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Pray Without Ceasing: The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

January 18, 2014
[The following is a homily given by Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B. during the Ecumencial Prayer Service for the 2008 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the Salvation Army Citadel, in Agincourt, Ontario]
In 1908 at Graymoor in Garrison, New York, the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement held the first Church Unity Octave and have prayed for Christian unity, "without ceasing," ever since. Today, Christians around the world celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity together, with the encouragement of the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission and the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
On January 25, 1959, at the conclusion of the prayer for unity octave, Pope John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council. This great event for the Church and the Churches brought the Catholic Church energetically into the ecumenical movement. The Council also opened the door for official cooperation between the World Council of Churches’ Secretariat on Faith and Order and the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Unity. A joint consultation on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was held in 1966 resulting in the establishment of a joint working group on the material for the week of prayer. In 1968 the first product of that group was ready for use.
Christ Sinai IconToday the cooperation between Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic churches, parishes and communities in preparing for and celebrating the week of prayer has become a familiar practice. This simple fact is in itself a strong evidence for the effectiveness of prayer for unity. It gives us every right to speak about the history of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as one of success, and a reason for great joy and gratitude.
However, it is also evident that praying for unity is not an invention of the last century. Jesus himself prayed to the Father “that they all may be one.” Christians have made this prayer their own in myriad ways ever since. In the midst of our divisions, Christians of all traditions have prayed with an awareness of their union with the prayer of Christ for the unity of all his disciples. The ancient daily liturgy of the Orthodox churches, for example, invites the faithful to pray for peace and for the unity of all. The antecedents of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity date back to the middle of the 19th century. The importance and the need of prayer, and not least, of prayer for unity among divided Christians, was emphasized in a number of different church movements and circles — among them the Oxford Movement, the Evangelical Alliance and various women's prayer initiatives.
The theme chosen for this year, taken from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (5:17), is "Pray Without Ceasing." Listen to Paul’s words once again:
“But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters... Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you.”
The letter to the Thessalonians, dating from 50 or 51 AD and considered to be the earliest of Paul’s known letters, reflects Paul’s intense relationship with the Christian community in Thessalonica. Fresh from persecution in Philippi – where Paul and his companions Silvanus and Timothy had been attacked by a mob, beaten at the command of the town magistrates, and thrown into prison (Acts 17: 1-9) – Paul had established the church in Thessalonica in a few weeks of concentrated work before fresh attacks drove him on to Beroea and from there, to Athens (17: 10-15).
Paul had high hopes for the church in Thessalonica; its growth in faith, hope and love, its reception of the word despite suffering, and its joy in the Holy Spirit all drew his admiration and praise (1 Thess 1: 2-10). Yet he was concerned. His hasty departure had not left him time to consolidate the work he had begun, and he had received disturbing reports. Some challenges were external, notably, persecution of the community and its members (1 Thess 2: 14). Others were internal: some were behaving in ways typical of the culture around them rather than of the new life in Christ (4: 1-8); some in the community had raised questions about those in positions of leadership and authority, including Paul himself (cf. 2: 3-7, 10); and some despaired at the fate of those who were dying before the return of Christ. Would they be denied a place in God’s kingdom? Was the promise of salvation, for them and perhaps for others, empty and void (cf. 4: 13)?
Fearing that his work had been in vain and “able to bear it no longer” (3:1) Paul, unable himself to return, had sent Timothy to Thessalonica. Timothy had returned with news of the community’s strong faith and love, and its continued loyalty to Paul himself. First Thessalonians was Paul’s response to this good news – but also to the challenges facing the growing church. He wrote first to thank the community for its strength in the face of persecution. Second, for all his relief and joy at Timothy’s report, he recognized in it the seeds of division within the church, and thus hastened to address the diverse questions raised within the community about personal behaviour (4: 9-12), leadership (5: 12-13a) and the hope of eternal life in Christ (4: 14-5: 11).
One of Paul’s central aims was to build up the community in its unity. Even death does not break the bonds which unite it as the one body of Christ; Christ has died and risen for all, so that at Christ’s coming both those who have already fallen asleep, and those still living “may live with him” (5: 10). This brought Paul to the imperatives in the text (1 Thessalonians 5: 13b-18), which have been chosen from a slightly longer list of exhortations to form the basis for this year’s week of prayer. The passage begins with Paul’s plea that the members of the community “be at peace among yourselves” (5: 13b) – a peace which is not simply the absence of conflict but a state of harmony in which the gifts of all within the community contribute to its thriving and growth.
Strikingly, Paul did not offer abstract theological teaching nor did he speak about emotions or feelings. Just as in the famous text on love from 1 Corinthians 13, he called rather for specific actions, actual ways of behaving, through which members of the community reveal their commitment and accountability to one another within the one body of Christ. Love is to be put into practice and made visible.
The imperatives themselves, the ‘things that make for peace’, he lists as follows: ensuring the contribution of all and encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, being patient with all, not repaying evil for evil but doing good to one another and to all, rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances (5: 14-18a). The section chosen then concludes with the affirmation that, in doing these things, the community is living out “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (5: 18b).
The appeal to “pray without ceasing” (5: 17) is embedded within this list of imperatives. This emphasizes that life in Christian community is possible only through a life of prayer. Further, it shows that prayer is an integral part of the life of Christians precisely as they seek to manifest the unity which is given them in Christ – a unity which is not limited to doctrinal agreements and formal statements, but finds expression in the things that make for peace, in concrete actions which express and build up their unity in Christ and with one another.
