Q. Why is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity important?
“Be Thou King of those who are deceived by erroneous opinions, or whom discord keeps aloof, and call them back to the harbor of truth and unity of faith, so that there may be but one flock and one Shepherd.”
These words come from a prayer written in 1899 by Pope Leo XIII, entrusting the 20th century to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Though the language may sound dated, the plea remains ever-current. Think of the world-shattering events of those hundred years — error and discord reflected in two world wars along with dozens of other armed conflicts; globalization and economic upheavals with growing gaps between rich and poor; the legal acceptance of abortion and widespread impact of contraception; the ever-fragile tensions around race and human dignity, with unimaginable genocides; the Information Age and the power of technology that can serve both to humanize and dehumanize; clashes of cultures and views that seem irreconcilable.
As we again observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25), what Pope Leo termed erroneous opinions and discord still fill the headlines and unsettle our communities and our hearts.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity originated in that tumultuous century in 1908 as part of the imperative to bring all who believe in Jesus into one: the task of ecumenism. This goal does not come from a naïve idealism and flattening of differences to create a bland faith that all might embrace without a need for personal conversion. Rather, it is a response to words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “ … that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).
Building on what unites all Christians — the sacred Scriptures, a common baptism, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the commandments and the teaching of Jesus, cooperation in the works of mercy — ecumenism also takes seriously the differences among the various Christian communities. Through prayer, mutual commitment to dialogue, research into the history of ideas, and basic human respect, we strive to be what Jesus prayed and sacrificed himself for in his final hours: to gather into one the dispersed children of God (John 11:52).
Two other observances fall during this week. Jan. 23 is the third Word of God Sunday, instituted by Pope Francis in 2020. As he notes: “The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity. The word of God unites believers and makes them one people.”
The day before, we mark the 48th anniversary of the Jan. 22, 1973, Supreme Court decisions of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, effectively legalizing abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy. While statistics vary, in the U.S. alone, perhaps 65 million human voices have been silenced before birth, God’s Word of life rejected with the cultural support of erroneous opinions. Failing to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd announcing truth and compassion, our common humanity is divided into those welcomed into life and those denied it.
Christian unity may sound like an abstraction pursued by specialists among Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists and others. But this year in particular, perhaps, we see how opinion and discord infect so many communities even if they share creed and sacrament.
Bitter and sometimes violent divides around vaccines, masks, what is taught in schools, political allegiances, and mutual accusations of “erroneous opinions” burden us. Suspicion, aggression, and blustering too easily displace courtesy and civility. Discord holds us aloof. It fractures kinship, fragments common life, and frustrates that Last Supper prayer of the Lord.
Christian unity is the responsibility of each of us, and not only across denominational lines. Bringing discord is easy, and anyone can do it with a derisive word or a dismissive gesture. Striving that all may be one in Christ is the ongoing purpose of the Church into which we have been baptized. It is not the province of experts alone; it is the daily task entrusted to each of us in our own relationships with friend and stranger, seeking “the harbor of truth and unity of faith.”
Through prayer, mutual commitment to dialogue, research into the history of ideas and basic human respect, may we all strive to be what Jesus prayed and sacrificed himself for in his final hours: to gather into one the dispersed children of God.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.
Photo: Getty Images/Cecilie_Arcurs