Pope Francis didn’t wait for the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity to begin next Monday.

Getting a jump on that observance, he addressed the topic of Christian unity at a prayer service in St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome Sunday, Jan. 10, attended by Orthodox and Anglican dignitaries.

"So many past controversies between Christians can be overcome when we put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches, and seek instead to grasp more fully what unites us," the pope said.

"We need to realize that, to plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts," he continued.

His view – one shared by church fathers at the Second Vatican Council and by every pope thereafter – is a far cry from what many of us learned growing up in the pre-Vatican II church.

As a child, the only non-Catholics I knew were two brothers who lived at the end of the block and were Lutheran. When we all were getting along, which was usually the case, my Catholic friends and I wondered why they were destined for hell. When we weren’t getting along, we relished the thought.

It was a shock – and a new reason to argue -- when we eventually learned they had the same view of our eternal prospects. But as I came to know more and more non-Catholics of goodwill and devout faith, it became ever more difficult to believe they were excluded from salvation. For people like me, the teaching of our church fathers at the Second Vatican Council was a joy and relief.

Contrast our old understandings with the comments of Pope Francis during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2014. At his general audience then he called the divisions that exist among Christians as a source of pain and scandal, and he said they damage the credibility of efforts to spread the Gospel.

"Christ's name creates communion and unity, not division. He came to create communion among us, not to divide us!" the pope said.

He explained that Christians have two important elements in common: baptism and the cross. But divisions among Christian communities "weaken the credibility and the effectiveness of our efforts to evangelize, and they risk empting the cross of its power," he warned.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was first observed in 1908 at Graymoor, the headquarters of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, in Garrison, NY. The observance’s purpose is to encourage all Christians to pray for unity as described in the Gospel of St. John, "that all may be one ... so that the world may believe."

Since 1966, themes and texts for the annual observance have been developed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican and the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

To learn more about the materials available to assist parish leaders and volunteers with observing the special week, visit the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website.


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