by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
Since 1909, when it was approved by Pope St Pius X, January 18-25 has traditionally been designated as the Week of Prayer for Church Unity. The history of this devotion is unique. The Episcopalian founder and foundress of the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement (at-onement) joined the Roman Catholic Church as a group and began the ministry of Christian ecumenism.
Fast forward fifty-eight years when an expanded understanding of ecumenism produced one of the final documents of Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time). It moved the entire ecumenical project to non-Christian religions and eventually far beyond.
Significant quotations from that document speak to the incredible widening of the original ecumenical, strictly Christian, contours. For example: “All people form but one community and share a common destiny”… “One finds in every people a certain awareness of a hidden power which lies behind course of nature and the events of human life.“
Nostre Aetate also cites common questions posed by all human beings – without pretending even to suggest answers: What is humanity? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is right behavior and, what is sin? Where does suffering originate and what end does it serve? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens after death? And finally, what is the ultimate mystery, beyond human explanation, which embraces our entire existence, from which we take our origin and towards which we tend?
In retrospect now, more than fifty years since Second Vatican Council, clearly Nostra Aetate has had projections far beyond its original intent: interfaith dialogue. In effect these questions and their scope face us at this time in history as never before.
They have become the hallmark of the Bergoglio pontificate. Pope Francis has consistently called for a “new normal”, a “new different” as we (hopefully) emerge from this dreadful 21st century pandemic. To mention just one example of what the Pope means, take his towering encyclical Fratelli tutti.
With apologies for the non-inclusive language, the encyclical’s subtitle is On Fraternity and Social Friendship. These are the means the pontiff sets out for building a better, more just and peaceful world, with the contribution of all people and institutions. The Holy Father’s vision in no way dismisses the objectives of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity or the call for interfaith dialogue. It goes far beyond them.
The Pope is speaking with ever-increasing authority to the entire human family. He is calling for UNITY as the “new normal, the new different” as history goes forward. His cry calls us back from the terrible fragmentation in our world and our country; from the breakdown of civility and any sense of the common good; from today’s “culture of indifference”.
Even some secular definitions of unity call it “a spiritual philosophy based on the teachings of Jesus (‘That all may be one’, John 17:21) and that humanity is inseparable from the Spirit of God within”… Unity has also been described as “practical Christianity”.
Pax Christi is offering the church and the world a wonderful mindset to inspire the quest for unity: the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. It proposes that we embrace nonviolence at every level of human life, practiced by each individual, in interpersonal relations and local, national and international relations as an effective roadway to unity.
The CNI insists that nonviolence/unity do not in any sense signify passivity or pacifism. Those attitudes in the face of violence and disunity are counterproductive in the extreme. They engender the “culture of indifference” decried by Pope Francis. On the contrary an ethic of nonviolence correctly understood names violence for what it is and points to vigorous ways of confronting it rather than using more violence.
During these days of Prayer for Christian Unity our petitions can rightly be directed toward a personal and worldwide conversion to the nonviolent vision and actions of Jesus.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.