Roman Catholic Parish of the Ascension, Calgary
O LORD Jesus Christ, who didst say unto thine Apostles, Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: Regard not our sins, but the faith of thy Church, and grant unto it that peace and unity which is agreeable to thy will; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.
And we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they lightened the ship.
May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Last year for the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I had the privilege of being in Rome. I met with senior clergy from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, attended Papal Vespers for the conclusion of the Week of Prayer, but what truly brought home the week was visiting the place where S. Paul is believed to have been held under house arrest in Rome.
The site was only recently uncovered and is still somewhat unknown. It contains altars and murals from later centuries dedicated to S. Paul, but also contains a pillar with rust marks from a chain that was wrapped around it, and down the cistern in that room they found first century chains that matched the rust marks on the pillar.
On the pillar is written “The word of God is not chained.”
It was a moving experience for all of us to be there, to venerate the pillar where God’s word could not be chained, even if S. Paul himself was for a time.
It was a reminder of S. Paul’s faithfulness to the exhortation of Christ to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples, and, even more so, of God’s faithful promise to be with us always.
This year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity draws us to the story of S. Paul shipwrecked on Malta, and bringing the light of Christ to that island through difficult circumstances. It also reflects S. Paul’s faithfulness to the Great Commission, and God’s abiding promise of his presence with us.
For what is Christian Unity if not the fulfilment of the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ which draws all people to him?
In our lesson, S. Paul has purposed to go to Rome, that he might see the Emperor and proclaim the Gospel to him. He is fulfilling the commission of Christ which we heard in our gospel lesson. S. Paul travels in chains, appealing his case to the Emperor, and finds himself on a ship bound for Rome when it is struck by a storm.
The storm was preventing him from reaching the Emperor. S. Luke, who is narrating the story, admits that after several days of the severe storm, all hope was lost.
The Storm Today
It is not so difficult to see Christians today as being in a storm-tossed ship that is being prevented from reaching that destination of the proclamation of the Gospel.
The Church has almost always experienced division. We can even see in Holy Scripture times where the Church faced division, as S. Paul writes many of his epistles in response to controversy and division in the Church. We all endeavour to fulfil Christ’s Great Commission, but we cannot see clearly the way forward.
We may give up hope to a greater or lesser degree, as the problems and division may seem intractable to the point of completely hampering broader Christian witness to the world.
Disunity may hinder our ability to proclaim the Gospel, but S. Paul gives us a vision of one of the ways in which this division may be overcome and the gospel proclaimed.
Unburdening the Ship
Luke says that because of the storm all gave up hope, but that is not accurate. S. Paul never gave up hope. For S. Paul, we see his determination, with God’s help, never flagging or failing.
One of the first things they do in the storm is recognize their need to unburden themselves. They lighten the load of the ship of everything that can be spared. Later, they throw even the last of their food overboard as well.
Paul listens for the message of God and does not allow himself to be discouraged. Having lightened the load of the ship, he seeks to be an encourager of those who despair, proclaiming the power of God, and letting the sailors, soldiers, and prisoners alike know that God is with them and will not allow them to come to harm, even if the boat itself will be lost.
Ut Unum Sint
2000 years ago, S. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta. 1000 years ago, Christianity East and West were shipwrecked at the Great Schism. 500 years ago, the Christian West was shipwrecked at the Reformation.
100 years ago, the 1920 Lambeth Conference issued a call for renewed efforts at Christian reunion. “The causes of division lie deep in the past, and are by no means simple or wholly blameworthy,” wrote the bishops. “Yet none can doubt that self-will, ambition, and lack of charity among Christians have been principal factors in the mingled process, and that these, together with blindness to the sin of disunion, are still mainly responsible for the breaches of Christiandom.”
We must have the humility today to admit that we are still shipwrecked. Living in the sin of disunion is living in the storm-tossed ship, unable to see the way forward.
As Pope S. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint of 1995, the Church “acknowledges and confesses the weaknesses of her members, conscious that their sins are so many betrayals of and obstacles to the accomplishment of the Saviour’s plan.”
Pope S. John Paul II acknowledges the sin of disunion and the difficulty it causes the proclamation of the Gospel as a starting point.
Ut Unum Sint develops a theme of the healing of memories. Memories of hurts and wrongs. Memories of our choices in the storm. Choices made long ago, whose memories still linger. We are called to heal these memories.
Heal them through repentance and forgiveness, to relieve ourselves of these burdens which weigh us down and keep us in the storm, like the sailors seeking to lighten their ship. As we engage in the healing of memories, S. Paul’s actions remind us that we are not alone.
The grace of God has been promised to us. God offers the guidance of the Holy Spirit to illumine our sins and faults. He offers the grace of forgiveness of those sins, and the grace to ask forgiveness of those we have offended. He has promised to be with us, giving us signs and authority in his name.
Ut Unum Sint is the Latin title of Pope S. John Paul II’s encyclical.
In English it translates to ‘that they may be one’ the words of Christ’s prayer for unity in S. John’s Gospel.
As we conclude this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we must be wary of a tendency to see Christian Unity and ecumenism as nothing more than politeness.
It is not.
It is the fulfilment of Christ’s prayer that we may be one, and his commission to proclaim the Gospel to all people. This has been a week for us to seek the forgiveness of God for the sin of disunion. It is a time to remind ourselves of our need to turn to God for his grace to move us to repentance and to unity. In doing so, we show ourselves, like S. Paul, to be faithful to God’s call to proclaim the Gospel.
God is with us in this, and we are never alone.
When we turn to his grace, the people of God will not be shipwrecked, and the Word of God will never be chained.
 II S. Tm ii. 9
 S. Mk xvi. 15
 Acts xxvii. 20
 Acts xxvii. 18
 Acts xxvii. 38
 Acts xxvii. 22-25
 Lambeth 1920, Resolution 9.III
 Pope S. John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 3.
 S. Mk xvi. 17f; S. Mt xxviii. 20
 S. John xvii. 11