By Christopher Wells
On Monday, the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, an ecumenical Vespers service concluded the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The annual event took place, as usual, in the Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, where the great Apostle is buried. This year, however, Pope Francis, who would normally preside over the liturgy, was unable to attend due to a painful attack of sciatica. In his place, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, led the service of evening prayer, accompanied by leaders from various other Christian churches and ecclesial communities.
Although physically absent, Pope Francis was present in spirit and in word, through a homily read by Cardinal Koch. In his prepared remarks, Pope Francis reflects on Jesus’ words from the Gospel of St John: “Abide in me,” the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer. Beginning with the image of the vine and the branches, the Pope insists that “we can grow and bear fruit only if we remain united to Jesus.”
Three levels of unity
The Holy Father goes on to consider “this indispensable unity” as consisting in three concentric rings “like those of a tree trunk.”
The first level of unity is abiding in Jesus, “the starting point of the journey of each person towards unity.” Abiding with Jesus begins with prayer, which allows us to experience His love. “This is the first unity,” the Pope says, “ our personal integrity, the work of grace we receive by abiding in Jesus.”
Unity among Christians is the second ring. “We are all branches of the same vine,” the Pope says, noting that what each one does affects all the others. Here again, prayer is essential, leading us to love one another. This is not easy, the Pope admits, which is why we must ask God “to prune our prejudices with regard to others, and to the worldly attachments that stand in the way of full unity with all his children.”
The largest circle extends to the whole of humanity; and here, Pope Francis says, “we can reflect on the working of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit leads us to love not only those who love us, “but to love everyone, even as Jesus taught us.” Like the Good Samaritan, we are called to be neighbours to all, to love even those who do not love us in return.
The concreteness of love
Joining together to serve others can help us “realize once more that we are brothers and sisters,” and lead us “to grow in unity.” Likewise, the Holy Spirit can inspire us “to care for our common home, to make bold choices” about how we live our lives.
Pope Francis concludes his homily by noting that it is the Holy Spirit, “the architect of the ecumenical journey,” who inspired the joint prayer in the Basilica of St Paul’s. He expresses his gratitude to “all those who in the course this Week, have prayed and continue to pray for Christian unity,” and greeted the representatives of the Churches and ecclesial communities taking part in the ceremony, whether in person or virtually due to the pandemic.
“Dear brothers and sisters, may we remain united in Christ,” Pope Francis says in conclusion, praying, “May the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts make us feel that we are children of the Father, brothers and sisters of one another, brothers and sisters in our one human family.
“May the Holy Trinity, communion of love, make us grow in unity.”