This Thursday, 18 January begins the annual Octave of Prayer for Church Unity. What’s an Octave, you may ask? As the Latinists among you recognize, the word is derived from the Latin word for Eight and designates in the Liturgy, eight days of celebration. With an Octave, if you begin on a Sunday, for example (as we do on Easter), the Octave will end on a Sunday. We inherited this from the ancient Jewish Liturgy which marked–and still marks–major celebrations like Passover with an Octave.
This is an Octave of Prayer, leading up to the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul on Friday, 25 January. St. Paul is not only the great Apostle and missionary of the early Church but played a significant role in guaranteeing the unity of the early Church in the controversy over circumcision and keeping a kosher diet. Did non-Jews have to adopt Judaism when they became Christians? They didn’t, as affirmed by the Jewish Apostles when all the representatives met in Jerusalem.
St. Paul also cultivated unity between local churches with his letters, still read in the Liturgy today. As we know from the Epistles, or Letters, themselves, they were passed around from church to church. The local churches could read that they were not isolated in their problems and challenges, but shared similar experiences with the other Christian communities. And despite their failings and limits, Paul addresses them, nonetheless, as “the Saints”, the “Holy Ones”. St. Paul could be feisty and challenging; St. Paul may have been difficult to work with, but the more I reread his Letters, I’m impressed by his patience, his expressive affection and his tendency to build on the positive rather than scold, browbeat and put down the various congregations.
Of course, Paul’s missionary activity and travels were personal ways to bind the church’s together as one. He visited and cultivated the young communities and stayed in touch with key people in each community. It is perhaps worth noting that although he had the right as an Apostle to be supported by the communities, he sustained himself by the work of his own hands, his own initiative. How much did that, too, foster unity and growth, by his credibility, by not being a burden on others?
Finally, St. Paul’s teachings had a great impact on the reformers of the Sixteenth Century who would eventually be separated from the Roman Church. Of course, St. Paul’s teaching is essential to all Christian churches and should be a bond between us.
Some of our readers may be surprised to learn that the “new” Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, defines members of the one true Church of Christ all those baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. A further qualification describes the various levels of participation in the full truth of the Church; it is at this level that the Code recognizes the disunity of the Church, the divisions in the Church. The Ecumenical Movement, embraced by the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican Council II, recognizes that the various Christian churches and communions belong to the same “household” (the oecumene, in Greek, thus the adjective “ecumenical”). Implicitly, we recognize that the divisions among us are tragic and contrary to the legacy of Christ, described in his “farewell Discourse” at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel.
During this Octave of Prayer for Church Unity, pray, study, read about the Ecumenical Movement; be aware of what others are doing to heal the rift; become more informed about what is at stake and what is being accomplished.
Later in the week, some suggested reading and resources will be posted.