When I first read that the event was described as the 101st ecumenical prayer gathering, I wondered if they met two or three times a year – thus I was quite surprised to see that they had in fact been meeting since 1908! And while that seems like an impressive feat, I was surprised that there weren’t a greater number of participants. I had hoped that after a hundred years, more pastors, priests, and bishops could gather their flock for such an important gathering.
In any case, each religious leader chose some reading of scripture as their theme (which they personally read) or else they lead the people in some short prayer in between the readings. I personally found it funny to see the text of each reading coming from a different translation of the Bible. Combining this with the chosen texts really let one know where each leader was coming from on theological and political basis! One pastor (from a liberal Church of Christ congregation) not only used the most liberal translation she could find but she changed its words when it described God as ‘he’ – it made me wonder if she even believes in the Trinity!
That fact alone would make me rethink participating in the service if I were Archbishop Nienstedt.
Of course, the desire for Christian unity is very strong in the Catholic Church. The question is: can one really sit down to pray with someone who seems to have rejected the Gospel itself? To me, if one does this the whole act ends up being a façade – a nice show to render the appearance that there is a movement towards unity when in fact there is not.
Nevertheless I truly believe Archbishop Nienstedt is committed to Christian unity. The motto he chose for his episcopacy is: Ut Omnes Ut Unum Sint – That They All Might Be One. This motto is of course based on the words of Christ in John 17 when he prayed to his Father regarding Christian unity. Here Jesus, on the evening before he died, connected three important e-words: Ecumenism, Evangelization, and Eucharist.
First the Eucharist. Why did Jesus choose the Last Supper to pray for unity? Because the Eucharist is the visible sign of unity among Christians. Reception of the Eucharist means true communion with God, with each other, and with the entire Catholic Church. The Last Supper was also a gathering of the Apostles, the first bishops. To these men have been entrusted the preaching of the Gospel, the sanctification of souls, and service of mankind. Because they have been given the mission of making present the Eucharist, communion with the bishop is central for true Christian unity – or as Ignatius of Antioch said in 107 AD: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
Second, Evangelization. Jesus expressly connected the work of evangelization with Christian unity. “That they may be one… so that the world might believe that you sent me.” If we are not one, we will not be effective in spreading the Gospel. To this end it is important that we do not agree to disagree. There are eternal souls on the line for our accepted division. Enough is enough.
Lastly, the Ecumenism which is guaranteed to happen! The prayers of Christ are always efficacious – this prayer for Christian unity has to work! Jesus knew that human beings are flawed and that they must be as reliant on God for unity as they are in everything else. I really believe that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox have much to give each other. While from the Protestant comes the ardent love of scripture and a devout personal life, the Orthodox gives great insight into aesthetic forms of worship and deep communal piety. Catholics, on the other hand, offer to both true visible unity along with an emphasis on both of the beautiful aspects of Protestantism and Orthodoxy. It seems to me that various Protestant denominations and Orthodox Christianity have taken an isolated part of the Catholic whole and overemphasized it. Catholicism enters one into the epic ocean of universal Christianity!
I briefly spoke with Archbishop Nienstedt after the prayer service was over. He and I made a connection between authentic ecumenism and some short term goals related to ecumenism – the chief short term goal was unity against abortion. In case you didn’t know, this month includeds the March for Life to shout out against the Supreme Court's ruling that the unborn are free to be killed. This is one issue that ought to unite Christians immediately and will, if done, be an incredible step towards both authentic Christian unity as well as a better America.