This past month Christians celebrated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is not just a Catholic event. It is an international Christian ecumenical observance kept annually between January 18th and 25th. January 18th was the Feast of the Confessions of St. Peter, and January 25th the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. It was originally proposed by a Catholic Priest, Father Paul Wattson, to bring together the various Christian denominations. It evolved in two directions, one led by the Catholics and the other led by the Protestants. The Catholic leaders envisioned an acceptance of St. Peter as the first leader of the Church and a dialogue on what Petrine ministry means. The Protestant leaders focused on a prayer for unity among Christians and celebrated it on the week leading up to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles.
In 1941, the Protestant Faith and Order Conference changed the date of the event to January to coincide with the Catholic date. Realizing that the Protestants and Orthodox had a different understanding of Petrine ministry, the Catholics changed their focus to a less sectarian vision and emphasized the need for Christians to focus on what unites, rather than what divides them. With the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, Christian denominations came closer together. It represented most Protestant denominations as well as the Orthodox Churches. Although the Catholic Church was not a part of the World Council of Churches, it began to work more closely with them.
In 1962 when over 2500 Catholic Bishops of the world met as a body in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism, the movement toward world-wide Christian cooperation took a significant step forward. Among the documents that came out of this Council was the Decree on Ecumenism, entitled “Unitatis Reintegratio,” 1964. The year 1968 saw the first official use of materials prepared jointly by the Faith and Order Commission and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, representing the entire Catholic Church. Collaboration and cooperation between these two organizations has increased steadily since, resulting recently in joint publications in the same format. The theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was selected by the Catholic and Protestant churches of Indonesia: “Justice, Only Justice, You Shall Pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) In their statement “the Christians of Indonesia found that the words of Deuteronomy spoke powerfully to their situation and needs, and recognized this common need throughout the world.”
While ecumenism refers to dialogue among Christians, a further step involves dialogue between Christians and non-Christian religions. This is known as interfaith dialogue. The Church document from Vatican II was known as Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, entitled “Nostra Aetate,” 1964. This focused particularly, but not exclusively, on the relationship of the Catholic Church with the two great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. That document stated: “in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” (n. 4) Since then from the perspective of the Catholic Church the task has been not only to reject bigotry and hatred against other religions but to pursue interfaith dialogue to come to a greater appreciation and understanding of them.
One of my great experiences since I became pastor of St. John Fisher Church in 1999 has been my involvement in the Dawn Unity Interfaith series. Its purpose since it began in 2001 has been to tackle religious themes and share the perspective of our religion’s faith tradition on those themes. These sessions occur four times a year. Its purpose is not debate but understanding and appreciation of the different perspectives. Over the years the panel has consisted of representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon religions. (The last one prefers its official title: “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”) I have had the opportunity to get to know the leaders of these religions and developed friendships with them. This would not have happened without these intentional efforts of interfaith dialogue.
In an increasingly secular society, there is so much more that unites our religions than divides them.
Monsignor David Sork is Pastor of St. John Fisher Catholic Church, Rancho Palos Verdes. Masses are on Saturday evening at 5:00 p.m. and on Sunday at 7:30, 9:00, and 10:45 a.m. and 12:30 and 5:00 p.m.
He was educated at St. John’s College, Camarillo, CA (B.A. and M.A.), and Fordham University, New York (M.A. and Ph.D.) He lives on the church grounds at Crenshaw Blvd. and Crest Rd. and can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.