The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an event that has happened in one form or another for over 100 years.
The dates (January 18-25) were chosen because the 18th celebrates the Confession of Peter and the 25th the Conversion of Paul.
The Confession of Peter is the occasion when Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’ and Peter said ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. According to Matthew’s Gospel, this was a world-changing moment. It was the moment when for the first time, with no prompting from Jesus himself, a human being recognised who he was. Jesus went on to say that Peter was aptly named ‘the Rock’, because the Church would be founded on him and his declaration of faith. In Catholic teaching, Peter was the first Pope, the foundation of the authority of the Church.
The Conversion of Paul is a well-known story. Saul (as he was then known) was the arch-enemy of the early Christian movement. While he was on the way to Damascus to seek out the Christians who had fled there, he was struck down on the road and the risen Christ appeared to him. He then became not only a follower of Jesus, but the most prominent missionary and the one whose interpretation of the meaning of Jesus became orthodox Christian teaching.
So Peter and Paul were in a sense the two founders of the Christian Church. Two very different characters! Peter was a rough, brash and very down-to-earth Galilean fisherman. Paul was a cultured Jew brought up in the cosmopolitan Roman city of Tarsus and educated in the Jewish Scriptures by one of the leading rabbis of the time. Peter was a family man, Paul was single. Peter was a close companion of Jesus throughout his ministry, one of the inner circle of the disciples. Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but had only heard about him. Peter stuck to his traditional Jewish ways and was slow to change. Paul had the zeal of a convert and a new, universal vision. When they met, they sometimes argued and fell out with each other. According to tradition, they both died a martyr’s death and are buried close to each other in Rome.
So there is something fitting about prayer for Christian unity gathering around the memory of these two very different people. It reminds us that there is room for all of us in the family into which Jesus invites us – the rough-handed worker and the smooth-handed student, the married and the single, the traditionalist and the innovator, the blunt speaker and the clever writer, the doer and the dreamer. We need each other and we belong together.
If this vision of the Church is to become reality, the joining together of different denominations is a trivial matter by comparison with the radical vision we need. Or am I being more of a Paul than a Peter?