Extending the reach

In the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (12-19 May) a broader
sense of mission will lead to stronger ties and the enrichment of faith.

 SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD 

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ
Consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services 

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs against the cultural tide. In our times all the energy now seems to lie with division – in politics, in religion, in culture and in international relations. Sixty years ago, the cause of unity was in the ascendancy. People were full of hope for the end of the Cold War, the making of peace, the end of hostilities and the reconciliation of differences.   

Within the Catholic Church, especially, that hope gave great energy to the movement for church unity. Catholics had come relatively slowly to the ecumenical table. The roots of the movement for unity lay in the late nineteenth century at a time of vigorous missionary activity by European and American churches. Those involved had begun to realise how far their rivalry and exclusive claims for their own churches weakened their individual efforts. The non-Christians among whom they worked were also deterred by the contradiction observed in people in conflict with one another who preached a Gospel of peace and unity.    

The Week for Christian Unity was one of many initiatives aimed at healing the divisions of the past, restoring unity among Christians and praying and cooperating with one another. Together, they became known as the ecumenical movement. Attitudes towards the movement among church leaders and members were ambivalent: in favour in theory, but cautious in practice. 

In the Catholic Church, the initial attitude to the ecumenical movement was generally suspicious. It was seen to downplay the vital importance of unity of belief. It risked giving the impression that all churches were equally valid, so failing to recognise that the true Church already existed in the Catholic Church. In the Second Vatican Council, however, disunity among Christians was seen as a scandal, the many elements shared with other churches were recognised, and the urgency of church unity was stressed. Catholic leaders and theologians joined their fellows in other churches in seeking common ground on disputed points of doctrine and practice. Local congregations of different churches prayed together and sought to cooperate on common projects. Roman statements, however, mixed encouragement with fear that differences would be neglected and that many Catholics might believe and act as if all churches were the same.   

More recently, the passion for Christian unity has waned as church congregations have declined, the place of Churches in society has diminished, and Churches have become more preoccupied with their own identity and questions of governance. The Catholic Church, too, has become rightly focused on the reality and response to clerical sexual abuse of children.  

For an increasing number of Christians, church allegiance is seen as part of personal history rather than as a commitment to an authoritative tradition. As all churches cope with more limited resources, too, there is less energy or enthusiasm for deepening relationships with other churches.   

Pope Francis has challenged that inwards-turned vision of Church. He has encouraged Catholics to go out to the edges of the Catholic Church to engage with disengaged members of the Church, Christians in other Churches, people of all Churches and none who suffer from poverty and discrimination, and to all to whom Christ came.  

This broad sense of mission invites an ecumenism in which members and congregations of different Churches reach out beyond their doors into the world around them and its needs. That mission will lead to the building of friendships, the enrichment of faith and the moving beyond old prejudices. All these things, of course, are based in faith and prayer. The Week of Christian Unity remains central in encouraging faith.    

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ was recently made a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association.

Banner image of the Church of St Alphonsus in Singapore by David McMahon.