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Saint Peter, Caldwell Chapel, The Catholic University of America

Given for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

As we celebrated, this past week, the fifth anniversary of the canonical erection of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and look forward to the episcopal consecration of Monsignor Steven Lopes as the first bishop-ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter in a matter of weeks, it is fortuitous that we come this week to the annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In Monsignor Lopes’s own words, the personal ordinariates are “ecumenism in the front row,” which is to say that the entire project of Anglicanorum cœtibus is one founded on the principles of ecumenism as understood and lived by the Catholic Church. At the threshold of this particular time set aside for prayer for the unity of Christians, it is worth revisiting the ecumenical mission of the ordinariates, not simply to comprehend more fully the structural and theoretical implications of that mission, but so that each of us—who make up the clergy and lay faithful of the ordinariates—might realize our own part in that work, and be better equipped to articulate that purpose to those who, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, are “shivering at the gates.”

In this, the history of the development of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is instructive. Established in 1908 by a group of Episcopalians and Catholics here in the United States as the Church Unity Octave, from its beginnings the prayerful intention of this endeavour was the reunion of all Christians with the Apostolic See, with Rome. It is of some importance, in fact, that Father Paul Wattson (the Episcopalian minister who founded the initiative, and whose Cause for beatification is now open) was, before his reception into the Catholic Church, attached to the Episcopal parish of Saint Barnabas in Omaha, Nebraska; a parish which is now part of the ordinariate in this country.

Running from the traditional feast of the Chair of Saint Peter at Rome (the tangible symbol of the authority of the papacy), until the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the Octave was granted recognition by both Pope Saint Pius X and Pope Benedict XV, again reinforcing this character: that in our prayers we ask that all who profess the Name of Christ might be drawn into the visible bounds of the Catholic Church, in full communion with the Successor of Saint Peter. Unsurprisingly, the initiative found a particular voice in the twentieth century Ecumenical Movement, and in a particular way in the person of Abbé Paul Couturier, who saw the work of the Church Unity Octave through an acutely spiritual lens. Speaking of this important figure in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said, Couturier “saw this Week as a means which enables Christ’s universal prayer ‘to enter and penetrate the entire body of Christians;’ it must grow until it becomes ‘an immense unanimous cry of the people of God,’ asking God for this great gift.”

Following the deliberations of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and partly as a means to include other Christian communities in the initiative, the Church Unity Octave became known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 1966. And although it may be said to have shifted in its general perception, it is equally true to say that, for Catholic Christians, the logical outcome of all prayer for Christian unity must include the principle and reality of the Bishop of Rome. As Saint Cyprian of Carthage wrote in the third century, “If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that his is in the Church?”

Thus it was that our beloved Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, conceived the idea of the personal ordinariates; a means of breaking the stalemate of ecumenical dialogue and achieving a tangible goal. Indeed, as he said in his first address after his election as the Successor of Saint Peter: “good intentions do not suffice for this. Concrete gestures that enter hearts and stir consciences are essential, inspiring in everyone that inner conversion that is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress.” The liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of our Anglican heritage, as presented to us in the ordinariates with the full authority and weight of the Church, are exactly such a concrete gesture, and it is our “impelling duty” to live-out the fulness of the life entrusted to us, not as some means of preserving in aspic those things that keep us feeling safe or distant from our fellow Catholics, but in order that others may come to know the peace and joy that comes from union with Christ in the full communion of his Holy Catholic Church.

We are not, of course, called to force-feed this gift to our former co-religionists who have not followed our path to the Catholic Church. Rather, our greatest means of evangelization (in the fullest sense of that word) is the authentic presentation of the Christian faith with the language and vocabulary with which they are familiar. In other words, the strength of our own faith and the vibrancy of our own communities  will, coupled with the graces that flow from our communion with the Church, be the decisive witness to the fulness of the unity of Church, found already in “Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846).

In this task we implore the intercession of Our Lady of Walsingham, Saints Peter, Gregory the Great, Augustine, Edmund Campion, Josaphat, and Elizabeth Ann Seton; Blessed Dominic Barberi, Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, John Henry Newman, the Servant of God, Father Paul Wattson, and those countless men and women who lived and died for the unity of the Church. May their examples inspire us in this noble task, and may our lives, like theirs, become beacons that lead the way to the Lord, that all may come to his way and his truth and, so one with him, come also to his life.