by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — During this time of intense polarization and division on many issues, Catholics are invited to join in prayers for unity among Christian church traditions. The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which seeks to foster ecumenism among Christians, is celebrated this year from Jan. 18-25.
Since 1993, Sister Susan Wood, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth, theologian, university administrator and author, has served on national and international ecumenical commissions and study groups. She defines ecumenism as “the effort to achieve full visible unity among Christians and to grow what we share in common.”
“This doesn’t mean that we erase the historical differences,” she said, “but rather that we overcome the animosity and division that have kept us suspicious of one another. We reflect on the rich differences, and we become a community of reconciled differences.”
Uniformity among Christian denominations is not the goal of ecumenism, nor is the perspective held in the past that all churches and Christians should become Roman Catholic.
“We share belief in Jesus and his word, and we need to find the categories that transcend our differences,” said Sister Susan. “Ecumenism is organic and dynamic.”
She cites the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in which she participated from 2008 to 2019. Appointed by the Vatican as a member of the International Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, Sister Susan was part of an in-depth, discerning study of the history of the two faith traditions, divisions and efforts to overcome them.
The resulting document, “From Conflict to Communion,” demonstrates that Lutherans and Catholics are “on the way” on this journey of faith and that they share beliefs — among them, that baptism is a basis for unity. The document identified ecumenical imperatives going forward. These imperatives include that Catholics and Lutherans should commit to strive repeatedly toward the goal of seeking visible unity, “jointly rediscovering the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for our time” and “witnessing together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world” (“From Conflict to Communion,” 2013).
Sister Susan emphasized that dialogue is an essential component of working toward unity.
“We need to talk with one another and understand where the other person is coming from,” she explained. “We need to keep the communication flowing in our work to strengthen Christian community with one another.”
From her personal experience, Sister Susan has also learned that ecumenism is about relationships. She has developed personal friendships with people of different church traditions through her ecumenical work. This opens doors to sharing, understanding and healing divisions.
Sister Susan said that many marriages today are between people from different churches or faiths; couples are living ecumenical marriages. This is another concrete reason to work for Christian unity and to look for practical ways to share the good of different church traditions in people’s everyday lives.
Prayer is another key endeavor that supports ecumenism and movement toward unity. Much as Jesus prayed “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21), Christians today are urged to pray for unity among their churches on a year-round basis, and especially during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
While engagement of local parishes and churches in ecumenical initiatives often depends on the efforts of individual priests and pastors, Sister Susan believes that working for unity is an important ministry.
Although the global pandemic has disrupted the studies in which she is involved, Sister Susan remains active in Roman Catholic dialogue with the Baptist World Alliance and with the Orthodox tradition. Additionally, she is teaching a doctoral seminar on ecumenical method and achievements at Regis College in the Toronto School of Theology in Canada, where she is academic dean and professor of systemic theology.
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
• When: Jan. 18-25
• Cosponsors: The Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
• Theme: “We saw the star in the East, and we came to worship him” (Mt 2:2), emphasizing the Epiphany and God’s invitation to all of humanity to a new covenant in the incarnation of Christ
• Theme development: Ecumenical groups in different countries are invited to produce the theme for each year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Middle East Council of Churches selected this year’s theme that originated from the churches in Lebanon. This country faces extremely difficult, economically disastrous and stressful times. The power of prayer in solidarity with those who suffer is a demonstration of Christian unity and a sign of communion. (From the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute website; see below.)