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Prayer for Christian Unity?

One of the most well advertised annual events during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Rome has nothing to do with ecumenism.

At least, not explicitly.

Every night at 8:00pm during the WPCU, there is a liturgy at Santa Maria in Via Lata, just off the Via del Corso. Instead of inviting in the Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant communities in Rome to lead worship in rotation, every one of these liturgies is Catholic. The unique aspect of the series, however, is that each is celebrated according to a different liturgical rite, sponsored by different of the Churches sui iuris that make up the Catholic communion.

It is a great idea, but the question is whether it is appropriate for the week of prayer that is meant to focus on the restoration of unity with other Christians. Is it a celebration of the unity-in-diversity that already exists in a real but imperfect way in the Catholic Church? Does it smack of uniatism, or of Catholic imperialism? Is it enough to remind Roman Catholics that not all Catholics are Roman, that we do not all do things the same way, and therefore demonstrate a fundamental principle of ecumenism – that unity does not mean uniformity?

This year’s schedule includes most of the major liturgical traditions – though the East Syrian, or Assyrian/Chaldean rite is notably absent for some reason:

  • January 18: Byzantine Rite, Greek Catholic Church
    (organized by the Pontifical Greek College)
  • January 19: Byzantine Rite, Ukrainian Catholic Church
    (organized by the Basilian Fathers of St. Giosafat)
  • January 20: Byzantine Rite, Romanian Catholic Church
    (organized by the Pontifical Romanian College)
  • January 21: Maronite Rite, Maronite Catholic Church
    (organized by the Maronite Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
  • January 22: Latin Rite, Roman Catholic Church
    (presided by Archbishop Piero Marini)
  • January 23: West-Syrian Rite, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church
    (organized by the Pontifical Damascene College)
  • January 24: Armenian Rite, Armenian Catholic Church
    (organized by the Pontifical Armenian College)
  • January 25: Ge’ez Rite, Ethiopian Catholic Church
    (organized by the Pontifical Ethiopian College)

First, I have to say it is a great opportunity to celebrate the liturgical diversity of the Catholic Church. In a way it recalls Bl. John XXIII’s decision to open Vatican II in the Ambrosian Rite rather than in the Roman – a reminder that there is always more than one way to be Catholic.

It is also helpful for us Latins to remember that the Catholic Church is actually catholic, and not simply an extension of Latin-Roman/Western culture. All Roman Catholics are Catholic, but not all Catholics are Roman Catholic.

(It should go without saying the ecumenically obvious statement that not all catholics are Catholic, either, but that does not merit calling all Catholics ‘Roman Catholic’. Capisce?)

One caveat is that it can reduce the respective churches of the Catholic communion merely to their liturgical patrimony, as if the Catholic Church simply enjoys liturgical diversity in a single monolithic ecclesial entity, rather than in fact being a communion of churches.

Another is that such a celebration during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity could communicate an unintended model of unity, some kind of liturgical uniatism – or, as one my first ecumenical dialogue partners, an avid Trekkie, would put it, this model makes the Catholic Church out to be the Borg, with a simple message: “Your patrimony will be absorbed and added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

Certainly, that is not ecumenism according to the Catholic Church. (Though there is at least a hint of receptivity!)

Nevertheless, it is a celebration of Christian Unity – to be precise, of Catholic unity – to be able to celebrate the same Eucharistic mystery in such varied and ancient liturgical traditions, all of which are found within the Catholic Church. It just is not the kind of Christian Unity, or not the whole scope of the kind of unity, envisioned by the Week of Prayer.

It might be more fitting, however, if the week included Anglican, Protestant, and Orthodox Eucharistic liturgies, in which it is precisely our inability to share communion that compels us to strive for the unity for which Christ himself prays. Or let us celebrate the rich diversity of the Catholic communion in the same manner, but in a different week: perhaps the Pentecost octave. Then at least we would have time to participate in both!


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