Unity begins with prayer

By  Fr. Thomas Dowd, Catholic Register Special
  • May 8, 2009
{mosimage}A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity , Catherine E. Clifford ed. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., softcover, 143 pages, $26).

There is a difference between hope and wishful thinking. When the ecumenical movement was in full swing, particularly immediately after Vatican II when the Catholic Church joined in, the hope was palpable. Many expected long-standing divisions would soon be overcome and Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican and mainline Protestants would soon be joining in a common celebration of the Eucharist.

Looking back on those times from today’s perspective though, given that most of the divisions endure (with some others newly beginning), it seems to many like it was just wishful thinking. And that is why a new collection of essays edited by Catherine E. Clifford, A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity, is so important.

{sa 0802863663}A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity is not a large book, but that does not mean it is lacking punch. The essays it contains are written by some very well-known figures in the ecumenical movement, including Cardinal Walter Kasper and the late Augustinian Father George Tavard. Because of the eclectic nature of any essay collection, some elements of the chapters can seem repetitious. But on another level this only serves to emphasize the importance of the overall message that real Christian unity starts in prayer.

Indeed, that is exactly how the ecumenical movement began.

A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity is a commemorative work, meant to mark the remote beginnings of the quest for unity in a tiny initiative called the Christian unity octave. This octave of prayer grew in use in the Catholic Church and soon leapt denominational boundaries to become the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Given differences in church calendars it is quite possible that this special week is the only one that is common in purpose and timing to all Christians.

A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity is not your casual read. It is a bit academic. That being said, it could be of great use within ecumenical prayer groups as a common study tool. Although I have been involved in ecumenical issues for several years, I learned something by reading this book.

Maybe some parts of the ecumenical movement became, at one point, full of wishful thinking that unity would be achieved tomorrow. But prayer for God’s blessings is never mere wishful thinking. It is part of true hope, because it rests in the confidence that God is faithful. Total Christian unity may be a long way off, but reading this book has renewed my conviction that it will one day be part of the blessings God bestows upon His church.

I felt encouraged to renew my own prayer for Christian unity, and any book that can both teach and encourage is worth it.

(Dowd teaches theology at Concordia University and Montreal’s Grand Seminary. )

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