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The efforts of Pope Benedict XVI to restore Church unity in his two years as Vicar of Christ.
From the first moments of his pontificate Pope Benedict XVI perceived God’s plans clearly. “The current Successor (of Peter) assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition, this is his compelling duty.” Now, on his second anniversary as Pope, his track record shows us the seriousness of his commitment.
Few people expected Pope Benedict, now 80, to keep up the pace of world travel that the young Pope John Paul II had set. The consequent drop in worldwide media coverage of the Pope’s activities is understandable. However, the quiet insistence of the current Vicar of Christ merits more attention. His various apostolic visitations, numerous ecumenical gatherings and even his weekly Wednesday audiences demonstrate his focused goal of achieving unity.
This mission takes place on three levels. First, there is the difficult task of achieving full Christian unity. Second, there is unity within and among increasingly secular societies that needs to be considered. Third, and this is something the Pope has particularly stressed, there is the issue of the unity between faith and reason.
On his first apostolic visit to Germany for World Youth Day, Pope Benedict met with Christians of all denominations to express with clarity his great hope. “What does it mean to restore the unity of all Christians? … This unity subsists, we are convinced, in the Catholic Church, without the possibility of ever being lost. This does not, however, mean uniformity in all expressions of theology and spirituality, in liturgical forms and in discipline.”
For some that may sound a bit too ambitious, but as Pope Benedict has repeated on various occasions, “We can only obtain unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit.” In that same World Youth Day address he stressed that “spiritual ecumenism — prayer, conversion and the sanctification of life — constitute the heart of the ecumenical movement. It could be said that the best form of ecumenism consists in living in accordance with the Gospel.”
Given this firm interior preparation, the Pope expressed his sincere hope in the fulfilment [sic] of this mission given to him from on high. “I am convinced,” he said, “that if more and more people unite themselves to the Lord’s prayer ‘that all may be one’, then this prayer, made in the name of Jesus, will not go unheard.”
The papal visit to Valencia, Spain, gave the Pontiff an opportunity to expound his deep concerns for the unity in secular society. He especially addressed the secularist trend causing Europe’s demographic suicide.
Reflecting on this trip in his Christmas address to the Curia, he expressed how “the problem of Europe, which it seems no longer wants to have children, penetrated my soul.” Why have so many Europeans lost interest in procreation? Pope Benedict blames the confusion caused by the divorce of reason and faith. “We no longer know what the correct use of freedom is… This deep lack of self assurance – plus the wish to have one’s own whole live for oneself – is perhaps the deepest reason why the risk of having children appears to many to be almost unsustainable… Unless we discover in a new way the certainty of faith it will be less and less possible for us to entrust to others the gift of life and the task of an unknown future… The visit to Valencia became for me a quest for the meaning of the human being.”
This ongoing theme of the unity of faith and reason at the service of humanity also motivated his speech at the University of Regensburg. There, in his visit to Bavaria the Pope argued that reason without faith threatens the unity of Christians as well as unity among societies. “Secularized reason is unable to enter into a true dialogue with the religions. It remains closed to the question of God, and this will end by leading to the clash of cultures,” he recalled in his address to the Curia.
Pope Benedict does not suggest that the clash of civilizations is inevitable, but sees a clear connection between this threat and Christian unity. He stressed that “religions must encounter one another in the common task of putting themselves at the service of the truth and thus, of the human being.”
Contrary to the misinterpretations of his speech in Regensburg, the Pope’s visit to Turkey showed the world his respect for the Islamic religion. In the Blue Mosque in Istanbul he prayed “that all believers might recognize themselves as creatures and give witness of authentic fraternity.”
Expressing his sentiment of respect for Muslims he said, “We Christians feel in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious conviction as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom.”
The media frenzy surrounding his Turkey trip also gave some spotlight to the improved relationship between Rome and the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. “It is on this foundation of mutual love that new relations between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople have developed,” said the Pope in his address to the patriarch.
Beyond the well known apostolic visits lay the numerous ecumenical gatherings encouraged by Pope Benedict. His silent and persistent work in dialogue is noteworthy.
