Jon Nilson

From observation to celebration

January 3, 2024

From Jan. 18 to 25, Christian churches around the world observe the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Again we pray for the unity that Jesus wants: “that they may all be one, as you, Father, in me and I in you, may they be one in us, that the world may know that you have sent me” (Jn 17: 21-22).

The Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Church” makes it clear. A Christianity divided into separate churches cannot fully be the church that is the “sign and instrument” of union with God and of the unity of all humanity. Our divisions may even make non-Christians think that Jesus really alienates people from one another, as Pope St. John Paul II noted. So he insisted that “ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does.”

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was established in 1908. Vatican II did not commit the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement until 1964. Since then, however, our church has participated in many important consultations, dialogues and agreements with other churches and Christian communities. The records and results of these engagements could fill a small library, yet the full visible unity of Christianity still seems far away.

Now, however, there are many things that we must do in our parishes to deepen that unity we already have with other Christians. The Most Reverend Emilio Alvarez, primate and founder of the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches, makes this point dramatically: “I think if the heads of our various denominations were to say, right now, that our various schisms were null and void, and that we can share communion and holy orders right now, with no restrictions — I think it would be a full-blown disaster. People would fight it, because that’s not where their hearts are — we don’t yet know each other. Such a ‘visible unity’ would not be real unity.”

All those magnificent texts resulting from high-level dialogues between leaders and theologians of the different churches have not nourished mutual knowledge and trust among the vast majority of Christians.

As long as we remain isolated in our separate churches, we can assume that we have nothing to learn from other Christians. Vatican II declared, however, that “we should not forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated sisters and brothers can be a help to our own edification.” Echoing the council, St. John Paul II described ecumenism as an “exchange of gifts.” We can be instructed and inspired not only by giants like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr., but also by those silent Christian saints whom we meet in our neighborhoods and workplaces.

So it is time — past time, really — for us Catholics to ask ourselves some hard questions: How does the daily life of our parish express the ecumenical imperative of our church, as described by Vatican II, Pope St. John Paul II, and, most recently, by Pope Francis? Does our parish pray regularly for and with our nearby Christian neighbors? Are couples in which each partner belongs to a different Christian denomination recognized, supported and thanked for their fidelity in our parish? Or are they ignored because they somehow fall short of the “ideal family”? Does our parish work with any other Christian church or organization on a common project? Or does our parish do all the work that could be lightened by cooperation? Does our parish experience the pain of Christian division and the promise of Christian reconciliation? If so, how?

As Pope Francis says, “Christian unity is achieved by walking together. Certainly, theologians are necessary: they need to study, to speak, to discuss; but, in the meantime, let us carry on, praying together and with works of charity. For me, this is the path that does not disappoint.”

If we then act on the answers that we discover with courage and God’s grace, we may not just “observe” the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2024. Instead, we may celebrate it out of joy and gratitude for the gifts of the ecumenical movement that we have now experienced for ourselves.


  • ecumenism
  • christian unity