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By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
ROME (CNS) — The unity Christians seek will strengthen their witness to the truth of faith and to the fact that diversity among peoples does not have to be a cause for division, Pope Benedict XVI said.
Marking the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the pope said that while Christians are looking for unity in faith “we know that this unity in Christ is a leaven for brotherhood on a social level as well, in relations among nations and for the whole human family.”
Presiding over an ecumenical vespers service Jan. 25 at Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Pope Benedict also marked the 50th anniversary of the day when Blessed Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council.
The announcement was “an event that the older ones among us certainly have not forgotten,” said the 81-year-old pope, who served as a theological expert at the council.
Pope Benedict said calling the council was a “providential decision, which my predecessor was firmly convinced was a suggestion of the Holy Spirit,” and it opened the way to major progress in the search to restore Christian unity.
“The attitude of interior conversion to Christ, spiritual renewal and growing charity toward other Christians has given way to a new situation in ecumenical relations,” the pope said.
The theological dialogues launched between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches and communities have led to important agreements and a more precise definition of the issues that still divide Christians, he said.
While the hopes for full unity and Eucharistic sharing remain on the horizon, they inspire Christians “who want to live in harmony with the prayer of the Lord ‘that all would be one so that the world would believe,'” the pope said.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ends each year on the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, which is appropriate because it reminds Christians that the unity they seek is a gift of God that will be received only when they have converted more fully to Christ, Pope Benedict said.
The same Lord who called St. Paul, he said, “addresses members of his church — which is one and holy — and calling each one by name asks: Why have you divided me? Why have you injured the unity of my body?”
Christians must recognize their sins, repent and make a commitment to begin again, he said.
St. Paul’s need for conversion and the need for conversion by today’s Christians are not that different, the pope said.
“In reality, the conversion of St. Paul was not a passage from immorality to morality, from an erroneous faith to a correct faith, but it was a matter of being conquered by the love of Christ,” relying on God rather than himself and vowing to serve others, Pope Benedict said.
Korean Christians, whom the pope said understand what it means to be divided politically as well as denominationally, prepared the materials for the 2009 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
“The unity which God gives to his church and for which we pray is naturally communion in a spiritual sense, in faith and in charity,” the pope said, but it also can and must be a unity that will spread throughout ruptured societies and the whole world.
The pope asked Christians to make their prayers for unity “an intercession for the various situations of conflict currently afflicting humanity. Where human words become impotent because the tragic noise of violence and weapons prevails, may the prophetic force of the word of God not be lacking and may it repeat to us the fact that peace is possible and we must be instruments of reconciliation and peace.”
Offering special prayers for the Holy Land, the pope said the Christians who live there and those who visit on pilgrimage must act in a way that demonstrates how “the diversity of rites and traditions does not have to constitute an obstacle to mutual respect and fraternal charity.”
Addressing the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant bishops, clergy and laity who participated in the prayer service, the pope said that as long as all Christians seek unity in faith their different spiritualities, rituals and customs do not have to be divisive.
“In that way our diversity will no longer be an obstacle that separates us, but a richness in the multiplicity of expressions of a common faith,” he said.