November 03, 2009

What is meant by Christian unity?

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *
Recently, when the Vatican announced a means by which members of the worldwide Anglican communion could be received into communion once again with the Catholic church and still retain some of their traditional prayers and practices, a surprising number of Christians, including Catholics, met this hopeful news with skepticism or even bitterness.

“Rome goes fishing in Anglican pond” read one secular headline, implying there was something untoward about extending a hand of friendship to fellow Christians separated centuries ago when Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church in England. 

Certain usual suspects were quoted in the media opining that the Pope was just trying to stuff the Church full of members who would not agitate for womens' ordination and the recognition of contraception and same-sex marriage as moral goods.

I understand why the secular media make everything seem like a power struggle, but reading such responses, I wonder what we Christians mean when we speak of ecumenism?

Do we mean merely that all those who profess themselves Christians “get along?”

Or do we mean what Christ meant in his “high priestly prayer” before his arrest?

In John 17, which are to me the most precious words of scripture because they are the only time Christ prays explicitly for you and me, Jesus prays to his Father in heaven: “I pray not only for them [the apostles], but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”

What does he ask for? He doesn't ask for the queen of virtues: Charity. Neither does he ask for a civilization of justice and love. Nor does he intercede for any other grace that he undoubtedly wants for us.

He prayed that Christians would be one.

He prayed that for a particular reason, which he reveals in his prayer: “that they may all be one,  Father... that the world may believe that you sent me.”

In other words, Christian unity is meant to be the sign par excellence by which unbelievers recognize Jesus as Savior.  Is it any accident that the world has increasingly lost its faith as Christians have become more and more content over the centuries to split into a greater number of  factions and churches?

Restoring Christian unity is a painstaking and delicate task. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists and other Christians have dogmatic disagreements we can’t simply gloss over. We can neither crush consciences nor pretend these differences don’t matter. Faux unity won’t change anything. 

Pope Benedict XVI teaches that, ultimately, unity isn’t something we build at all, but a grace God gives us when we’re ready. The task of preparing for unity is a matter of each professing Christian becoming a true man or woman of prayer, as true a disciple of Christ Jesus as possible. As we each grow closer to Christ, he himself will draw us into union with him, doctrinal differences will give way to Truth, and ancient wounds between the Christian churches will be healed.

Is that not what we see happening in part before our eyes when thousands of Anglicans now contemplate re-joining their ancient Mother? Is that not beautiful and hopeful?

The head of the Traditional Anglican Union certainly received the Vatican gesture for what it was, declaring, “We are profoundly moved by the generosity of the Holy Father,” and calling it an act of “great goodness.”

I doubt it is an accident that this news was announced so close to the month of November, the month that opens with the back-to-back feasts which express our union with all Christians who have gone before us across the barriers of time and space. The Saints preceded us into heaven and intercede for us there. The holy souls need our fraternal prayer and sacrifice before they can join the saints in glory, which is why we dedicate an entire month to praying for them.

As we live these profound expressions of the communion of saints, it is also a good time to recall the importance of restoring communion among the various churches. At God’s pace, but with our prayer and willing effort, we can obey Christ’s call to Christians to be One so that others too will know Him and join us at the ultimate feast of All Saints in eternity. 
Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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