The day before I join a contingent from our parish of Notre Dame de la Mer in Wildwood and others and we depart for a mission to Haiti to distribute school supplies to needy children, medical treatment and baptize orphaned children, I would like to invite you to a prayer service for Christian unity that will be held this Sunday afternoon. The theme for this year’s service is “Called to proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord,” (1 Peter 2:9). This year’s gathering takes on a special meaning with the Jubilee Year of Mercy as a backdrop. The corporal acts of mercy, such as our mission to Haiti, highlights that any good that the Christian does in life “proclaims the mighty acts of the Lord.”
Our call to prayer for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is rooted in that beautiful biblical text from 1 Peter 2: 9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Through Christ all those who were not a people join the chosen race in becoming God’s people. This people-hood is manifested in baptism, common to all Christians, as we pass through the same spiritual bath to be born again and infused with the Spirit of God.
The preparatory work on the theme for this year’s week of prayer was prepared primarily by Roman Catholics and Lutherans from Latvia. The texts were finalized during a meeting of the International Committee nominated by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The planning committee was invited and were graciously accompanied and guided on a visit to the Island of St. Meinhard on the Daugava River near Ikskile with ruins of the first Cathedral (consecrated in 1186), the Lutheran and Catholic Cathedrals of Riga and St. Savior’s Anglican Church in Old Riga.
Latvia is very much “living ecumenism,” as Christians from the three main branches of Christianity — Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant — are increasingly meeting with one another for common prayer and common witness. In Latvia these three branches of Christianity are approximately equal in size. Quite often the Latvian bishops from the Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran traditions issue common statements on issues of ethics, the protection of life or social justice. The ties of friendship are so close between the Lutherans and Roman Catholics in Latvia that the consecration of the present Catholic archbishop took place in the Lutheran Cathedral of Riga.
It is traditional to hold the prayer service close to the feasts of St. Peter and St. Paul, as proposed in 1908 by Father Paul Wattson, Servant of God, and Apostle of Christian Unity. He initiated the Church Unity Octave, believing that a time set aside for prayer and seminars would hasten Christian unity. He is a convert from the Episcopal Church and founder of the Society of the Atonement, a religious order of men and women devoted to the cause of Christian unity and the missions. He founded a religious order that focused on the Atonement, God’s merciful action on our behalf through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Today, the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement continue his work on three continents.
In keeping with the vision of Father Wattson, the Diocese of Camden invites you to our Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Service this Sunday, Jan. 17 at 3 p.m. at The Catholic Church of St. Mary, 2001 Springdale Road, Cherry Hill. Bishop Dennis Sullivan will join other Christian bishops, Judicatory Heads, along with clergy and Christian congregations from our area, for an afternoon of prayer and praise. All are welcomed and encouraged to attend; refreshments will follow in the gathering place following the service. Bishop Sullivan and the other bishops will join a group of homeless men in the church hall to share a meal and fellowship following the reception.
I hope you will take time from your busy lives to join with fellow Christians to pray for that unity that Christ prayed for before ascending to the Father. Sharing his desire that all may be one!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.