ECUMENISM - Work for Christian Unity
Written in co-operation with Father Max Mizzi in May 2006
Every year in January in the Christian Churches there is a special event, namely the Week of Prayers for Christian Unity, which is always held in the period January 18-25. The Co-founder of the Franciscan order of brothers and sisters to which Bente Wolf is associated as a lay sister, was a pioneer in this connection. In 1862 Paul James Wattson was born in the USA. In his work his main focus was the missing unity within the Christian Church, and a deep wish and vision to do something to bring more understanding and unity between the Churches. His father was an Anglican bishop, and Paul James Wattson was baptized in the Anglican Church. Later he followed in the footsteps of his father and was ordained a priest in this Church. Already as a young man Father Paul had a strong dedication to St. Francis and wished like him to live a life of poverty, obedience and surrender. Father Mizzi tells the following anecdote about Father Paul from his life in the 19th century with St. Francis' vow of poverty as an ideal: "Like Francis, Father Paul did not want to own anything, neither did he want to possess money. His work meant, however, that sometimes he had to travel from one place in USA to another. What he did was to go to the train station, where he sat down and started to pray the rosary. He could be sitting praying for a long time, and then the other travellers started to notice the praying priest. They asked him, whether he was going to travel. Yes, he would like to, but he had no money. And thus his fellow travellers usually took pity on him and bought him a train ticket".
Together with a nun, Sister Lurana White, on December 15, 1898, he founded a Franciscan order of monks, nuns and lay people in the Anglican Church. The order was given the name: Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement. Because of both founders' dedication to the Church, which they perceived as "the Mother Church", in 1908 the whole order converted into the Roman Catholic Church as the first group of converts after the reformation. "Atonement" means two things in the order. Firstly the word means expiation and reconciliation, and secondly the order understands the word as an expression of the vision of unity, namely when separated into syllables into At-one-ment. In its mission the order is especially inspired by the text in the Gospel of St. John, where sitting with his disciples Jesus says in his last prayer before the crucifixion:
"Not for these (the disciples) only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you loved me." (St. Johs. 17, 20-23).
In 1910 Pope Pius X, who received the group into the Catholic Church, approved Father Paul's pioneer work in the Anglican Church by confirming that January 18-25 is the Week of Prayers for Christian Unity also in the Catholic Church (at that time called Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity). The days have been selected with care, because according to previous Catholic liturgy January 18 is the feast of the conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, namely when he as Saul went to Damascus to persecute the Christians, and on his journey was thrown to the ground, so that he lost his sight and received his vision of Christ (the Acts of the Apostles 9). January 25 is the feast of St. Peter the Apostle, who together with St. Paul is regarded as the founder of the Church of Rome, cf. the words of Jesus to Peter: "I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." (Matthew 16, 18).
The Triumphal Progress of the Mission after the Second Vatican Council
The Prayer Week for Christian Unity spread all over the Christian Churches, but until the Second Vatican Council in 1962-1965 the prayers took place separately within the Churches. In the Catholic Church the main attitude was that the other Christian Churches had left the Church of Christ and just had to come back again. After year 1000, when the Eastern Church (the Orthodox Church) separated from the Latin Church (later the Roman-Catholic Church) and also after the later Church divisions during the Reformation from 1517, a big schism between the Christian Churches existed. There were innumerable religious wars, persecutions and executions of other Christians over the centuries, and in our last century prejudices, ignorance and an attitude of separatism. Father Mizzi tells us about his childhood in Malta, which as a British Colony had a big group of Anglicans in the generally Catholic Island: "When I was to pass an Anglican or Lutheran Church I ran past it as quickly as I could, because we did not know what was going on in it. But we had heard rumours that it was something very strange, so I ran, because I was afraid to be involved in something dangerous. So even if we were friends with the British on a personal level, we were afraid of their religiosity, and we knew nothing about it. That is how it was just about 60 years ago." For that matter until 1965 a Catholic was not allowed to enter a non-Catholic Church and participate in any religious celebration. If for example a Catholic was invited to a wedding in a non-Catholic Church, he was supposed to have his bishop's permission to participate. The Second Vatican Council was the beginning of the break up of this separatist attitude and lack of knowledge about each other. The Council declared that the inner work through prayer is the soul of ecumenism and unity, and also it encouraged Catholics to pray together with Christians from other Churches.
The Pioneer Mission of Assisi for Christian Unity
Father Mizzi further tells how Assisi played an essential pioneering role in these efforts. Before the Council Father Mizzi was already having ecumenical activities in Assisi, which were, however, unofficial, and not formally approved by the Church through the bishop of Assisi at that time. This bishop, who was a very dedicated and visionary old Benedictine monk, showed, however, his acceptance of Father Mizzi's activities by hugging him warmly (without saying why) when they met each other in the streets of Assisi. But then the Council approved the ecumenical efforts as an official activity in the Church. In Assisi a commission for ecumenism was immediately established, in which Father Mizzi became a moving force. Among its many ecumenical activities the commission started to invite other Christians to Assisi during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, where they partly were co-leaders of the prayers, and partly gave witness about the understandings from the Churches they represented. When in 1972 Assisi as the first Catholic diocese in the world gave one of its beautiful Churches from the 13th century to Christians from other Churches, the news echoed all over the world. A paper wrote in its headlines ""Oh come, oh you faithful. Come to Assisi to worship". Today more unity has fortunately been reached, and in Assisi Christians from other Churches are welcome to celebrate their masses and prayers in some of the Catholic Churches, including in all the chapels of the convents and also at the Sacro Convento.
Christian Unity in our Time
The work for Christian unity, which really started to unfold after the Second Vatican Council, is of course not limited to the Prayer Week for Christian Unity or to Assisi. Today all over the world comprehensive efforts are made to promote co-operation on all levels and in many different organizations, communities, etc.
If today we look at the progress of the work for Christian unity from the divisions of the Christian Churches until toady, Father Max gives the following understanding: "We have come far in this approach between the Christians. Centuries' extensive violent persecution of each other with many martyrs on both sides has come to a conclusion. Now we recognize each others as brothers and sisters. We have become friends, both the informal and the formal very important dialogue between the Churches are blossoming, and we co-operate intensely on many levels to solve the big problems and the human suffering, with which we are confronted on earth today. Thanks to God many barriers have fallen down. Also in the field of theological dialogue we have reached agreement to some extent, but there are still some theological disagreements and differences of faith between the Churches, which are an important field in the continued dialogue. The dialogue in this field is not easy, but with the help of God also these difficulties will be overcome in the course of time. God has a plan, and I believe that one day all barriers will fall down and full Christian unity will be reached."