Pope Francis met this week with members of an ecumenical delegation of Finnish Lutherans, encouraging them to work towards unity among all Christians.

"In the face of those who no longer see the full, visible unity of the Church as an achievable goal, we are invited not to give up our ecumenical efforts, faithful to that which the Lord Jesus asked of the Father, 'that they may be one,'" the Pope told the delegation Jan 17.

"Ecumenism is in fact a spiritual process, that is realized in faithful obedience to the Father, in fulfillment of the will of Christ and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

The group, led by Kari Makinen, a bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, was on its annual pilgrimage to Rome for the feast of St. Henry, their nation's patron saint. Their trip coincides with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, held Jan. 18-25.

The week of prayer is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the World Council of Churches' faith and order commission. The week is dedicated to encouraging dialogue and spiritual unity amongst Christians.

Pope Francis reflected on this year's theme, "Has Christ been Divided", in his audience with the delegation, noting that the process of working for Christian unity is changing in response to an increasingly secularized culture, particularly in Europe.

"At the current time, even our ecumenical journey and the relations between Christians are going through significant changes, due to the fact that we find (ourselves) professing our faith in the context of a society and culture where the reference to God and to all that recalls the transcendent dimension of life is ever less present."

In the face of these challenges, "it is necessary that our testimony focuses on the center of our faith, on the announcement of the love of God that is manifested in Christ his Son," encouraged Pope Francis.

"We find here space for growth in communion and in unity amongst ourselves, promoting spiritual ecumenism, which grows directly from the commandment of love left by Jesus to his disciples."

Yet the ecumenical movement faces many challenges. Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promoting  Christian Unity, noted that a major difficulty lies in different understandings of ecumensim's goal.

"The main problem that we have today in the ecumenical dialogue with all the Protestant" communities, he told CNA recently, is the lack of "a common vision of the goal of the ecumenical movement. We have two different views. The Catholic view, (which) is also the Orthodox view, (is) that we will re-find the unity in faith in the sacraments and in ministries."

Conversely, Cardinal Koch said, "the vision that I find today in the Protestant churches and ecclesial communities (is that) of the mutual recognition of all the ecclesial communities as churches."

In this Protestant vision, the goal of ecumenism presupposes a different understanding of "church."  Rather than unity visible in sacrament and ministry, the Protestant vision sees "church" as simply a conglomeration or "addition of all these ecclesial communities."

"This is the view of the ecumenical goal that is very very difficult for us."

Nevertheless, hope remains. As Pope Francis continues the work of his predecessors in seeking union with the Orthodox, most visible in his upcoming pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the spring, the improving relationship between Catholic and Orthodox may serve as a model for dialogue with Protestants.

"I think that the Reformation … has some basis in the division between Orthodox and Catholic, and when we can find new unity between Orthodox and Catholics, I think we have a better basis for the discussion between Catholics and Protestants," said Cardinal Koch.

"I hope that we have more in common than what is divided."