The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an international ecumenical observance that takes place every year between January 18 and 25. In my experience, it is an occasion of extremely lame gatherings of various local Christian congregations to co-mingle for an hour or so, read a little Scripture and carry on. That said, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It reflects a desire for unity, even if we are not quite there.
We Christians, I think, could benefit from thinking of our Christian-ness as something that exists outside the church walls. We have a lot more in common with each other than Scripture. Standing shoulder to shoulder together against injustice, or side by side serving the poor are important ways of expressing our unity as Christians. Unfortunately, we can’t seem to agree on what constitutes injustice or poverty any better than we can agree on any number of theological questions.
There are now countless Christian denominations – and even what constitutes a Christian is disputed by others. We really are a disgrace. Not to mention that even within these denominations (and within the Catholic Church too) there are factions that would quite happily destroy each other. And don’t even get me started about the parish! In the Church, as in the world, there is sin.
Am I cynical? I’m afraid that’s an occupational hazard, the spiritual equivalent of watching sausage-making. Yes, the human aspect of the Church is disappointing. As it is everywhere else. People are weak. We fail. We sin. And when I say “we,” I certainly include myself. We imagine that the Church is made of saints, and hopefully, in the long term that’s true. But day to day, human frailty is frequently on display. Sometimes scandalously so.
Years ago, I picked up a book called “The Reform of the Renewal,” by Father Benedict Groeschel. I was all set to read about how Vatican II had been hijacked and how sensible people would undo some of the craziness that had taken place. Instead, Father Groeschel’s message was to fix ourselves, to become more faithful and holy. That was how the Church would be renewed. Well, that’s no fun, is it? Wouldn’t we all rather point to what others ought to be doing and criticize them for their failures?
Always wise, Father Groeschel’s point remains well taken and it applies to our discussion of Christian unity. Christians will be united by being more Christ-like. Pure and simple. And, based on results, we all need to work on that.
So, by all means, participate in ecumenical prayer services and welcome your Protestant neighbors to your parish for coffee. These are gestures that demonstrate our desire for unity and they are important for that reason. But real unity is in Christ: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.