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Pope Francis and other Christian leaders during a Ecumenical Prayer for Peace event in Bari Pope Francis and other Christian leaders during a Ecumenical Prayer for Peace event in Bari  (AFP or licensors)

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the heart of ecumenism

Pope Francis and other Christian leaders on Friday inaugurate the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with the celebration of evening Vespers in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

By Linda Bordoni

The joint celebration that kicks off the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a powerful symbol of unity and of the recognition that Christian denominations are on the path to unity and getting closer in doctrine.

The Week of Prayer, traditionally observed from 18 to 25 January, unfolds this year on the theme “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” inspired by Deuteronomy.

Pope Francis looked ahead to the Week of Prayer during the Wednesday General Audience saying that “Again, this year we are called to pray so that all Christians may once again be a single family, according to God’s will ‘so that they may all be one’”.

He pointed out that “ecumenism is not something optional” and said it aims “to develop a common and consistent witness that promotes true justice and support for the weakest through responses that are concrete, appropriate and effective”.

Participating in Vespers at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls are also many faith-based groups that have made ecumenism an important part of their mission. Amongst them, the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, with 29 students from across the Christian spectrum and from across the globe.

Listen to the interview with Daniel Reffner

Daniel Reffner, a United Methodist candidate for the ordained ministry from the United States, speaks to Linda Bordoni about his experience studying ecumenism at Bossey and about how it has changed his perspective:

Daniel speaks of the past months in Bossey during which he has been studying ecumenism also by practicing it with his very diverse peers: “we live together on site, in Switzerland, just north of Geneva. We have been taking classes together for the past five months, and we learn about the history of the ecumenical movement and we learn about how to get on despite our differences in culture and religious background”.

He said he hopes that the skills and the tools learnt during this course and experience will be transferable when he goes back home “not only to help me be in religious dialogue with different Christians, but also to understand what it means to approach somebody you disagree with in a spirit of humility (…) feeling that even if you disagree about really important things, you can learn from the other person.”

He said that especially in the current context in the United States these are skills are much needed in society.

“My hope is that the formation makes me into somebody who is able to put himself in controversial conversations or controversial places and be somebody who can bring people together instead of perpetuating the polarizing dynamics we so often see” he said.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Daniel said he believes this week is important because it is the symbol of the heart of ecumenism, of bringing people together despite their different backgrounds “saying that although we don’t agree on everything, it really is important to the Christian witness to show signs of unity”.

Personally, he said it is important, within the course he is part of, “to seek that unity alongside the 28 other people that I have been walking through this programme with, from different backgrounds and who believe in different things on some Christian doctrines; and yet, we believe that it is important that we are in relationship, both for one another and for our love for God”.

The extent to which this experience has changed him, he said, is continuing to unfold, but for sure he said it has helped him understand his Christian identity a whole lot better.

Daniel revealed that, following a time of personal and spiritual confusion, being at Bossey and being part of the programme “has reminded me of, and reaffirmed to me, my calling for vocational ministry. It has reaffirmed my identity as a Christian, and allows me to come to these dialogues from a different – and more authentic - perspective”.

He remarked on Pope Francis’ own witness and promotion of Christian Unity and said the very presence the Bossey students in Rome for a week was sponsored and supported by the Vatican Council for Promoting Christian Unity: “a sign that the Vatican supports our work and we feel that support”.

Hopes for the future

“My hopes for the near future are to continue discerning on the seeds of revelation that I feel are emerging from this process” he said.

My hope, Daniel concluded, is “that I would feel that God is illumining my path, that as I am going back to the States, it would be a continuation of the learning and the growing that has begun here”.

18 January 2019, 11:21