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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in which all believers in Christ are invited to join in prayer to witness the profound bond that exists among them and to invoke the gift of full communion. Providential is the fact that prayer is placed at the center of the path to build unity: this reminds us, once again, that unity cannot be a simple product of human action; it is above all a gift of God, which entails growth in communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Vatican Council II states “[t]hese prayers in communion are, without a doubt, a very effective means to implore the grace of unity and constitute a genuine manifestation of the bonds with which Catholics remain united with the separated brethren: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew18:20)” (“Decree Unitatis Redintegratio,” No. 8). The path to visible unity among all Christians resides in prayer, because fundamentally we do not “build” unity, but it is “built” by God, it comes from Him, from the Trinitarian Mystery, from the unity of the Father with the Son in the dialogue of love which is the Holy Spirit and our ecumenical effort should be open to divine action, it must be a daily invocation of God’s help. The Church is His and not ours.
The theme chosen this year for the Week of Prayer makes reference to the experience of the early Christian community of Jerusalem, just as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles (we have heard the text): “And they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We must consider that already at the moment of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on persons of different language and culture: this means that the Church embraces from the beginning people of different origins and, yet, precisely from these differences the Spirit creates one body. Pentecost, as the beginning of the Church, marks the enlargement of God’s Covenant with all creatures, with all peoples at all times, so that the whole of creation will walk towards its true objective: to be a place of unity and love.
In the passage quoted from the Acts of the Apostles, four characteristics define the early Christian community of Jerusalem as a place of unity and love, and St. Luke does not wish to describe only an event of the past. He offers it to us as model, as norm for the present Church, because these four characteristics must always constitute the life of the Church. The first characteristic is to be united in listening to the teachings of the Apostles, in fraternal communion, in the breaking of the bread and in prayer. As I already mentioned, these four elements are still today the pillars of the life of every Christian community and constitute just one solid foundation on which to base our search for the visible unity of the Church.
First of all we have listening to the teaching of the Apostles, that is, listening to the testimony that they give of the mission, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It is what Paul calls simply the “Gospel.” The first Christians received the Gospel from the mouth of the Apostles, they were united to hear it and to proclaim it, since the Gospel, as Saint Paul affirms, “is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Romans 1:16). Still today, the community of believers recognizes, in the reference to the teaching of the Apostles, their own norm of faith: every effort made for the building of unity between Christians passes through the deepening of fidelity to the depositum fidei which the Apostles transmit to us. Firmness in the faith is the basis of our communion, it is the basis of Christian unity.
The second element is fraternal communion. In the times of the early Christian community, as also in our days, this is the most tangible expression, above all for the outside world, of the unity among the disciples of the Lord. We read in the Acts of the Apostles — we have heard it — that the first Christians held everything in common and that those who had properties and goods sold them to distribute to the needy (cf. Acts 2:44-45). This communion of their goods has found, in the history of the Church, new forms of expression. One of these, in particular, is that of the fraternal relationship and friendship built between Christians of different confessions. The history of the ecumenical movement is marked by difficulties and uncertainties, but it is also a history of fraternity, of cooperation and of human and spiritual communion, which has changed in a significant way the relations between believers in the Lord Jesus: we are all committed to continue on this path. Hence, the second element is communion which is, first of all, communion with God through faith, but communion with God creates communion among ourselves and is translated necessarily into the concrete communion of which the Acts of the Apostles speak, that is, full communion. No one should be hungry in the Christian community, no one should be poor: it is a fundamental obligation. Communion with God, made flesh in fraternal communion, is translated, concretely, in social effort, in Christian charity, in justice.
