Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury walking with Pope Benedict XVI at Lambeth Palace in London in September 2010, during the pope’s four-day visit to Britain. CNS file photo

VATICAN CITY – Divisions among Christians, including on moral issues, weakens their credibility and their ability to respond to the spiritual yearning of many men and women today, Pope Benedict XVI said.

While “there is more that unites us than divides us” on the basic tenets of faith – belief in Christ, the son of God and saviour of humanity – “divisions remain and regard many practical and ethical questions, giving rise to confusion and mistrust, weakening our ability to transmit the saving word of Christ”, Pope Benedict said on Jan 18 at his weekly general audience.

With about 8,000 pilgrims and visitors gathered in the Vatican audience hall, Pope Benedict spoke about the importance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, held annually from Jan 18-25 around the world.

The lack of a united voice and witness poses a huge obstacle to the new evangelisation, “which would be more fruitful if all Christians proclaimed together the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and gave a common response to the spiritual thirst of our age”, the pope said.

During his talk, the pope did not mention specific practical or moral issues dividing Christians today, but he has defined as obstacles to unity practices such as the ordination of women and different approaches to moral issues such as homosexuality.

The Second Vatican Council placed the search for Christian unity “at the centre of the life and work of the Church”, the pope said, and it did so because it was Christ’s desire for His followers and because, practically speaking, it is essential for the full credibility of Christians.

“The lack of unity among Christians impedes a more effective proclamation of Christ because it puts our credibility in danger,” the pope said. “How can we give a convincing witness if we are divided?”

The key to Christian unity isn’t simply to have members of different denominations be nice to one another and work together occasionally, he stressed.

“It requires that we reinforce our faith in God, the God of Jesus Christ, who spoke to us and became one of us. It requires entering into a new life in Christ, who is our true and definitive victory.

“It means opening ourselves to each other, welcoming all the elements of unity that God has preserved for us and gives us constantly. It means feeling the urgency of witnessing to the men and women of our time the living God who has made himself known in Christ,” Pope Benedict said.

In a meeting with an ecumenical group of Catholic and Lutheran leaders from Finland on Jan 19, the pope said that differences among Christians regarding the “proper understanding of human nature and its dignity” had grown in recent years.

He urged Christians to come together to reach “a profound agreement” on anthropological questions so that society and policy makers could be guided in their decisions regarding the important areas of human behaviour, the role of the family and sexuality.

The pope told the group, an ecumenical delegation on their annual pilgrimage to Rome, that the common witness between Catholics and Lutherans should be reinforced to face the challenges posed by a world that “lacks true direction and longs to hear the message of salvation”.

An ecumenical delegation sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland comes to Rome each year on the Feast of St Henrik, Finland’s patron saint.

The pope said the annual visit was a testament to “the growth of communion among Christian traditions represented in your country” and that he hoped for deepening relations between Lutherans and Catholics in Finland. CNS

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