In Toronto, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity events will wrap up Jan. 29 with an ecumenical service at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica, hosted by Cardinal Thomas Collins, shaking hands in the photo above from last year’s service. Photo by Michael Swan

Church reconciliation is a never-ending project

  • January 19, 2017

The fact that the Eucharist cannot yet be shared between faiths has left everyone “starving,” says the director of ecumenical and interfaith affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.

That’s the blunt and stark assessment of Fr. Damian MacPherson when asked about the need for the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Jan. 18-25

“We’re a starving people because we don’t share the Eucharist,” he said.

It has been almost 500 years since Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany, creating the crack that led to a long, painful schism in the Western Church.

But did the need for a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity really begin with that fateful event of Oct. 31, 1517?

“I think that’s probably not quite true. I think it has probably always been the case,” said Lutheran theologian Rev. Allen Jorgensen. “Alas, that’s the nature of being human. It ought not to be, but it is.”

Jorgensen points to St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, where he was trying to tamp down divisions in the Church at Corinth in the middle of the first century.

“All this party spirit stuff is already happening. There is already this need for reconciliation,” said the Waterloo-Lutheran University professor of systematic theology.

Jorgensen wrote a series of Scripture reflections that are in use in Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches across Canada during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Canadian adaptation of Week of Prayer materials is derived from a program drawn up by the Council of Churches in Germany, at the invitation of the Vatican and the World Council of Churches.

In Toronto, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity events will culminate with a Jan. 29 prayer service in St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica hosted by Cardinal Thomas Collins and featuring Baptist pastor Rev. Dr. Peter Holmes as homilist. Bishops from the Chaldean, Coptic, Anglican and Lutheran churches, along with other Christian leaders from around the city, will take part.

While delicate and difficult questions of history and ecclesiology may dog the official dialogues between churches, ordinary Christians of all sorts are far more ready for reconciliation than their leaders, said MacPherson.

“Very often the question comes to me, ‘Father, why? Why don’t we do this more often? Why is this limited to once a year?’ ” he said. “In some ways, the faithful are more ready than the clergy to move forward in ecumenical areas.”

Jorgensen observes the same phenomenon from his side of the fence.

“You want to see a reconciling Church? Look at your Catholic neighbour who lives beside the Baptist on one side and perhaps a Muslim on the other — and lives in a kind of authenticity of their faith that really transcends those borders in ways that the organizational Church can’t even begin to fathom.”

It’s ironic given the real purpose of the Church as the body of Christ on Earth.

“The Church is a reconciling instrument,” said Jorgensen. “Insofar as it lives its mission in Christ.”

The reconciliation ought to be most evident in the Eucharist, the sacrament by which we participate in Christ’s reconciling ministry. Beyond the once-a-week event, all Christians should practise a “eucharistic ethic,” said Jorgensen.

“I see marvellous examples of people bridging gaps and crawling over walls and getting together, even while the organizations that they’re formally members of are trying to figure out where’s the door,” Jorgensen said.

The central theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes from the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians, by way of Pope Francis. The Pope keyed his 2013 papal exhortation Evangelii Gaudium off St. Paul’s phrase “the love of Christ compels us.”

The German churches picked the phrase up as they designed liturgies, Bible studies, prayers and homily tips for the annual event.

Catholics can be quite certain the Pope is behind them as they reach out in practical ways to other Christians, said MacPherson.

“Francis is trying to keep us motivated, keep us enthusiastic, keep us optimistic and not simply see what’s happening as a negative influence in terms of the ecumenical journey,” he said.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began as the Octave of Unity celebrated in the Catholic Church since 1908. It has been adopted by other churches, especially since the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

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