In our baptism we commit ourselves to the following of Christ and the fulfilment of his will. This will for his followers was expressed in a prayer for unity so that others would come to believe in him as the one sent by God. Prayer that joins Jesus' prayer for unity has come to be referred to by some churches as an expression of “spiritual ecumenism”. This prayer is most intense during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity but needs to flow out of this observance into our daily lives. We realize that Christian unity cannot be solely the fruit of human efforts, but is always the work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot as humans make or organize it. We can only receive it as a gift of the Spirit when we ourselves are prepared to receive it.
The surprising thing about prayer is that its first effect is in us. Our own minds and hearts are shaped by prayer as we seek opportunities to translate that prayer into practice, the true test of its authenticity. Spiritual ecumenism leads us to a healing of our memories. We face those difficult events of the past that give rise to competing interpretations of what happened and why. As a result, we can go beyond those things which have kept us divided. In other words, the goal of spiritual ecumenism is Christian unity that leads us into mission for the glory of God.
If believers are to follow Jesus, they must work and pray for Christian unity. However, the churches have differing visions of the visible unity for which we are praying. For some, full visible unity is the goal, bringing churches together in common confession, worship and sacraments, witness, decision-making and structured life. Others look to a “reconciled diversity”, with the present churches working together to present a coherent witness to the world. For still others unity is found rather in the invisible bonds linking us to Christ and with one another, with an emphasis on personal ways of living one's faith in the world.
In this context, prayer for Christian unity is a challenging prayer. It is prayer that effects change in our own personal identity as well as in our confessional identity. Ultimately it means that we will give up our way of seeing unity in favor of concentrating on seeing what God wants for his people. However this does not mean that we will divest ourselves of our uniqueness, for unity naturally expresses itself in diversity. It is unity in diversity which reflects the mystery of communion in love, as seen in God's own being.
St. Paul tells us to rejoice constantly (see also Phil. 2:18; 3:1;4.4), but what did persecuted Christian have to rejoice about? The answer is their relationship with the Lord, which can even become stronger and more intimate in times of persecution. Their joy is not in their circumstance, indeed it is often in spite of their circumstance. Rather it is in the Lord. Sheer joy arises out of a deep and abiding relationship with God that carries the believer through all sorts of trials and tribulations. Rejoicing in the Lord is a sort of adoration, and adoration often takes the form of prayer. Rejoicing constantly leads to praying and praising repeatedly. Since Paul refers to giving thanks after he mentions prayer, it is probable that the term ‘praying’ here refers to petitioning God in some form, perhaps interceding for self and others in some manner.
The opposite of rejoicing and happiness is not sorrow, but deadness. Many of us know what that feels like: the dissatisfaction induced by a consumer culture that stimulates our senses and bombards us with largely meaningless choices, while leaving us starved for some deeper purpose. But this is not a new phenomenon. The desire to escape such deadness was one of the motives of the early desert fathers and mothers. They rejected a world whose agenda was defined by the pursuit of power, property, and pleasure. They went into the desert to tap into the source of life and joy, and discover their own true selves through constant prayer. Having found the emptiness of what their culture defined as happiness, they sought another way.
Christian unity cannot be solely the fruit of human efforts, but is always the work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot as humans make or organize it. We can only receive it as a gift of the Spirit when we ourselves are prepared to receive it.
We can get an idea of what Jesus' countenance and his whole person looked like when he prayed by considering the fact that his disciples, just watching him pray, fell in love with prayer and asked the Master to teach them to pray. Jesus responds to them by teaching them the Our Father.
I draw much inspiration and encouragement from Pope Benedict XVI's book on Jesus. "Without the rootedness in God," the Pope writes, "the person of Jesus remains elusive, unreal and inexplicable. This is the point on which my book is based: It considers Jesus from the perspective of his communion with the Father. This is the true center of his personality."
These claims are amply justified by the Gospels. Therefore, no one can deny that historically the Jesus of the Gospels lives and works in continual reference to the heavenly Father, that he prays and teaches how to pray, that he bases everything on faith in God. If this dimension is taken away from the Jesus of the Gospels, nothing is left of him.
Many nonbelievers today write about Jesus, convinced that they are the ones who know the real Jesus, not the Church, not the believers. I do not have the intention of saying that nonbelievers have no right to concern themselves with Jesus. Jesus is the "patrimony of humanity" and no one, not even the Church, has a monopoly on him. The fact that even nonbelievers write about Jesus and are passionate about him can only give us pleasure.
If we detach from or deny faith in God, it is not only divinity that is eliminated or the so-called Christ of faith, but the historical Jesus is also completely eliminated, not even the man Jesus is left. How do we explain that after 2,000 years this man continues to affect us like no one else? Can all of that be the fruit of an equivocation, of an illusion?
There is but one way out of this dilemma and we must acknowledge the consistency of those (especially in the circle of the "Jesus Seminar" of California) who have taken that route. According to them, Jesus was not a Jewish believer; at bottom he was a philosopher of the Cynic type; he did not preach the kingdom of God, or an immanent end of the world; he only pronounced wise maxims in the style of a Zen master. His purpose was to restore in men their self-awareness, to convince them that they did not need him nor another god, because they themselves possessed a divine spark. These are the things, however, that the New Age movement has been preaching for decades.
The language of prayer is the lingua franca of the church through which we all are united to God, and the good news is that when we are so united in prayer, praying without giving up, praying without letting our differences discourage us, praying without allowing obstacles to get in the way, we are also united with each other, across denominational, national, and cultural lines. As Paul says — “there is neither Jew nor Gentile in Christ, for all are one.”
Let us celebrate our spiritual oneness in a truly ecumenical manner during this week, by praying for each other, with each, and by means of each, so that the command to pray without ceasing can truly be fulfilled and there will not be a minute of the year when there is no reaching out by God's people to the Almighty, from whom all blessings flow. Let us pray without ceasing this week, this month and this year. In doing so, we bring God into our world that so badly needs his love, his hope and his peace.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.,
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation