Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On Christian Unity
"Let's Accept the Invitation to 'Pray Without Ceasing'"
H.H. Benedict XVI
January 23, 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which comes
to an end Friday, Jan. 25. This day marks the conversion of St. Paul the
Apostle. Christians from various churches and ecclesiastical communities
come together at this time in unanimous prayer to ask the Lord Jesus for
the re-establishment of unity among his disciples.
It is a unanimous plea made with one soul and one heart in response to
the Redeemer's own desire, who turned to our Father at the Last Supper
and said, "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe
in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father,
are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may
believe that you sent me" (John 17:20-21). Asking for the gift of unity,
Christians join in Christ's prayer and commit themselves to work
actively so that all of humanity welcomes and recognizes Christ as our
only Shepherd and Lord, and thus experiences the joy of his love.
This year the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity takes on a special
value and meaning, because it celebrates its 100th anniversary. From its
beginnings it was a truly fertile intuition. It began in 1908: Father
Paul Wattson, an American Anglican, founder of the "Society of the
Atonement" (community of the Brothers and Sisters of Atonement),
together with an Episcopalian, Father Spencer Jones, launched the
prophetic idea of an octave of prayers for the unity of Christians. The
idea was welcomed by the archbishop of New York and the papal nuncio.
In 1916 the call to pray for unity was then extended to the entire
Catholic Church, thanks to the intervention of my venerated predecessor,
Pope Benedict XV, with the papal brief "At Perpetuam Rei Memoriam."
The initiative provoked much interest and was gradually established
everywhere, perfecting its structure with time, and evolving also thanks
to the contribution of Abbé Couturier (1936).
Later, when the prophetic wind of the Second Vatican Council blew, the
urgency of unity was felt even more. After the Conciliar assembly the
journey continued for the patient quest for full communion among all
Christians, an ecumenical journey that year after year has found one of
its most defining and beneficial moments in the Week of Prayer for
One hundred years after the first call to pray together for unity, this
Week of Prayer has now become a consolidated tradition, preserving the
spirit and the dates chosen by Father Wattson. Indeed he chose them for
their symbolic meaning. According to the calendar at that time, Jan. 18
was the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which is a strong foundation
and guarantee of unity of the people of God, while on Jan. 25, as in
present times, the liturgy celebrates St. Paul's conversion.
While we give thanks to the Lord for these 100 years of prayer and of
common engagement among many disciples of Christ, we remember with
gratitude the author of this providential spiritual initiative, Father
Wattson, and with him all those who promoted and enriched it with their
contributions, making it something all Christians own together.
I was just telling you that the Second Vatican Council had dedicated a
great deal of time and attention to the subject of Christian unity,
especially in its decree on the Church ("Unitatis Redintegratio")
in which, among other things, the importance of prayer in promoting
unity is particularly emphasized. Prayer is at the very heart of all
church life. "This change of heart and holiness of life, along with
public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be
regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement" (UR, 8).
Thanks to this spiritual ecumenism -- sanctity of life, conversion of
heart, private and public prayer -- the joint pursuit of unity has made
great strides forward in the last decade and has diversified in many
initiatives; from getting acquainted with and meeting members of various
churches and church communities; to conversations and collaboration
among various branches that become increasingly friendly; to theological
discussions on concrete ways in which we can join together and
collaborate with each other.
That which has given, and continues to give, life to this journey toward
full unification for all Christians first and foremost -- is prayer.
"Pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17 ) is the theme of this
year's Week of Prayer. It is at the same time an invitation that never
stops resonating in our communities, because prayer is the light, the
strength, the guide for our footsteps as we listen humbly to our God,
the God of us all.
Secondly, the Council emphasizes common prayer, joint prayer between
Catholics and other Christians directed toward the only celestial
Father. To this end the Decree on Ecumenism affirms: "These prayers
offered in common are doubtless a very effective means to beseech for
Christian unity" (UR, 8). In common prayer Christian communities unite
before the Lord, they become aware of the contradictions generated by
division, and they show the will to obey the Lord's will, faithfully
turning to him for his omnipotent help. Furthermore, the decree adds
that such prayers are "a genuine manifestation of the links with which
Catholics continue to be joined to their separated brothers" (ibid.).
Common prayer is therefore not a voluntarist or a purely sociological
action, but an expression of faith that unites all disciples of Christ.
As the years have passed, active collaboration has been established in
this field, and since 1968, the then Secretariat for Christian Unity,
which became the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and
the Ecumenical Council of Churches, together prepare the guidelines for
the Week of Prayer for Unity, which are then divulged to the world
reaching areas that would have not been covered without this collective
The conciliar decree on ecumenism refers to prayer for unity when,
toward the end, it affirms that the council knows that "this holy
proposition to reconcile all Christians in the unity of the Church of
Christ, the one and only, surpasses all human forces and gifts.
Therefore, it places all its hope in the Christ's prayer for the Church"
It is the knowledge of our human limits that drives us to abandon
ourselves to the hands of the Lord with complete trust. We see only too
well the true meaning of the Prayer Week; to rely on the prayer of
Christ, who continues to pray in his Church so that "all may be one ...
so that the world may believe" (John 17:21).
Today the truth of these words really hits home. The world suffers from
the absence of God, from God's inaccessibility; it strives to know the
face of God. But how could the men of today meet the face of God in the
face of Jesus Christ if we, Christians, are divided, if one set of
teachings is against the other?
Only united are we really able to show to the world -- that needs it --
the face of God, the face of Christ.
Although the dialogue and all we do is very necessary, it is also
obvious that it is not through our own strategies that we can achieve
unity. What we can obtain is our availability and capability to welcome
this unity when the Lord grants it to us. Here is the sense of prayer:
to open our hearts, to create in us the availability that opens the road
In the liturgy of the ancient Church, after the sermon the main
celebrant -- the bishop or the president of the celebration -- used to
say: "Conversi ad Dominum" (turn to the Lord). Then he and everybody
else stood up and turned themselves toward the East. All wanted to look
toward Christ. Only if converted, only through this conversion to
Christ, in this common look at Christ, can we find the gift of unity.
We can state that it was prayer for unity that enlivened and accompanied
the various stages of the ecumenical movement, especially since the
Second Vatican Council. In this period the Catholic Church got in touch
with the various Churches and ecclesial communities of the East and the
West with various forms of dialogue, facing with them the theological
and historical issues that had risen over the centuries and had
established elements of division. The Lord has allowed such friendly
relations to improve reciprocal knowledge and to intensify communion, at
the same time giving a clearer perception of the problems that still
exist and are the causes of division.
Today, during this week, we give thanks to God who has sustained and
guided the journey thus far; a rich journey that the conciliar decree on
ecumenism described as "emerged by the grace of the Holy Spirit" and
"growing more ample every day" (UR, 1).
Dear brothers and sisters, let's accept the invitation to "pray without
ceasing" that the apostle Paul extended to the first Christians of
Thessalonica, a community that he himself founded. Because he knew that
dissent had started, he implored them to be patient with everyone, to
not repay evil with evil, but to look for the good between them and
everyone, and to be happy whatever the circumstances, happy, because the
Lord is near us. St. Paul's sermon to the Thessalonians can guide the
behavior of Christians in their ecumenical relations today.
Above all he says: "Live in peace among yourselves." And then: "Pray
without ceasing, and in all circumstances, give thanks" (cf. 1
Thessalonians 5:13-18). Let us also welcome this entreaty from the
apostle both to thank the Lord for the progress achieved in the
ecumenical movement, and to appeal for full unity.
May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, make it possible for all the
disciples of her divine Son to live in peace and reciprocal charity, as
a true example before the whole world, and make the face of God
accessible in the face of Christ, who is God-with-us, God of peace and
[Translation by Laura Leoncini]
[After praying the Angelus, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in six
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This week, Christians throughout the world celebrate the Hundredth
Anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, initiated by
Father Paul Wattson, founder of the Society of the Atonement. The theme
chosen for this year is Saint Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians to
"pray always" (1 Thess 5:17). According to the Second Vatican Council,
prayer and holiness of life are "the soul of the whole ecumenical
movement" (Unitatis Redintegratio, 8). When Christians from
various communities come together to pray in common, they acknowledge
that unity cannot be achieved by human strength alone. Only by relying
on God's grace can they live according to Jesus's prayer that "they may
all be one" (Jn 17:20-21). I therefore invite all Christians to render
fitting thanks to Almighty God for the progress achieved thus far along
the path of ecumenism, and to persevere as they strive toward unity so
that "the world may believe" (Jn 17:21) that Jesus is the only Son sent
by the Father.
I extend a cordial welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present at
today's audience, including students and staff from Saint Mary's High
School in Sydney, and members of a delegation from the Los Angeles
Council of Religious Leaders. May God bestow abundant blessings upon all
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