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The Path of Christian Unity: a Lenten "Restoration Project" | One Body

Julien Hammond

Friday, February 2, 2024

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The Path of Christian Unity: a Lenten "Restoration Project"

by Julien Hammond

Some friends of mine recently undertook a little renovation project in their home: nothing major – just a couple of bathrooms, a laundry room and a fresh coat of paint on some walls. 
The plan looked simple enough on paper, but the reality of the renos soon became a bit more complicated – and costly – than initially anticipated. Removing old walls disclosed some surprises, newer building codes required adjustments to plumbing and electrical works, old appliances didn’t quite fit into new spaces, and a few unforeseen wall repairs were needed before the simple step of applying new paint.  
I think about this in the context of the upcoming Lenten season, and the renovation project that Lent invites into all of our lives: individually and communally, and particularly as churches journeying together on the path of Christian unity. 
What renovations are needed in order to get us there, and which have been completed already? What surprises might we uncover behind a wall of separation? What repairs are possible? What new codes are we to follow in the present context? And, of course, the biggest “renos” question of all – how much will it cost?
The analogy of ecumenism and home renovations may not be so far off. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism characterizes the Ecumenical Movement essentially as a “restoration” project (Unitatis Redintegratio #1), and spells out many “initiatives and activities encouraged and organized, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer” that need to be engaged in this project:
  • First, we should make “every effort to avoid expressions, judgments, and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness.” These distortions “make mutual relations with them more difficult.”
  • Then, join in “‘dialogue’ between competent experts from different Churches and communities…; through such dialogue everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both communions.”
  • In addition, these communions engage in more intensive “cooperation” in carrying out any “duties for the common good of humanity which are demanded by every Christian conscience.”
  • They also come together for common prayer where this is permitted.
  • “Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and, wherever necessary, undertake with vigour, the task of renewal and reform” (#4).
From this list, we can see the extent of the “home renos” that the Ecumenical Movement invites us to undertake. It is not for the faint of heart. It is actually a huge project and the project manager, who is the Holy Spirit, doesn’t always share the blueprints with us. What’s more is that each aspect of the plan invites its own complexities, challenges and sometimes risks. 
Nevertheless, the renewal work continues and the restoration project is well underway. Like great cathedrals of old, built over centuries and spanning several generations, new labourers continually take up the tools and contribute what they can to the overall work. We, too, in our own time are invited to contribute to this church restoration work, according to the gifts and skills, and the time, energy and opportunities that the Holy Spirit affords to each one of us.
Cardinal Kasper, in his A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism (New City Press, 2006 – see especially pp. 68-69), highlights Lent as a particularly favourable time of the year to undertake ecumenical renewal projects. He offers many concrete suggestions in this regard, which I’ve grouped them into a few (overlapping) categories for convenience:

The Liturgical Journey:

  • Beginning with Ash Wednesday, Christians may commit “to embrace together the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving” (emphasis added);
  • In Eastern Churches, the First Sunday of Lent is commemorated as The Sunday of Orthodoxy: “an opportunity to invoke prayer for the Eastern Churches and the restoration of unity between East and West”;
  • As catechumens and candidates journey through the Catechumenate and prepare for Rites of Initiation at Easter, Christians may “rediscover together the mystery and spiritual riches of their baptism, … grow closer to Jesus Christ and to one another, …become more aware of their belonging to the one Body of Christ and of their common vocation”;
  • The Lenten season invites a particular liturgical emphasis upon “unity related to conversion or forgiveness”; it may be especially fitting to address this theme during a penitential service, or within the intercessory prayers at Mass, or in the context of specific catechesis around the liturgical prayers for Lent found in The Roman Missal;

Focus on Mission and Justice:

  • A parish may organize a Lenten Mission on a theme of church renewal, either for its own parishioners or preferably in conjunction with another church congregation in the neighbourhood;
  • Drawing attention to the persecution and martyrdom of Christians in the world, it may be appropriate during Lent to “celebrate an Ecumenical Commemoration of Witnesses to the Faith, particularly in regions where the wounds of persecution and suffering still need healing”;
  • Throughout the weekdays of Lent, Christians are encouraged to come together “for a solidarity meeting or meal focusing attention on a common concern or offering support for people in a specific region”;

Moments for Scripture and Prayer:

  • Lent is also a great time to engage in lectio or video divina, in common bible study or a “study series on an ecumenical topic”;
  • Christians, during Lent, can 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”;
  • In proximity to or during Holy Week, Christians (“particularly young people”) might be brought together for a public manifestation of their faith such as the Way of the Cross, or for “prayers, meditations, traditional hymns on the Passion of Jesus Christ.” 
This is not an exhaustive list, but it does give some fine examples of the sorts of activities that a person or parish can engage during Lent in the name of Christian unity, and the personal and communal renewal that ecumenism entails.
“Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (UR #6). Returning to the sources of our faith during Lent – meditating more deeply upon the Sacred Scriptures, increasing charity towards others, renewing our life of prayer, especially centred upon the prayer of Jesus himself “that all may be one” (John 17.21) – all of this invites new opportunities to renew and renovate our own spirit, and to engage in the wider restoration project that is the Ecumenical Movement.

Julien Hammond has been the ecumenical officer for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton for over twenty years. He has served as a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-Roman Catholic International Consultation. He is currently a member of the Jewish-Catholic national dialogue, co-sponsored by the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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