95 Years of Steps to Christian Unity. (Column)

By McBrien, Richard P. | National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

95 Years of Steps to Christian Unity. (Column)


McBrien, Richard P., National Catholic Reporter


The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, originally known as the Church Unity Octave, begins on Jan. 18, formerly the feast of the Chair of Peter (now celebrated Feb. 22), and concludes Jan. 25 with the feast of the Conversion of Paul.

The idea for this observance was Paul Wattson's, an Anglican who became a Roman Catholic priest and then cofounder of the Society of the Atonement, more popularly known as the Graymoor Fathers.

First established in 1908, the Church Unity Octave changed over the years in line with developments in the ecumenical movement itself. The major influence in marking out a new course was Abbe Paul Couturier, an ecumenical pioneer in France who in 1934 broadened the scope of Wattson's more narrowly Catholic approach by introducing an Annual Prayer for Christian Unity.

It was, however, a unity to be achieved "as Christ wishes and by the means which he desires," and not necessarily by a conversion of non-Catholics to Catholicism.

Couturier had anticipated the shift in ecumenical focus that would be adopted by the Second Vatican Council some 30 years later. In its Decree on Ecumenism the council described the quest for Christian unity not as a matter of a "return" to some preexisting unity in the Catholic church, but as a "restoration" of a unity that had been lost.

It has been almost 40 years since the council's Decree on Ecumenism was approved and promulgated. In addition to its central focus on "restoration" rather than "return," the decree acknowledged that the rupture of unity in the 16th century was not the sole responsibility of either side.

The Catholic church, the decree insisted, does not "impute the sin of separation" to other Christians. It accepts them "with respect and affection" as brothers and sisters.

The differences between us are matters of degree rather than of kind. Thus, non-Catholic Christians "who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are brought into a certain, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic church."

This teaching was also applied to separated churches and ecclesial communities, notwithstanding "differences that exist in varying degrees ... whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the church."

Non-Catholic churches and communities, the decree pointed out, "have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. …

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