mutual respect, as well as trying to eradicate poverty and other social ills. Many of our parishes further this work through local ecumenical councils and activities aimed at helping their own communities. I also have been most grateful to meet regularly with leaders of the other Christian denominations for discussions of mutual issues and ideas.
Our diocese also is represented on the Interfaith Forum of Greater Rochester, which involves cooperation among members representing the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Sikh, and other faith communities.
Some of the work we have done in the Diocese of Rochester is historic in its own right. Many of you may not realize our diocese is believed to be the first in the United States, if not the world, to formally sign pledges of mutual cooperation and understanding in 1996 with the Jewish community and in 2003 with the Islamic community. Both of these agreements have received national attention and have led to wonderful educational and religious programs that have added immeasurably to the climate of cooperation, trust and peace among peoples of faith in our community.
Please keep the unifying work of the church here and across the world in your thoughts and prayers, not only during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I pray you will always strive to reach out to people of other denominations and faiths in the kindness and love our Risen Lord taught us. Make it a point to learn more about their beliefs and practices and to answer their questions about your own faith with mutual respect. My own experience is that the light of this knowledge will surprise, delight and inspire you, deepening your own faith and your love for our wonderful God.
Peace to all.