The centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II on May 18 is not the only anniversary of note connected with him this month. On May 25, the Church marks the 25th anniversary of his landmark encyclical on Church unity entitled Ut Unum Sint, taken from Jesus’ prayer to the Father on Holy Thursday, “May they all be one” (John 17:11, 21).
This encyclical was the most courageous papal ecumenical proposal since the schism with the Orthodox in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation in 1517. It confirmed as “irreversible” the Second Vatican Council’s commitment in favor of Church unity and called all Catholics, as well as our brothers in sisters in other churches and ecclesial communities, to renew and increase their efforts to respond to Christ’s appeal to work for full and visible communion.
“The way of ecumenism,” John Paul II stated, “is the way of the Church.”
It has to be the way of the Church because unity is, first, an indispensable mark of the Church. The Church was founded as the Mystical Body of Christ and is meant to reflect the communion that exists among the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, providing an earthly image of the communion of saints in heaven.
St. Paul emphasized this among the members of the early Church, reminding them, “You are all one in Christ Jesus,” and “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 4:1-6). Church unity is not something we create by our own efforts and negotiations, but is a reality God himself has created that the Church must once again evince.
When Jesus begged the Father that his disciples be one just as he and the Father are one, he declared that this would help the world “know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). The effectiveness of the work of evangelization, he implied, was contingent on the manifestation of the unity of believers. Lack of unity, as Vatican II regretted in Unitatis Redintegratio, its decree on ecumenism, “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel.” Pope St. Paul VI added, in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “We must offer Christ’s faithful not the image of people divided and separated by unedifying quarrels. … The division among Christians is a serious reality that impedes the very work of Christ.”
That’s why in Ut Unum Sint John Paul II stressed the centrality and urgency of the ecumenical task. He called ecumenism “one of the pastoral priorities of my pontificate” and said it “is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ that 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.” He stated simply, “To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace that corresponds to the Father’s plan from all eternity. Such is the meaning of Christ’s prayer: ‘Ut unum sint.’”
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