“Holy Father, protect them so that they may be one, as we are one”. These words were proclaimed in today’s Holy Gospel. This passage from the Gospel of St. John contains Jesus’ last discourse with his disciples. Immediately after these words are spoken, Jesus is arrested. These last words before Jesus goes to meet his death are often referred to as the “priestly prayer of Jesus”. These words are addressed directly to the Father. The disciples are present and overhear the prayer.
What is the subject matter of this final prayer? Jesus prays that all people may be one as he, the Son, and the Father are one. Unity is not a suggestion, a recommendation, “if you have the time” proposition. Unity is a command given by the Lord himself at the Last Supper.
A commitment to unity is a necessary task for the Christian. This is important point to remember since yesterday was the 25th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s encyclical on Christian unity—“Ut Unum Sint” (“That all may be one”) Christ wants unity among his people. It is God’s will that the Christian life be lived out in visible communion.
Today, followers of Jesus from different faith traditions are divided. 64% of Christians are Roman Catholic; 13% belong to the Eastern Churches (mostly Orthodox) and 23% are Protestant. Divisions exist in church structures, theology, models of authority and of priesthood, and in forms of worship. These divisions, many of which originated so long ago, continue to be horribly painful today. These facts are even more tragic when we realize that only 30% of the world population is Christian. 70% of the world population is not Christian.
The 70% of the world that is not Christian should be experiencing unity and Christ-like charity from Christians. Sadly, this is not the case. Jesus, the one who prayed for unity among his followers, has wept many times and continues to weep.
But today, there is also much hope. People of different faith traditions are working to bring people and churches closer together. The obvious questions are: Given all the dissension, how realistic a goal is Christian Unity? Furthermore, why should Christian Unity even become a high priority for us?
The answers to both questions are found on the 1st page of the Bible. The 1st page of the Bible proclaims that human beings are made in the image of God. At the moment of conception, God enters the picture and places a piece of himself at the core of every person. As a result of God’s generosity, each of us has divine DNA in our makeup. This divine presence is never withdrawn.
Since each of us is made in God’s image, we are connected to one other. The role of the Christian is not to promote conflict and division. As Pope Francis has reminded us on several occasions, “The Christian builds bridges, not walls”. Our oneness is rooted in our common call to see God in each other. Each person we meet reveals the presence of God. There are no exceptions; there are no exclusions. Therefore, our call is to be open to each other. Why would we not be passionate about overcoming splits, divisions and separations?
I would like to suggest 3 activities to promote unity and charity among Christians.
1. All Christians believe in prayer. Therefore, we need to pray together regularly. Let’s always welcome opportunities for Christians from different denominations to gather for prayer. Based on my experience with L’Arche, I especially value and appreciate the contributions of Christians from various traditions that help make our weekly prayer services so meaningful.
2. All Christians believe in the Bible. All Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God. It is right and just to gather on a regular basis to celebrate ecumenical services based on Sacred Scripture. Once again, based on my experience with L’Arche, another possibility is to have faith sharing small groups based on Sacred Scripture. Respecting and honoring diverse religious traditions in this context lead to a rich spiritual experience for all those involved.
3. All Christians believe in outreach to others. It makes perfect sense to work together on common projects that allow us to provide generous service to our brothers and sisters in need. A good example is the Sudbury Downtown Churches Association where people of various faith traditions come together to provide support and assistance for the most vulnerable and struggling members of the Sudbury community through a common Advent project, a common Lenten project or the annual June BBQ which takes place on our parish grounds.
Finally, I would be remiss in discussing ecumenism and Christian unity if I did not publicly recognize the efforts of Msgr. Jim Hutton. He has been involved in ecumenical efforts in the Diocese since 1983. Congratulations on almost 40 years of commitment to this ministry. Since 2002, Msgr. Jim has served as Diocesan Coordinator for Christian Unity, Religious Relations with Jews and Interfaith Dialogue. Thank you for this important ministry in our Diocese and in our province. Thank you for your witness to God’s will for our world.
Yes, it’s true that the kingdom of God will find its perfect fulfillment in heaven. But, let’s listen to these words from today’s Gospel again: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world”. As Christians, we have a responsibility to build the Kingdom of God here and now on this earth. We contribute to the Kingdom when we journey together to make our homes, schools, work sites and institutions places of understanding, kindness, forgiveness and peace.
The three tools discussed earlier (praying together; reflecting together on Sacred Scripture; ministering together to the needy) can strengthen the bonds among us and can strengthen the presence of God’s Kingdom in our world.
“Holy Father, protect them so that they may be one, as we are one”. These words are addressed to each of us this afternoon. As our Mass continues, let us ask God to help us (as Pope Francis invited us yesterday during the 25th Anniversary celebrations of the encyclical) to be committed to unity and charity among Christians in our own time.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
May 27, 2020