By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Every time Christians of different communities pray together, witness to the Gospel and help people in need, they are promoting Christian unity, said the Vatican’s top ecumenist.
Joint prayer and Bible study, attendance at a major event of another denomination and working together for justice and peace are the components of “spiritual ecumenism” suggested by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The cardinal is the author of “A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism,” a booklet published in English late in 2006; the Italian edition will be released at the Vatican in time for the Jan. 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
In fact, participating in ecumenical prayer services and discussions during the Christian unity week is encouraged throughout the booklet.
In the introduction, Cardinal Kasper said the booklet was the result of a discussion by members of the pontifical council focusing on the need for prayer and conversion in the search for Christian unity.
Council members also felt Catholics could benefit from practical suggestions for preparing spiritually for the gift of restored unity, the introduction said.
Even attending another’s eucharistic celebration and feeling the sorrow of not being able to share the sacrament can contribute to ecumenism, the booklet said.
“The way toward reconciliation and communion unfolds when Christians feel the painful wound of division in their hearts, in their minds and in their prayers,” it said.
The booklet focuses on what bishops, priests, religious and laity can do to promote closer relationships with their fellow Christians while the official theological dialogues continue to deal with issues that keep the Christian community divided.
Prayer should be Christians’ first response, it said.
“It is significant that Jesus did not primarily express his desire for unity in a teaching or in a commandment to his disciples, but in a prayer to his father,” it said.
“Since unity is a gift, it is fitting that Christians pray for it together,” the cardinal wrote.
Conversion is at the heart of the search for Christian unity, he said.
Individual Christians and Christian communities must look at the attitudes they held or still hold that contribute to division in contradiction to the will of Christ that his disciples would be one, the booklet said.
“The Spirit calls Christians to place themselves before God, to recognize their own faults, to confess their sins and ask forgiveness,” it said.
One of the practical suggestions in the booklet is that, during Lent, divided Christians gather for “a common service based on biblical readings on forgiveness and mercy in preparation for approaching a minister of one’s own church for personal confession of sins and absolution.”
The booklet also urges special attention to young people, who will inherit “the burden of past division.”
“It is of paramount importance that young Christians be given the opportunity to make friends with Christians of other traditions, to read the Gospel and to pray with them, to grow in understanding and appreciation of their particular gifts,” it said.
Cardinal Kasper’s booklet encourages bishops and priests also to give special attention to husbands and wives from different Christian communities, not simply because of the difficulties they face in continuing to practice their faith, but also because they can be a resource in bringing members of their denominations closer together.
As people who “feel intensely the pain of division between the communities to which they belong,” the couples can help organize ecumenical groups that meet for prayer, Scripture study and support for other couples from different denominations, it said.
Working together to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the sick and to build peace and justice also is part of “spiritual ecumenism,” the document said.
Cooperation is especially important, it said, in situations where the good works of different denominations may appear to be in competition with each other or where they uselessly duplicate each other’s efforts.
While acknowledging that local situations may make some projects more appropriate than others, the booklet also suggests:
— Ecumenical cooperation in translating the Scriptures and in designing Bible study programs.
— An annual commemoration of Christians who have been martyred for their faith or their commitment to promoting Gospel values.
— Joint prayer services on Thanksgiving and on holidays honoring those who died in the service of their country.
— An ecumenical affirmation or renewal of baptismal promises during the Easter season or around the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
— Organizing an ecumenical Nativity play for children before Christmas.
— Frequent meetings between bishops and other ministers of different Christian communities for prayer and for keeping each other informed about major events and projects.
— Monastic communities offering hospitality to people seeking a deeper spiritual life and organizing exchanges with communities of other traditions — for example, Coptic, Syrian, Armenian and Greek Orthodox.