A spiritual director once surprised me by asking: “What does your little voice have to say?”
“Little voice?” I thought. “I don’t have a little voice.”
So I was astonished to find myself listening to my little voice. I did have one; how had I not noticed all these years? Suddenly I was invited to “walk in a larger place” (Ps 31). The only way to find out the truth of it was to try it — led and supported by the community.
A century and more ago, Christians in various parts of the world began listening to their “little voice” telling them that divided Christian churches needed each other, and that being hostile to one another was hard on them and hard on the world.
Many not only listened to that little voice, but also acted on it. They found ways for Christians not in communion with each other to talk and listen at high levels and grassroots levels. Together, instead of in isolated camps, they read Scripture, worked, studied church history and early church theologians. Most important, they prayed for each other and even prayed together in ways they could.
As Cardinal Walter Kasper has written, the impetus of working toward reconciliation and full Christian unity is clearly a response to the one Holy Spirit, who roused many people in many different places to do things never done before.
Could various people listen to the same “little voice”? In the case of the ecumenical movement, the Catholic Church has said “yes” — officially, since 1964. Catholics are urged not to fear other Christian churches and communities, but to be active agents of fostering unity with them.
Undoubtedly, mistakes have been made along the way. Much has been learned. Ecumenism, the quest for full Christian unity, looks and sounds different from its early days. Those early pioneers risked and accomplished much.
Imagine facing 2021 — this new year that breaks in on a shaken world — without the little voice of peace and reconciliation that fortunately haunts us all, and is stronger and richer because Christians have dared to sing it together, for decades now. Can a fractured world be healed by a fractured Christian witness? Complete Christian unity is urgent for the life of the suffering world.
Having dared to abide in Christ’s love, those pioneers have borne much fruit (Jn 15:5-7) — the text chosen for 2021’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25) by a working group at Grandchamp, Switzerland, an ecumenical monastic community.
The annual Week of Prayer itself is an example of how different people responding to the one Spirit can bring about change they couldn’t have imagined alone.
It’s the child of two Pauls, dreamt up in 1908 as the Octave of Christian Unity by Father Paul Wattson with Sister Lurana White. Father Wattson founded the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, their charism the unity of all Christians. The octave was the fruit of Father Wattson’s certainty that Christian unity could not be simply a human creation, but must be a work of God, and therefore depended on prayer.
The second Paul, Abbé Paul Couturier, saw that ecumenism must be a spiritual ecumenism. He helped the octave develop into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, praying that all come closer to Christ, and therefore to one another.
Pope Benedict XVI remarked, while a cardinal: “In any case it should be clear that we do not create unity, no more than we bring about righteousness by means of our works, but that on the other hand we should not sit around twiddling our thumbs.” Some inter-church issues have been resolved, including a key theological conflict of the Reformation between Lutherans and Catholics (1999). Many need more work. Those who went before did their part. Who will do ours?
A challenge is held out to us by the bold hands of Christians who preceded and opened a larger place for us. Will we enter a sleepy next phase of ecumenism, comfortable in our separate cubicles sending emails and twiddling thumbs? Or will our clergy and pastoral leaders pray and work with other Christian communities, learning to receive their gifts while sharing ours? Will seminarians be encouraged to plan their response to the large percentage of “mixed” marriages in their flocks?
Will our bishops heed the Spirit speaking through the Vatican’s April 2020 document, “The Bishop and Christian Unity,” released specifically to them? Will we help our bishops follow this new directive? Will we wake up and listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church?
We can take concrete steps to move toward other Christian churches in joyful welcome, daring to move from a once-a-year prayer with strangers to at least a dialogue of charity. Many are responding across church divisions to needs created by the pandemic.
We are not alone. As a late American bishop exhorted, we don’t need to wait for full communion to do the many things we already can do together.