Vatican official: Jesus makes Christian unity possible

Bishop Brian Farrell CNA US Catholic News 1 19 12 Bishop Brian Farrell speaks with CNA on Jan. 17, 2012

The person of Jesus Christ should give all Christians hope that historic divisions can be overcome, says a top official at the Vatican department responsible for promoting Christian unity.

“I think we have to start with theological hope and it’s the prayer of Christ himself that really grounds all the other hopes that we might have,” said Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in a Jan. 17 interview with CNA.

“If we participate in the prayer of Christ, who at the Last Supper prayed that all his disciples might be one so that the world would believe, then we have to be convinced that the Church is not able to fulfill its mission because of the sin of division,” he said.

Bishop Farrell, who hails from Ireland, is one of the primary coordinators of the Vatican’s annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year’s week of prayer began Jan. 16 and will be marked by over 300 churches and Christian communities around the world.

In Rome, Bishop Farrell’s department has lined up a series of events that culminate in solemn vespers at the papal basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls on Jan. 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Pope Benedict XVI will lead the service and be joined in prayer by representatives of other Christian bodies.

Their basic aim, the bishop explained, is to break through “the old polemics and controversies and prejudices” and to heal “some of the sad memories of history,” so that “a new brotherhood of Christians can come about” where “we can rediscover ourselves as disciples of the Lord together.”

The cornerstone of all they do must be prayer, he says, because “we can’t build Christian unity on our human effort, it’s a gift and witnesses to the victory of Christ.”

Ecumenical Efforts Worldwide

Because of his involvement with so many Christian communities, Bishop Farrell is able to speak about ecumenical developments across of broad spectrum of belief.

He strikes a hopeful note when discussing relations with the Orthodox churches to whom, he said, the Catholic Church is “very close theologically.” The biggest problem is a cultural one, he observed, based upon “our perception of each other.”

“So it requires a great of reflection, study and conversation to get to the point where we really understand why we have ‘such and such’ an idea of each other and where we stand on the fundamental faith that we have together.”

This includes discussions on “the big question” – the role of the Bishop of Rome. Orthodox Christians recognize the Pope has “a special role,” but how he exercises that role is the big question, said Bishop Farrell.

He explained how much progress has already been achieved on many related issues since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), such that he now has “great hope that if we are patient and we work to overcome the misconceptions that we have of each other, and of each others’ thought, that there is not too much to overcome.”

Conversely, he said, relations with the Anglican Communion have been made more difficult in recent times by their stance on “moral questions and questions regarding life issues.”

But Bishop Farrell is not overly pessimistic. He thinks that such hurdles “make dialogue more difficult but at the same time more intense, and we must continue.”

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI paved the way for the creation of “personal ordinariates” within the Catholic Church. They are a home for former Anglicans who wish to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church.

Two ordinariates have been created since the Pope made his announcement in 2009. They are the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England and Wales, and the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter in the United States, which was created Jan. 1, 2012.

More in Vatican

“Well, I think, like all things, you have to give it a chance to work itself out,” said Bishop Farrell of the Anglican ordinariates concept.

“It’s only at the very beginning and I think that Anglicans generally understand that the Catholic Church has decided to allow this, or create this ordinariate, precisely because some Anglicans have asked for it.”

“In that sense,” he said, “it is partly ecumenical … these are Anglicans who want to become Catholics.” At the same time, Bishop Farrell said, “it is no longer an ecumenical question but a question of their personal conviction.”

In recent years the cultural changes of the West have also led to a new ecumenical phenomenon of Catholics and evangelical Christians joining forces in addressing the many social and moral issues that have presented themselves.

“On life issues, on moral issues, we are very much in harmony with them – or they with us,” said Bishop Farrell. But, he qualified, “on ecclesiological issues we are very distant” because “we have radically different ideas of what the Church is and how it should be organized.”

Bishops Farrell thinks that “people may be surprised to know” the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has been in “continuous dialogue” with various evangelical groups, including Pentecostals, over the past 30 years.

And this dialogue has led to “some very interesting results,” he said.

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Bishop Farrell said that describing a unified Christian Church would be “very difficult” to do, but “theologically speaking, one thing is certain it will have to do with the point at which we can celebrate the Eucharist together.”

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