We have just listened to the Word of God which has characterized this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. These are strong words, so strong they might seem inappropriate as we joyfully come together as brothers and sisters in Christ to celebrate a solemn liturgy in his praise. While there is no shortage of sad and disturbing news today, we would gladly do without the “social reproaches” of Scripture. Yet if we listen to the concerns of the times in which we live, how much more should we care about what makes the Lord we live for suffer; and if we have gathered in his name, we can only put his Word at the centre. This is prophetic: indeed God, through the voice of Isaiah, rebukes us and invites us to change. Warning and change are the two words I would like to offer you some thoughts on this evening.
1. Disclaimer. Let us listen to a few more divine words: “When you come to present yourselves before my face, (…) Cease bringing empty offerings; (…) When you stretch out your hands, I look away. No matter how much you pray, I do not listen” (Is 1, 12.13.15). What arouses the indignation of the Lord, to the point of reproving in such an indignant tone the people whom he loves so much? The text reveals two reasons. In the first place, he blames the fact that in his temple, in his name, what he wants is not accomplished: he does not want incense or offerings, but that the oppressed be helped, that justice be returned to the orphan, that the cause of the widow be defended (cf. v. 17). In the society of the Prophet’s time, there was a tendency – unfortunately still present – to consider the rich and those who give much as blessed by God, and to despise the poor. But this is to completely misunderstand the Lord. Jesus proclaims the poor blessed (cf. Lk 6:20), and in the parable of the Last Judgment he identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the needy, the sick, the prisoners (cf. Mt 25, 35-36). This, then, is the first reason for indignation: God suffers when we, who claim to be his faithful, put our own vision before his, when we follow the judgments of earth rather than those of heaven, contenting ourselves with outward rites and remaining indifferent to those he cares about most. God is therefore grieved, one might say, at our indifferent incomprehension.
In addition to this, there is a second, more serious reason that offends the Most High: sacrilegious violence. He says, “I can’t stand these crimes and these parties anymore. (…) Your hands are full of blood. (…) Remove your evil deeds from my sight” (Is 1,13.15.16). The Lord is “irritated” by the violence committed against the temple of God which is man, while he is honored in temples built by man! We can imagine with what pain he must witness the wars and violent actions made by those who profess themselves Christians. The episode comes to mind when a saint protested against the savagery of the king whom he was going to see during Lent to offer him meat; when the sovereign, in the name of his religiosity, refused indignantly, the man of God asked him why he had scruples about eating animal flesh when he did not hesitate to put God’s children to death.
Brothers and sisters, this warning from the Lord makes us reflect, as Christians and as Christian denominations. I would like to reaffirm that “today, with the development of spirituality and theology, we no longer have any excuses. However, there are still those who seem to feel encouraged, or at least authorized by their faith, to defend inward-looking and violent forms of nationalism, xenophobic attitudes, contempt or even mistreatment of those who are different. Faith, because of the humanism it contains, must keep a keen critical sense in the face of these tendencies and help to react quickly when they begin to infiltrate” (1). If we want, following the example of the Apostle Paul, that the grace of God in us is not in vain (cf. 1 Cor 15:10), we must oppose war, violence, injustice wherever they creep. The theme for this week of prayer was chosen by a group of believers in Minnesota, aware of the injustices committed against indigenous peoples in the past, and African Americans today. In the face of various forms of contempt and racism, in the face of indifferent incomprehension and sacrilegious violence, the Word of God exhorts us: “Learn to do good: seek justice” (Is 1:17). It is not enough to denounce, it is also necessary to renounce evil, to pass from evil to good. Here the admonition is aimed at our change.
2.Change. Having diagnosed the errors, the Lord asks to remedy them and, through the intermediary of the prophet, he says: “Wash yourselves, purify yourselves (…). Stop doing evil” (v. 16). And knowing that we are oppressed and as if paralyzed by too many faults, he promises that it is he who will wash away our sins: “Come, and let us discuss, says the Lord. If your sins are like scarlet, they will become as white as snow. If they are red like vermilion, they will become like wool” (v. 18). Beloveds, we are not able to free ourselves from our misunderstandings about God and from the violence that smolders within us. Without God, without his grace, we do not heal from our sin. His grace is the source of our change. The life of the Apostle Paul, whom we commemorate today, reminds us of this. Alone, we cannot do it, but with God everything is possible; alone we cannot do it, but together it is possible. Together, in fact, the Lord asks his people to convert. Conversion – this word so often repeated and not always easy to understand – is asked of the people, it has a community, ecclesial dynamic. We therefore believe that our ecumenical conversion also progresses insofar as we recognize ourselves in need of grace, in need of the same mercy: in recognizing that we all depend on God in everything, we will feel and truly be, with his help, “one” (Jn 17, 21), brothers seriously.
How beautiful it is to open ourselves together, under the sign of the grace of the Spirit, to this change of perspective, rediscovering that “all the faithful, scattered throughout the world, are, in the Holy Spirit, in communion with others, and in this way – as Saint John Chrysostom wrote – ‘he who resides in Rome knows that those in India are for him a member’” (2). On this path of communion, I am grateful that many Christians of various communities and traditions accompany, with participation and interest, the synodal journey of the Catholic Church, which I wish to be more and more ecumenical. But let us not forget that walking together and recognizing ourselves in communion with one another in the Holy Spirit implies a change, a growth that can only take place, as Benedict XVI wrote, “ starting from the intimate encounter with God, an encounter that has become a communion of will, going so far as to touch the feeling. I then learn to look at that other person not only with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend” (3).
May the Apostle Paul help us to change, to convert; may he obtain for us a little of his indomitable courage. Because, on our way, it is easy to work each for his group rather than for the Kingdom of God, to become impatient, to lose hope of that day when “they will be gathered together by a unique Eucharistic celebration, in the unity of one and only Church, all Christians. This unity Christ granted to his Church from the beginning” (4). But it is precisely in view of this day that we put our trust in Jesus, our Easter and our peace: while we pray and adore him, he acts. And we are comforted by what he said to Paul, which we can hear addressed to each of us: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9).
Dear friends, I wanted to share in a fraternal spirit these thoughts that the Word has aroused in me, so that, exhorted by God, we can, by his grace, change and grow in prayer, service, dialogue and working together towards that full unity which Christ desires. I would now like to thank you wholeheartedly. I express my gratitude to His Eminence Metropolitan Polykarpos, representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to His Grace Ian Ernest, personal representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome, and to the representatives of the other Christian communities present. I express my strong solidarity with the members of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. I greet in particular the Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox students, scholarship holders of the Committee for Cultural Collaboration with the Orthodox Churches at the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, and those of the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, of the World Council of Churches . A warm greeting also to Brother Alois and the brothers of Taizé who are engaged in the preparation of the ecumenical prayer vigil which will precede the opening of the next session of the Synod of Bishops. Let us all walk together on the path that the Lord has set before us, that of unity.