Third element. Essential also in the life of the early community of Jerusalem was the moment of the breaking of the bread, in which the Lord himself makes himself present with the only sacrifice of the Cross in his giving himself completely for the life of his friends: “This is my Body given in sacrifice for you … this is the chalice of my Blood … shed for you.” “The Church lives from the Eucharist. This truth does not express only a daily experience of faith, but encloses in synthesis the nucleus of the mystery of the Church” (Encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” No. 1). Communion in Christ’s sacrifice is the culmination of our union with God and therefore also represents the plenitude of the unity of the disciples of Christ, full communion. During this Week of Prayer for Unity the lament is particularly alive due to the impossibility of sharing the same Eucharistic table, sign that we are still far from the realization of that unity for which Christ prayed. This painful experience, which confers a penitential dimension to our prayer, must become the motive for a still more generous effort, on the part of all, in order that, eliminating all the obstacles for full communion, the day will come in which it will be possible to gather around the table of the Lord, to break the Eucharistic bread together and all drink from the same chalice.
Finally, prayer, or as St. Luke says, “the prayers,” is the fourth characteristic of the early Church of Jerusalem described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Prayer has always been the constant attitude of the disciples of Christ, what supports their daily lives in obedience to the will of God, as attested to us also by the words of the Apostle Paul, who writes to the Thessalonians in his first letter “[r]ejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Ephesians 6:18). Christian prayer, participation in Jesus’ prayer is par excellence a filial experience, as attested to us in the words of the Our Father, prayer of the family — the “we” of the children of God, of the brothers and sisters — that speaks to a common Father. To be in an attitude of prayer, hence, implies being open to fraternity. Only in the “we” can we say the Our Father. Let us open ourselves to fraternity which stems from being children of the one heavenly Father and hence disposed to forgiveness and reconciliation.
Dear brothers and sisters, as disciples of the Lord we have a common responsibility to the world, we must carry out a common service: as the first Christian community of Jerusalem, beginning from what we already share, we must give a strong witness, founded spiritually and supported by reason, of the only God who has revealed Himself and who speaks to us in Christ, to be bearers of a message that directs and illumines the path of the man of our time, often deprived of clear and valid points of reference. Hence, it is important to grow each day in mutual love, committing ourselves to overcome those barriers that still exist among Christians; to feel that a true interior unity exists among all those who follow the Lord; to collaborate as much as possible, working together on the questions that are still open; and above all, to be conscious that in this itinerary the Lord must assist us, he still has to help us much because, without Him, alone, without “abiding in Him,” we can do nothing (cf. John 15:5).
Dear friends, once again it is in prayer where we find ourselves gathered — particularly during this week — together with all those who confess their faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God: let us persevere in it, let us be people of prayer, imploring from God the gift of unity, so that his plan of salvation and reconciliation will be fulfilled in the whole world. Thank you!
[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, all the Lord’s followers are asked to implore the gift of full communion. This year’s theme — “They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) — invites us to reflect on four pillars of unity found in the life of the early Church. The first is fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by the Apostles. The second is fraternal communion, a contemporary expression of which is seen in the growing ecumenical friendship among Christians. The third is the breaking of the bread; although the inability of separated Christians to share the same Eucharistic table is a reminder that we are still far from the unity which Christ wills for his disciples, it is also an incentive to greater efforts to remove every obstacle to that unity. Finally, prayer itself helps us realize that we are children of the one heavenly Father, called to forgiveness and reconciliation. During this Week, let us pray that all Christians will grow in fidelity to the Gospel, in fraternal unity and in missionary zeal, in order to draw all men and women into the saving unity of Christ’s Church.
I offer a warm welcome to the students and staff of the Bossey Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies. I thank the choir from Finland for their praise of God in song. To all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s Audience, including those from Australia, Canada and the United States, I invoke an abundance of joy and peace in the Lord.
[In Italian, he greeted the youth, sick and newlyweds present:]
I now greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. Dear friends, I invite you to pray for Christian unity. All of you who, with youthful freshness, or with endured self-giving, or with happy spousal love are committed to love the Lord in the daily fulfillment of your duty, contribute to the building of the Church and her evangelizing work. Pray, therefore, so that all Christians will accept the Lord’s call to the unity of the faith in his one Church.
Copyright 2011 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana [Translation by ZENIT]