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HOMILY OF CARDINAL ROGER ETCHEGARAY

VESPERS FOR THE FEAST OF THE CONVERSION OF SAINT PAUL
CLOSURE OF THE WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

Tuesday, 25 january 2000

 

Eight days ago in this Basilica of St Paul-Outside-the-Walls, Pope John Paul II opened the last of the four Jubilee doors:  it will remain open throughout the Holy Year, and since it was opened by six ecumenical hands, it commits pilgrims who pass through it to be faithful in following the one Body of the risen Christ.

It was also here, one week ago, that the Pope opened the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which has been celebrated in many Roman churches and which we will close together this evening:  or, rather we will put everyone on alert to hasten the day of visible unity, which will come "when Christ so wishes, and in the ways that he wishes", according to the golden key of Fr Couturier, the humble priest of Lyons who, long before the Council, promoted the Week of Prayer from 18 to 25 January which had begun 100 years ago in England in Anglican-Catholic circles.

If there is one prayer that must be universal, it is precisely the prayer for unity, since it joins together all who profess "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph 4: 5).

If there is one prayer that requires the breath of the Spirit, it is the prayer for unity, since from the human viewpoint it seems like a marathon or even a never-ending race. This prayer puts hope to an even harder test, since Christ did not make Christian unity a promise but only a prayer.

Of all the prayers, the prayer for unity is certainly the one that must be, if it can be said, the most prayerful, the most heartfelt, offered desperately, with all one's might. Thus, in this situation and under the unbearable weight of the discouragement of separated Christians, we turn to Christ and beg him as did the Apostles:  "Lord, teach us to pray", to pray like you, to pray in you with your burning desire and serene patience, so that the unity you have never stopped desiring and pursuing in the hearts of us sinners will shine brightly. Lord, grant us to enter so deeply into your prayer for unity that in you all of us will already find ourselves one in your Spirit and in the glory of your Father.

St Paul, with his conversion on the road to Damascus, comes to strengthen and reassure Christians in search of unity. Everything is possible when we too, following St Paul's example, rely on Christ alone and on "Christ crucified" (1 Cor 2: 2), since the way to unity inevitably passes by the foot of the Cross, or, better, through the pierced heart of the Saviour. Everything is possible when our conversion is radical and we are knocked down or rather "seized" by him, as Paul says. To convey the impression of the light that overwhelmed him at the gates of Damascus, Paul used a splendid image:  it was like the first dawn of the world, a new creation that God began in him (2 Cor 4: 6) and which later made him sing the hymn we find in Ephesians (Eph 1: 3-14), that ecumenical hymn of Trinitarian praise which we in turn have just proclaimed and which is totally imbued with Christ, the prophet of the Gospel that saves us.

On their path to unity, it is not primarily a question of Christians looking more deeply into each another's eyes or of shaking one another's hands longer despite what divides them, but of looking together to the Lord and of reaching their hands out to him, in common obedience to the Holy Spirit whom he sent us.

Do you know the legend that deserves to be a true story, which I was told by an Orthodox monk? Here it is. After Easter, when Christ was about to ascend into heaven, he lowered his eyes to the earth and saw it plunged in darkness, except for some small lights over the city of Jerusalem. As he ascends he meets the Angel Gabriel, who was used to earthly missions and asks him:  "What are those tiny lights?". "They are the Apostles gathered around my Mother, and as soon as I reach heaven my plan is to send the Holy Spirit to them so that these small sparks will become a great blaze that will enflame the whole earth with love". The angel dares to answer:  "And what will you do if the plan does not succeed?". After a moment of silence, the Lord replies:  "I have no other plans!".

Are we convinced that this is the Lord's only plan? The only one that can withstand the forces of division? A plan to give full power to the Holy Spirit who unites all Christians in one and the same love before uniting them in the same faith. A marvellous venture whose source and model is the Holy Trinity. A demanding venture for the Church to become fully what she is, the living Body of Jesus Christ, a body that is diversified and one, ultimately reconciled in the truth and freedom of Love. Then ecumenism will be filled with hope opening the way to the inexhaustible victories of Love in the midst of a humanity that is rootless, wandering, blind and violent, but despite all, thirsting for unity.

This is why prayer will accompany, and not only introduce, every ecumenical step of a doctrinal or social nature, since it is prayer that enables us to reach the Holy Spirit in the depths of life where he dwells, to evangelize the roots as well as the fruits of division. Ecumenical prayer is not merely spiritual, reserved for those who can do nothing else for unity; it must spur all Christians to discover and to accept the progress made at the level of common thought and action:  the doctrinal agreements that here and there mark the dialogues of experts are meaningless, unless through pastoral education they reach every level of an ecclesial community.

May our prayer this evening thus be more than a seasonal rite, however repeated. May it become a permanent "wrinkle" in our soul. May it help us look with confidence at the path to unity already traveled in a few years:  Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, Etchmiadzin, Constantinople, Wittenberg, Canterbury, Geneva, how all these cities formerly far apart now seem closer to one another, because they are all closer to Jerusalem, to the land of Christ!

Every time I come to pray in this basilica, I look at the mosaic in the apse and think of Pope Paul VI, who, from his first Message to the Council, identified himself with Pope Honorius who is depicted below Christ, "very, very small", he would say, "as if reduced to nothing on earth as he kisses the feet of the towering figure of Christ".

Yes, may our Pauline prayer be the centre of our gaze, of our spirit, of our hearts turned to Christ. I will simply close this homily with the prayer of a Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala, Nathan Söderblom, a pioneer of unity at the start of the ecumenical movment: 

"Lord,
be before us to lead us,
be behind us to encourage us,
be beneath us to carry us,
be above us to bless us,
be around us to protect us,
be within us so that in body and
soul we may serve you for the glory
of your Name".
Amen.

 

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