Bishop Farrell: ‘Synodality’ and the search for Christian unity
During the Week of Prayer, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council shares hopes for progress in ecumenical relations
(LWI) - As Christians come together to mark the annual ecumenical Week of Prayer, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), Bishop Brian Farrell, says Pope Francis’ synodal process could make a “hugely important” contribution to improving relationships between the different churches.
Congregations and individuals in many parts of the globe participate in the 18-25 January Week of Prayer initiative which originated over a century ago and is organized by the PCPCU in partnership with the World Council of Churches (WCC). Each year, they invite an ecumenical group in a particular region to prepare resources that can be used for different kinds of ecumenical initiatives during the octave of prayer.
This year, worship materials have been prepared by members of the Middle East Council of Churches, focusing on the theme of the Magi who “saw the star in the East and came to worship” the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Bishop Farrell notes that the material, available in seven languages, is “filled with a deep, genuine spirituality that will be very effective when used by communities around the world.”
Facing common challenges together
Christian in the Middle East, he continues, are profoundly affected by the economic, social, cultural and religious complexity of their region, marking them out as “a community of faith, living in difficult circumstances with a strong identity and sense of purpose.” While there have been tensions over “territoriality” in the past, he says that “today there is close cooperation as they understand they are all facing the same challenges.” He pointed to a recently released document called “We Choose Abundant Life” as an important part of the reform process of churches in that region seeking to “come out of isolation and respond together as part of one Christian family.”
Reflecting on the problems which cause many young people to leave their countries in search of better opportunities abroad, Bishop Farrell says churches should “be in solidarity with them and make public opinion aware of their challenges.” Pilgrimages to the Middle East, he added, are a vital way of learning about “their centuries-old presence,” as well as offering “economic support to Christians there today.”
The Vatican official, who marks the 20th anniversary of his appointment this year, says the COVID-19 pandemic caused additional difficulties for those preparing the Week of Prayer resources. Despite the impossibility of meeting in person, he says, they managed to work online to produce “really excellent texts.” In a broader sense, he continues, the pandemic has “slowed down momentum” of many theological dialogues because online meetings “are not the same as sitting together, to see the reactions and feel the commitments of our partners.” On the other hand, in terms of “practical ecumenism,” he notes, “people across the globe have been much working more closely together and seeking to respond to each other's problems.”
Reaffirming the fundamentals of faith
Looking ahead to significant events on the ecumenical calendar over the coming months, the bishop points to the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea which will be marked by all churches in 2025. “We are already working very hard with our partners in WCC and with the Ecumenical Patriarchate to prepare for the anniversary of that first ecumenical Council,” he says. That event was “hugely important because it settled controversies about the nature of Christ and consolidated structures of the Church. We hope to turn the anniversary into an opportunity for Christians to reaffirm the fundamentals of the faith and give momentum to our ecumenical efforts,” he adds.
Looking ahead to other events on the agenda for 2022, he notes that ecumenical delegates will participate in the WCC Assembly in Germany in the autumn and in the Lambeth Conference in England in the summer. He says a recent document on Anglican-Catholic relations, entitled ‘Sisters in Hope of the Resurrection,’ could provide “a stimulus, not just in Anglican-Catholic relations, but also in the Lutheran and Reformed dialogues too.” The document, from theologians who form part of the Malines Conversation Group, calls for churches to “align our theory with practice” regarding the recognition of ordained ministry. On this basis, Bishop Farrell says, “we can move forward and apply the vision of the Second Vatican Council ecclesiology regarding the real yet incomplete communion between our churches.”
The aim of the synodal process is a hugely increased participation of the whole people of God in the life, the governance and mission of the church.
Reflecting on the so-called ‘synodal process which Pope Francis has inaugurated in preparation for a meeting of the world’s Catholic bishops in 2023, Bishop Farrell says “there is a huge interest among our ecumenical partners who have already been invited to participate in the consultations.” The aim of the process, he explains, is “a hugely increased participation of the whole people of God in the life, the governance and mission of the church. This is vital from an ecumenical point of view, because the over-centralization of the church has been an obstacle recognized by every pope since Vatican II. If the process is successful, I think there will be a different appreciation of the Catholic Church, which will be very beneficial in the search for Christian unity.”
The Lutheran World Federation’s Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, Prof. Dr Dirk Lange comments: “The synodal process does indeed open up wonderful possibilities and we were grateful for the invitation to reflect on ‘Synodality from a Lutheran perspective’ during our visit to Rome in June 2021. The JDDJ (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification) Consultation process, which brings together Reformed, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran world communions, is also exploring ways in which our faith communities can work together in joint proclamation and service. It is an exciting time for the ecumenical journey!”
The LWF engages in bilateral, trilateral and multilateral dialogues and practical cooperation with many other Christian churches and world communions. In this interview series we profile some of those ecumenical partnerships, highlighting past progress and current challenges on the road towards full Christian unity.
The resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity are freely available for download and use by churches or individuals in English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Italian and Arabic.