In November 2005, he met with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation. His comments reflect again his great hope. “Indeed, one of the results of this fruitful dialogue is the ‘Joint Declaration on Justification,’ which constitutes a significant milestone on our common path to full visible unity.”
Just a month later, in his meeting with the World Methodist Council he encouraged them to take real steps forward towards unity. “Should the World Methodist Council express its intent to associate itself with the Joint Declaration, it would assist in contributing to the healing and reconciliation we ardently desire.”
His words to visiting Orthodox clergy to Rome in February of last year show the Pope’s hopeful yet realistic vision. “The way toward unity demands of all of us more living faith, sounder hope and charity … Hope, however, should be practiced with patience and humility, and with trust in the One who guides us.”
This Christ-centered vision of unity drives the Vicar of Christ in all his ecumenical efforts. “We are convinced that it is he himself who intercedes unceasingly in our favor, pleading for us: ‘May they become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’” Declaring this in an ecumenical meeting in April he stressed the same in another similar meeting in September. “‘So that the world may believe,’ we must become one: The seriousness of this commitment must spur on our dialogue.”
In October in his address to the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions he once again underlined both urgency and hope. “However daunting the journey, we must not lose sight of the final goal: full visible communion in Christ and in the Church. We may feel discouraged when progress is slow, but there is too much at stake to turn back.” There he reminded these Christian leaders of Pope John Paul II’s work to achieve a “brotherhood rediscovered and greater solidarity in the service of humanity.”
Christian unity seems like a far-off dream, but after two years of intense labor and prayer this Vicar of Christ has not faltered in his hope for there to “be one flock, one shepherd”. He expressed this well in his address in the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral at the end of November. “This hope has not yet been realized, but the Pope still longs to see it fulfilled.” He called for “putting ecumenism at the forefront of our ecclesial concerns, and not committing our respective Churches and communities to decisions which could contradict or harm it.”
Unity in the Church
The grand task of unity dwarfs man’s abilities. At the same time Christ and his Vicar continue to call on the full cooperation of bishops, priests and lay people to bring it about. In the Mass of his Solemn Inauguration Pope Benedict expressed this sense of solidarity. “I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone.”
In a general audience in April of last year he called on bishops to fulfill their role of ecclesial unity. “The family of the children of God needs someone who will keep them in the truth and guide them with wise and authoritative discernment: This is what the ministry of the Apostles (bishops) is called to do.”
Pope Benedict spoke to a group of new bishops in September urging them to “address the loss of the sense of sin.” Sin is the cause of disunity. Reflecting on the parable of the prodigal son, he encouraged these new bishops to help the faithful “experience God’s boundless love as a call to deepen their ecclesial unity and overcome the division and fragmentation that so often wound today’s families and communities.”
Cardinals too have heard the voice of Christ’s vicar calling on their cooperation. “I am counting on you to see to it that our common endeavor to fix our gaze on Christ’s open Heart will hasten and secure our path toward the full unity of Christians,” the Pope said in his homily during the consistory of cardinals in March of last year.
In April of 2006 Pope Benedict ordained 15 priests, calling on them in his homily to pay the price for the unity. “The relationship between the cross and unity is revealed: The cross is the price of unity,” he told them.
Lay people too have heard these ceaseless cries of Pope Benedict. Amidst a crowd of 400,000 gathered in the celebration of Pentecost, he called upon the various ecclesial movements present to “accept the active directives of the Successor of Peter, but also of the bishops of the various local Churches who, with the Pope, are custodians of truth and charity in unity.” He encouraged the enthusiasm and initiative of these new lay groups in the Church reminding them that their various activities should converge in a common end. “He wants your diversity and he wants you for the one body.”
With the full cooperation of all members of the Church, the Pope continues to beg this gift of the full unity of Christians from the Holy Spirit. As seen in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity promoted in January, Pope Benedict puts prayer at the center. In his audience after this year’s week of Christian Unity he reminds us, “Of course the path to unity continues to be long and difficult; however, we must not be discouraged and must continue go forward on it, relying first of all on the sure support of the One who, before ascending to heaven, promised his followers: ‘And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.’