ROME – This week the Catholic Church is celebrating its annual Week for Christian Unity, which organizers say is especially relevant given the coronavirus pandemic, which requires a joint effort from all people regardless of ethnicity, race or creed in order to stop the spread and assist the sick and the poor.
Pope Francis in his Sunday Angelus address asked faithful to pray during the week that “the desire of Jesus would be fulfilled: ‘that they all might be one.’ Unity, which is always superior to conflict.”
In a letter released in advance of the Week for Christian Unity, leaders of different Christian communities in Rome said that “never as in this time have we felt the desire to be close to one another, together with our communities in Italy.”
Faced with “suffering, sickness, and death, the economic difficulties of so many, the distance that separates us, we do not to hide or diminish the strength of being united in Christ Jesus, especially after having celebrated Christmas,” they said.
Over the past few months, the leaders said they have seen “solidarity multiply,” noting that in the course of the pandemic, “Many have joined our communities to lend a hand, to make themselves close to those in need of food, friendship, and new gestures of closeness, while respecting the right rules of distancing.”
“The gratuity of the gift has helped us to rediscover the continued richness and beauty of Christian life, flooded by the grace of God, who we are called to communicate with utmost generosity to all,” they said, adding that their respective churches “have found unity in that charity, which is the greatest of virtues and which, unique, will remain a sign of our communion founded in the Lord Jesus.”
They voiced their intention to intensify their prayers “for one another, for the sick, for those who care for them, for the elderly who are alone or in an institution, for refugees, for all those who are suffering at this time” as the Week for Christian Unity progresses.
“Today our prayer rises intensely, so that the Lord heals humanity from the force of evil and of the pandemic, from injustice and violence, and grants unity among us,” they said, adding, “We live and celebrate our unity in common prayer, which will bring together our communities especially this week.”
The letter was signed by Bishop Ambrogio Spreafico of Frosinone, president of the Episcopal Commission for Ecumenism and Dialogue; Metropolitan Polykarpos Stavropoulos, patriarchal vicar of the Sacred Orthodox Archdiocese of Italy and Malta; and Pastor Luca Maria Negro, president of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy.
Running Jan. 18-25, the Week for Christian Unity has been observed in some form for over 100 years, and is traditionally a time when different Christian churches make a point of coming together for prayer and various activities in a bid to inch closer to fulfilling Jesus’s prayer in the Gospel that, “they all may be one.”
This year’s theme, “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit,” is inspired by the Gospel of John and was selected to emphasize the role of Christian communities in praying and working for reconciliation and unity not only among confessions, but the human family as a whole.
Although this year’s celebration will be scaled-down compared to previous years given ongoing restrictions related to COVID-19, several prayer vigils and events with guided reflection have been organized by different Christian communities throughout the week, beginning Sunday and culminating with a Jan. 25 Vespers service led by Pope Francis.
As usual, this liturgy will be held in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which is one of Rome’s four papal basilicas and is traditionally dedicated to ecumenical events and liturgies.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) have invited Christians from every confession to join in the Jan. 25 Vespers liturgy, which will be livestreamed.
In a letter for the occasion, acting Secretary General of the WCC Reverend Loan Sauca said that while the coronavirus pandemic makes it difficult to gather together in person, “this global online celebration will allow us to pray together wherever we are.”
Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stressed the importance of building a culture of ecumenism, which he argued could sway global society as a whole toward peace and brotherhood.
“Cultural ecumenism is very important because it’s many roots of division and problems in history were not primarily of a theological nature but a cultural nature,” Koch told the Italian magazine Citta Nuova , noting that the original division between Eastern and Western branches of Christianity was primarily “a question of culture.”
“Having a better knowledge of the culture of the other is very important,” he said, saying this can also play a role in fighting attitudes such as anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism, and sectarianism.
“It’s very important that the Catholic Church fights antisemitism, religious fanaticism and sectarianism and then that it does so together with other Christians, with the other churches,” he said, and quoted a statement made by Pope Benedict XVI a plenary conference of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, when he said, “the Church grows not by proselytism but by attraction.”
Noting that this line is one that Pope Francis himself often quotes, Koch said the spirit of this statement is “an example of how to do the new evangelization,” how to spread the Gospel in the modern world.
“This to me seems like a good example for all of ecumenism to combat anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism, and sectarianism,” he said, adding, “If the Catholic Church and ecumenism do not do these things it is a counter-witness.”
Asked what influence Pope Francis’s encyclical on human fraternity Fratelli Tutti can contribute to the quest for ecumenical unity, Koch noted that while the scope of the document is directed more toward interreligious dialogue, ecumenical dialogue has the same ultimate goal, which is “the unity of humanity.”
“In this sense,” he said, “the ecumenical movement can help to deepen unity among all men.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen