ROME – Nearly three years ago, a black man named George Floyd died at the hands of a white police officer, sparking mass protests throughout the United States and beyond with demonstrators demanding an end to systemic racism.
The ripple effect of Floyd’s death continues to be felt, so much so that it is serving as a catalyst for this year’s “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,” which will see believers throughout the world discussing how to join forces in fighting racial injustice.
Held annually, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will be held Jan. 18-25. Its theme will be a biblical verse from the Book of Isaiah, “Learn to do good, seek justice.”
The week will be punctuated by several ecumenical prayers and liturgical services held at various churches throughout Rome and the rest of the world, which will be attended by the leaders of various Christian churches and communities.
In his Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis, who will close the week’s events with a special ecumenical Vespers service in the papal basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, acknowledged the event, thanking God “who with fidelity and patience guides his people toward full communion” and asking that the Holy Spirit “enlighten us and sustain us with his gifts.”
Materials for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were prepared by the Minnesota Council of Churches in the United States. Minnesota was the where the George Floyd incident occurred, and where some of the most prominent protests surrounding his death took place.
Minnesota is also the site of the 1862 Dakota War, also called the Sioux uprising, during which conflict broke out between the United States and several bands of the eastern Dakota indigenous tribe. Federal forces eventually won defeated the Dakota, and on Dec. 26, 1862, a total of 38 Dakota warriors were hung at the order of President Abraham Lincoln in what is still the largest mass execution in US history.
In the materials for this week’s events, the council said the Prophet Isaiah’s command to do good and to seek justice in this year’s theme was a response to the injustice and inequalities he saw during his own time, prompting him to speak out against political, social, and even spiritual corruption by condemning the hypocrisy of those offered sacrifices while oppressing the poor.
“Our world today in many ways mirrors the challenges of division that Isaiah confronted in his preaching,” the council said, saying, “separation and oppression continue to be manifest when any single group or class is given privileges above others.”
“The sin of racism is evident in any beliefs or practices that distinguish or elevate one ‘race’ over another. When accompanied or sustained by imbalances in power, racial prejudice moves beyond individual relationships to the very structures of society – the systemic perpetuation of racism,” they said, saying even Christians have at times been complicit in perpetuating “prejudice and oppression and fostering division.”
Self-reflection is needed to correct the problem, they said, saying the upcoming week of prayer is an ideal time for Christians “to recognize that the divisions between our churches and confessions cannot be separated from the divisions within the wider human family.”
“Praying together for Christian unity allows us to reflect on what unites us and to commit ourselves to confront oppression and division amongst humanity,” they said, adding, “the unity of Christians should be a sign and foretaste of the reconciled unity of the entire creation.”
As part of this process, the council said churches throughout the world must admit the times in which they have been part of the problem either by conforming to societal norms, or through silence complicity in racial injustice.
Racism is a problem throughout the world and also touches on other races and ethnicities, such as indigenous communities, they said, saying “Toxic ideologies, such as White Supremacy and the doctrine of discovery, have caused much harm, particularly in North America and in lands throughout the world colonized by White European powers over the centuries.”
“As Christians we must be willing to disrupt systems of oppression and to advocate for justice,” they said, urging Christians during their prayers to “acknowledge current and generational oppression and be resolute in our commitment to repent of these sins.”
“Let us be open to God’s presence in all our encounters with each other as we seek to be transformed, to dismantle the systems of oppression, and to heal the sins of racism. Together, let us engage in the struggle for justice in our society. We all belong to Christ,” the council said.
The Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, led by Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, is co-sponsoring the event and sent three representatives to the international commission during the writing process of this year’s reflections.
In a post on their website, the dicastery said the Catholic Church is “is called to be the sign and instrument of the unity God desires for the whole of His creation,” which is weakened by the division among Christian communities.
Christians of all confessions, they said, must therefore “repent of their divisions and work together in order to be a source of reconciliation and unity in the world.”
In Rome alone, there will be an ecumenical prayer service or liturgy held every night of the week at prominent churches throughout the city, with members of the various confessions present, including the Syrian Antiochene Catholic Church; the Romanian Orthodox; the Anglican church; the Byzantine Catholic rite; the Orthodox Church of Alexandria; the Waldensian Church, and several Evangelicals, among others.
On Jan. 24, the night before Pope Francis’s own Vespers service, a special prayer event is being organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a prominent ecclesial movement known for its social works.
Speaking to Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, Italian Father Marco Gnavi, who belongs to the Community of Sant’Egidio and is head of the office for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue for the Diocese of Rome, said “Rome is a plural city with a universal breadth, which knows tensions and critical issues.”
“Christians are a fundamental spiritual resource in opening the heart, in hardworking empathy toward the most fragile, who contribute to weaving a plot of hope in the wounds of the life of the metropolis,” he said.
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