Pope Francis told a group of religious men and women that they are the forerunners in working towards Christian unity, which is something that first requires personal conversion, holiness and prayer.

"There is no unity without conversion. Religious life reminds us that at the center of every search for unity, and therefore of every ecumenical effort, there is before all else the conversion of heart," the pontiff told the participants of an Ecumenical Colloquium of Religious Men and Women on Jan. 24.

Pope Francis' address to the group, which took place in the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace, fell on the second to last day of the Jan. 22-25 colloquium.

Organized by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the gathering was dedicated to prayer for Christian unity, and was held on the occasion of the Year for Consecrated Life, which opened in November.

Conversion, the pontiff said, "involves the request and the granting of forgiveness" on each side, and requires both parties "to look at one another in God," and to make the effort of seeing themselves from the point of view of the other.

This, he said, is "a double challenge related to the search for unity, both within religious communities, and among Christians of different traditions."

Religious men and women have frequently been the pioneers of ecumenism, the Roman Pontiff noted, explaining because they are so "deeply rooted in the will of Christ and in the common tradition of the undivided church," consecrated persons have a "particular vocation to promote this unity."

He pointed to the French Taizé Community and the Italian Monastic Community of Bose as contemporary examples of communities who specifically work toward fostering an environment of encounter for Christians from different traditions.

Religious life is also a sign that it is not our own efforts which bring about unity, the Pope observed, but that such unity is rather "a gift of the Holy Spirit, who creates unity in diversity."

The Holy Spirit, he said, "reveals to us that this unity can only be accomplished if we walk together, if we follow the path of fraternity in love, service and reciprocal welcome."

In addition to conversion, prayer is also needed in order to achieve true ecumenical unity, the pontiff noted, saying that committed efforts to build this unity are both a response to the prayer of Jesus and at the same time are themselves based on prayer.

Pope Francis then recalled an image illustrating the bond between ecumenism and religious life generated by Father Paul Couturier, who said that all those who pray for unity are an "invisible monastery."

As consecrated persons, religious men and women "are the first animators of this 'invisible monastery,'" the Pope explained, and encouraged colloquium participants to pray for unity and to "translate this prayer into attitudes and daily gestures."

The Bishop of Rome also noted the importance of personal holiness in everyday life as key to ecumenical dialogue, saying that "there is no unity without holiness of life."

Consecrated persons, he said, are also a sign of this universal call to holiness, which each person receives at their baptism.

Pope Francis concluded his address by thanking the religious men and women present for their witness to the Gospel and their service in the cause for unity.

He prayed for each of them, that the Lord "abundantly bless your ministry and inspire you to work tirelessly for the peace and reconciliation among churches and Christian communities."

The colloquium, which coincides with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, will close Sunday evening when Pope Francis brings the week of prayer to an end by praying Vespers with representatives of Orthodox and Anglican Churches.

Set to take place at the papal basilica St. Paul Outside the Wall, the Vespers service also falls on the feast day marking the apostle's conversion.

On the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which falls on Monday, Feb. 2, Pope Francis will celebrate a special Mass for Day of Consecrated Life. The Mass, which is also a special initiative for the Year for Consecrated Life, will be held inside St. Peter's Basilica at 5:30 p.m.