I used to hear a lot about the quest for unity among Christians. But that does not seem to be the case today. Have we given up on that effort?
In the Gospel of John, in what is often called the “farewell discourse” of Jesus, we read, “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me (John 17:20-21).
In light of that passage, if we intend to be faithful to Christ, we can never abandon the effort for unity among Christians.
The desire for unity is not new to the life of the Church. It has occurred in every age and has arisen in response to every rupture. It was true in the first centuries as evidenced in the writings of Saint Paul. It took place in the post-Apostolic age when there emerged divergent opinions on the divinity of Jesus. It happened at the time of the East-West Schism of 1054 and during the Reformation in the 16th century. Each time there was a division, there were elements in the wider Church that sought healing and unity.
It has been said that the Christian churches are like a wheel. At present, churches are on the rim of the wheel looking from afar at one another and often casting blame. The healing that must happen will never take place unless each church moves towards the center of the wheel. That is because Christ is at the center and that is where all of us belong together.
That movement has begun. In the last 100 years especially, churches worldwide have sought to assess their own positions and ask how that resonates with Christ and the Gospels. Some have described the Reformation of the 1500’s as a “family disagreement” after which one part went with the Scriptures and the other with the sacraments.
Although oversimplified, that image has some inherent truth. And related to that truth, the Catholic Church has since the Second Vatican Council, placed renewed emphasis on the Sacred Scriptures which now are an important part in the celebration of every sacrament. At the same time, many churches in the wider Protestant tradition have looked upon the sacraments in a new light and incorporated elements of sacramental worship and life in a new way.
Efforts of unity also have been propelled forward by a common response to the needs of our brothers and sisters of every faith, or those with no affiliation. Working together to alleviate the suffering of our neighbor has enabled us to see Christ in one another.
Recently, Pope Francis began his address to an Ecumenical delegation from Finland with a reflection on the Magi. “The Magi reached the goal because they sought it,” the Pope said. “Yet they sought it because the Lord, by the sign of the star, had first set out in search of them.” Like the Magi, we must learn to journey together.
On this journey, the Pope noted that some stages are easier, allowing us to “advance rapidly with perseverance.” On the other hand, the journey toward full unity is sometimes more difficult, which can lead to weariness and discouragement. The Pope encouraged Christians toward unity through courage and patience.
Unity among Christians will not come about simply by directives from church leaders. It will take efforts of all believers.