CORTLANDT MANOR, N.Y. (CNS) — Despite disappointing setbacks in ecumenical dialogue, there is incremental progress toward Christian unity, according to Father Timothy MacDonald, vicar general of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.
“It’s disconcerting in some ways,” he said in remarks on 23 January at one in series of events to mark the 2013 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. “We’ve made progress in some ecumenical areas we’ve committed ourselves to, but in others, we haven’t moved much further ahead.
“When it comes down to actually knowing one another and praying for one another’s congregations, that’s harder to come by,” he said.
The Week of Prayer was first observed in 1908 at Graymoor, the headquarters of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, in Garrison, New York. The observance is to encourage all Christians to pray for unity as described in the Gospel of St. John: “that all may be one … so that the world may believe.”
Since 1966, themes and texts for the annual observance have been developed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican and the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
“What does God require of us?” was chosen as the theme for this year’s 18-25 January observance.
The quote from the biblical Book of Micah was chosen by members of the Student Christian Movement in India. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the movement, the students were invited to prepare the resources for the 2013 prayer week.
Father MacDonald addressed participants at an ecumenical prayer service held at St. Columbanus Church in Cortlandt Manor. He said the struggles faced by the people Micah taught mirror those experienced by the Dalit people in India. Father Francis Samoylo, pastor of St. Columbanus, described the Dalits as the socially marginalized, politically disenfranchised, culturally subjugated lowest caste in the Hindu-dominated Indian society.
Father MacDonald said the Student Christian Movement drew a parallel across time, “against a backdrop of casteism and injustice to the poorest of the poor.”
The Dalits and the people of Micah’s time were subjected to rules “extending to the minutiae of daily life” and the Dalits face 140 forms of work- or descent-based discrimination that cover marriage, burial, food consumption, education and recreation, he said.
“For Micah, true faith in God is inseparable from holiness and the quest for justice,” Father MacDonald said. People seeking ecumenism can follow Micah’s “path of loving justice, walk humbly with God and overcome differences by working together on social justice projects,” he said.
Father MacDonald teaches a class in ecumenical dialogue every summer at Centro Pro Unione, an Atonement facility in Rome. He said 20 students from various Christian denominations attend.
He described a great deal of enthusiasm for ecumenism after the Second Vatican Council, but said now “a certain boredom or ennui” has set in and “the excitement seems to have disappeared. There doesn’t seem to be much happening. We can’t seem to get to know one another. We get just so close and then we pull back.”
He said Catholics were making “breakthroughs” with other denominations, but progress has been slowed by decisions that underscore differences. He said other groups’ ordination of women and active homosexuals to the priesthood and as bishops are major impediments to “visible unity” and shared Eucharist.
“As these things begin to pile up, it’s becoming more and more obvious that we’re not going to see visible signs soon,” Father MacDonald said.
He speculated the Orthodox would be the first to achieve “visible unity” with the Catholic Church, but said he did not expect to see it in his lifetime. He also said it is hard to know what shape Christian unity will take, but it will not be a uniformity and will need to allow for the diversity and development of individual traditions.
Father MacDonald acknowledged discouragement with the pace of ecumenism, but said, “It’s now that we have to work all that much harder if we believe in the cause.”
He exhorted participants at the event to examine local conditions and determine how churches working together can respond to the Holy Spirit and advance social justice.
Clergy at the prayer service included Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Ukrainian Autocephalous members of the Peekskill Area Pastoral Association.