This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
. Initiated in 1908, this week of prayer aims at ecumenism, that is, communication and greater proximity between all Christian denominations. In the past, celebrations were organized in many places to welcome other communities. In Montreal, for example, some Orthodox churches welcomed Catholics and Protestants to witness their particular rites and organized conferences on aspects of the Orthodox faith. An ecumenical celebration was also held alternately in a Catholic, Presbyterian, or Orthodox church. This year, distance is key. How can Christian unity be reflected upon and lived without the essential element of communion in the sense of coming together?
Pressures of the pandemic
There is no doubt that this is a difficult year for all Christians. The spiritual needs of the faithful are perceived as non-essential just as shopping malls and gyms were presented as such some time ago. It is, therefore, understandable that many Christians feel that their governments do not care about their concerns. Having said that, the current situation is quite inescapable. The pandemic remains, and distancing measures are essential to get through it. On the other hand, we are also no longer accustomed to receiving the reality of our times with resignation because modernity provides so much illusion of choice. We can choose our entertainment, our clothes, our food from a greater diversity than ever before. We rely on material and superficial choices even though most of the time we are unaware of what a truly free consciousness is.
Liberated by the Holy Spirit
Freedom in the Christian sense is synonymous with an inner life enriched by one's relationship with God. A person completely absorbed by His love will follow the Lord's commandments and seek to do good. This search for good will be guided by the Holy Spirit, who provides true freedom. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom
(2 Corinthians 3:17). It is in this piece of Scripture that the mundane notion of freedom as a possibility to act is transformed. The transformation takes place as soon as Christ arrives, when he teaches that the outward demands to follow God's law must be based on the inner demands motivated by love:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets rest on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Christ invites us to love God in such a way that we have no other desire than to follow His will. Thus, while remaining consistent with the legalistic vision of the Old Testament, the notions of freedom and law take on a new meaning, more in keeping with our human aspirations.
“If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law”
(Galatians 5:18). Some have assumed that this means that the righteous are above the law, but rather, it means that they follow the law closely and with love, to the point where submission is no longer required. The free will is fully engaged. St. Thomas Aquinas comments in this respect on St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians: "The free soul can therefore be said to be free, not because it submits itself to the divine law, but because, by the effect of good habit, it inclines to do what the divine law commands." This perspective on both inner life and freedom can bear fruit in the situation Christians are living today.
Unity and freedom: remedies to individualism
Christian unity depends on the freedom of each person and their friendship with God. It is possible that, before the pandemic, we may never have thought about this, and that we understand the notion of freedom as the simple ability to do whatever one wants. Today, the freedom to act is being questioned in favour of a collective goal, which is to avoid too many pandemic-related illnesses and deaths. However, a search for freedom as envisioned by Christ and by Saint Paul is still accessible to us at every moment. This implies a trust in God and a hope in Him. We cannot currently choose all the necessary measures to manage this pandemic; we are powerless in the face of its effects and the effects of government-enforced health measures. Yet God wants us to be free; He wants our hearts to be united to do good wherever it happens. By His grace, despite the restrictive health measures, this unique freedom is accessible to us.
Thus, this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes at the right time. It is an opportunity to ask ourselves: how do we perceive unity? Through social media? Through joyful but superficial encounters? Or through sustained prayer for the salvation of the world? How do our Christian friends from other denominations resemble us and what do we have in common in the face of this particular crisis? We need to trust in God's love for them and for the world and to unite ourselves to this Love. We can each and every one of us be free thanks to the Holy Spirit, and this is more than ever an opportunity for us to live this freedom in our prayers and in our conscience.