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This article was published in the January 2002 issue of The Journal.

One as We are One

The Edmonton conference theme picked up the message of Pope John Paul II to interchurch families at York in 1982: ‘You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity. Express that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love. Together invite the Holy Spirit of love into your hearts and into your homes. He will help you to grow in trust and understanding.’ A number of distinguished ecumenists came to Edmonton to reflect on the theme and to share their experience with interchurch couples. We regret that all texts are abbreviated.

Brother Gilles Bourdeau, ofm is Director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, Montreal. His rich address (much shortened here) was based on the words of Jesus as recorded in John 17: 20-26.

With an awareness of your spiritual experience as ‘domestic churches’, I would like to meditate on some questions raised by the last few verses of Jesus’ benediction. Our experiences shed light on Jesus’ words and actions. His presence, his actions and his final words reveal the depth and meaning of our human and evangelical journey, our sincere intentions as well as our ecclesiastical tensions. I believe that the presence you as couples and families are called to welcome and understand is encountered here in Jesus’ final wishes for the presence, communion and mission of Christ and the Church in the world.

1. ‘He deigned to pray to his Father for us’

Francis of Assisi marvelled at this prayer of Jesus for himself and for his own, saying: ‘He deigned to pray to his Father for us’ (1 Rule 22:41). If there is one thing a Christian home must be aware of, it is the spiritual presence of Jesus praying in each person and in the community we are called to form. It is easy to understand Francis’ ecstatic admiration when he realizes that he and his contemporaries are already held in God’s heart and in Christ’s love and prayer. Daily prayer is simply becoming aware of this presence which gives birth to, accompanies and fulfills all Love in our loves. In the tension of welcoming Christ and his words, and our ongoing experience of conversion, a strong and profound conviction is forged: He is present today, he was present yesterday, he will be present tomorrow. He prayed for us, he is still praying for us.

2. Those who believe in Jesus ‘through their word’

Jesus is looking ahead to disciples and communities that will receive him by hearing about him through the witness of others. This is our experience. We receive our knowledge of Jesus through others. If we are able to confess that Jesus is Lord, we are also affirming that we have been born in faith through the community, a father and mother, sisters and brothers, authentic representatives of Christian life. Being born again is itself a sign that we receive and have access to God through Christ and in the Church.

Passing on the faith through the ministry of the word is very relevant to us, when we understand that our experience as couples and families is a special place to seek out God and test him. Here we learn more about his actions and his weakness, to know and love his face and heart. Baptized in water and fire, we understand that the experience of love – our own and that of others – gives God and gives to God. Words may reveal this, yet language will never say it completely. We are a sign and word of God in fear and trust.

The word is to be passed on, from one spouse to the other, from one to another within the family and domestic church. Those who love each other are in a ministry situation that calls for discernment and commitment. Passing on the faith in our mixed marriages may become a stumbling block, or it may become the cornerstone of marital communion. What we experience and what gives us life, how can we not share and pass on to others, not only between parents and children, but also among those around us? Especially when our Christian roots give us life in and through various and similar experiences of church.

3. ‘As we are one’: source and end of all loves

It is obvious that the unity among his disciples that Jesus prays for is infinitely more than concord and tolerance, getting along with each other or even unity in the faith. It is a unity and communion of beings and persons in the image of the unity and communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (17:22). How the divine persons are ‘one’ is a mystery that fascinates our intelligence, overwhelms and inspires it. To have an inkling of what it means, we must approach it from an existential perspective, with faith and simplicity, with the spiritual perception characteristic of those who live in intimate relationship with God.

Believers have always experienced the God of the Bible as a personal God. He creates and watches over creation, protects and preserves it, constantly at work. Because he is personal God cannot be in eternal solitude. Real people cannot exist without being in relationship with others. What makes us more and more human is growing into more and more perfect communion. The opposite, withdrawing into ourselves, leads to death. The absolute Person is absolute communion. Communion between persons is what ensures our unity. In God, the Persons in an eternal communion of love are ‘One’. Their single being, of which the Father is the source, is not divided up into Three. Each Person contains it and expresses it in relation with the other two in an absolutely unique manner. In God, there is absolute unity and absolute diversity.

Communion in God is their unity. Unity in God and of God is the source and end of all communion and all unity. The unity and love of the Father and the Son is what Jesus wants his followers to experience and in it to find a home. In every church, however humble – ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them’ – brotherly love is the fruit and expression of divine love and divine communion. Mutual knowledge and mutual acceptance in love are pathways and conditions that lead to intimacy with God. Fraternal communion continues and reveals Jesus’ presence in the world. If the Love of the Father and the Son, the Spirit, is given to us, it is so that every experience of communion, permanent or occasional, becomes a venue for knowing love and growing in love.

4. Tested in communion

The verb ‘love’ is used only in the final verses (23-24). Yet this is the core of all prayer, of Christian existence. It is understood only at the very end as one of the great works of God and of life. As Jesus sees it, we constantly grow in our knowledge and experience of love (17:26). Communion and love grow unceasingly. To be fulfilled in love is to enter ever more deeply into the love that has no end and which is a gift rather than the result of our efforts, more a grace-filled Pentecost than a demanding Passion. Communion and love are offered and given. After much effort and attention, they can only be received, as a gift from God, and welcomed with joy.

Christian life is contemplation in action, committing ourselves without looking for anything in return, in fraternal love and the eternal love of God. There is a discipline of love and unity for people and communities that have made life commitments. The communion which is the being and action of God calls for our free participation and our co-operation. Like Jesus, his witnesses teach that we have to sacrifice our own inclinations if we want to advance in reconciliation and love. All communion and all unity make demands on us. They bring both joy and suffering. This discipline frees in us the action of the Holy Spirit so that the new creation, clothed at baptism, can manifest itself more and more. There is no way to test this new reality taking shape within us, except our ability and our willingness to love God and our neighbour more and more unconditionally. Especially the ‘neighbour’ who has chosen us and with whom we have chosen to obey the commandment to love.

5. Witnesses of unity

‘So that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:21); that is the issue: being recognized, just as I am, as a human being. John’s words are bold; they lead us into a fullness that challenges all commentaries. This is the context in which he places the humble reality of brotherly, sisterly communion in all ‘little churches’. John does not seem very interested in church structures. His thinking is as fully ecclesial and as little ecclesiastical it could be. If small communities have become more meaningful today, it is not because they have some superior status because of the integrity of their lives or because they have a monopoly on sacrifice or humility. Communities – including all Christian homes – are simply places where we pick up the basin but also allow ourselves to be served.

John’s morality, his thinking about the Church and his concept of human beings are inseparable. God is not without Jesus, Jesus without God or the Church without them, or they without the Church. Proclaiming and living the gospel is about relationships, because God is love. In the early Church ‘...the whole group of believers were of one heart and soul … everything they owned was held in common’ (Acts 4:32-33). That is why great power marked the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:21). It is to this test of communion, this demand for unity and this witness that we are called by our baptism, as we live out the Good News in our homes.

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