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Prayer - visible sign and instrument of Christian unity

16 November 2004

By Ondrej Prostrednik (*)

The ecumenical movement needs visible signs of Christian unity, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is one of them. For churches in Slovakia, it is perhaps the most visible sign of what members of different churches in our country have in common.

In Slovakia, the Week of Prayer reflects many different aspects of cooperation between churches. For example, coordinated negotiation between churches and state institutions on different areas of church service to the public is vital in times of change. Since Slovakia gained its independence in 1993, our society is experiencing a dynamic process of development. As the social system is transformed and decentralized, representatives of churches’ charity organizations meet regularly around the table of the Ecumenical Council to discuss their priorities and their role in this process.

Another area is publication of joint public statements on different social, and in specific cases also political, issues. The Ecumenical Council of Churches' roundtable programme, which serves as an effective instrument of support for different types of projects implemented by churches, is also an important sign of cooperation. Church representatives take part in setting project priorities, and decisions about the distribution of funds are made by representatives of all the churches.

The Ecumenical Council's educational programme, designed to build the capacities of church workers, is yet another instrument for strengthening church unity. The growth of a new religiosity in our country is perceived by all churches as a challenge; the Ecumenical Council has designed a study programme which offers orientation and counseling on this question.

Such current ecumenical efforts are very often not visible to the wider public. The Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians is thus an important occasion to celebrate the fruits of our cooperation, to pray to God for more strength and courage to discover new opportunities for growing in our unity, and also to send out a strong signal to the wider public that God is blessing us with fruits of unity, and that this unity of Christians can grow.

"My peace I give to you"

The common task of churches is to "bring the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation, peace and justice into the society," said the chairman of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in the Slovak Republic, Prof. ThDr. Julius Filo, and the chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Slovakia, Prof. ThDr. Frantisek Tondra, in their joint invitation to the 2004 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Local activities, organized under the theme "My peace I give to you", culminated with a central ecumenical service in the Roman Catholic church in Banska Bystrica on 18 January, 2004.

During the service, prayers were said by representatives of Ecumenical Council member churches. The gathering was greeted by Jan Figel, designated member of the European Commission. Slovakian prime minister Mikulas Dzurinda also participated in the service, and the programme was broadcast live by Slovak TV. This year for the second time, an ecumenical youth service in the form of a prayer chain was organized by the Ecumenical Council's Commission for Youth, together with the Conference of Bishops in Slovakia's youth section, in order to give expression to growing ecumenical relations among young people in Slovakia.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been observed in this form since 1998, and has gradually developed into a prominent ecumenical event with top-level participation and good media coverage. At the same time, it serves as an important example to congregations and parishes, encouraging them to organize similar events at the grassroots level. Even though in some places, churches still hesitate to meet and pray together during the Week, all the important regional centres in Slovakia organize ecumenical events at this time.

Spiritual dimension

The Week of Prayer tradition gave Slovakian churches the idea of preparing a special ecumenical service on Slovakia’s accession to the European Union on 30 April, 2004. In organizing the service, the Ecumenical Council's intention was to give a spiritual dimension to the celebrations.

At the invitation of the two bishops and the chairman of the Slovak parliament, Pavol Hrusovsky, more than 1500 people attended the 30 April service at the historical Lutheran Church in Bratislava. Among them were Slovakia’s president Rudolf Schuster, prime minister Mikulas Dzurinda, the chairman of the Austrian parliament Andreas Kohl, the ambassador of the European Commission, Eric van der Linden, the former president of Slovakia, Michal Kovac, as well as the winner of the presidential elections, Ivan Gasparovic. Guests from churches abroad also attended the service, including the Lutheran bishop form Austria, Herwig Sturm, and a member of the church council of the Lutheran church in Württemberg, Ernst Ludwig Vatter.

At the service, the general bishop of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovakia, Julius Filo, highlighted God’s word, God’s grace, and knowledge as the experience of the fellowship with God, as three gifts. According to Filo, these gifts work "as an inner nourishment or root, needed for us to stand tall" in our personal or national life as we enter the pluralistic world of today’s Europe.

Slovak TV and radio broadcast the service live, and offered it to the European TV network as well as nationally. "Every community needs a spirit. Mere external interests are not enough to bind people together over the long run," said Bishop František Tondra, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Slovakia, in his homily; instead, it is God who breathes spirit into interpersonal and international relationships.

This gathering of members of parliament, government and diplomats assembled in the church to open the day of official festivities was probably unique - for a church gathering - in both its composition and number. The festivities continued with an extraordinary session of the parliament at 11:00 a.m. Greeting the session, Andreas Kohl said he had been deeply impressed by the ecumenical worship; for him, the words of Jaques Delors about giving a soul to Europe were fulfilled in this spiritual event.

Deeper reflection on unity

The Faith and Order Commission's invitation to the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Slovakia to prepare the theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2005 was accepted by the churches as a challenge to deepen their theological reflection on their unity. What is the foundation on which Christians today build their communities? Can dynamic growth of activities in different churches contribute to their mutual rapprochement, or will it only deepen their divisions? Asked by a group of theologians from different churches, these questions were the starting point for the preparation of the Week of Prayer material. The Slovak editorial group, made up of the members of the Ecumenical Council of Churches' theological commission, used the biblical text from 1 Corinthians 3 as the basis for their discussions, and chose as their theme: "Christ the one foundation of church".

When members of different churches in Slovakia meet to pray together during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, they also celebrate the level of unity already present among them. More and more fruits and small steps of better mutual understanding are visible in their relations. Therefore, prayer proves itself to be not only a sign but also an effective instrument of God among us. [1309 words]

Member churches of the Ecumenical Council:

Full members:

Evangelical Church of Augsburg Confession in Slovakia

Reformed Christian Church in Slovakia

Orthodox Church in Slovakia

United Methodist Church, Slovak District

Baptist Union in the Slovak Republic

Brethren Church in the Slovak Republic

Old Catholic Church in Slovakia

Czechoslovak Hussite Church in Slovakia

Observers:

Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Slovak Association

Apostolic Church in Slovakia

Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Slovakia

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(*) Ondrej Prostrednik is the general secretary of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Slovakia

More information on the Week of prayer, including resources, is available at

www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/faith/wop-index.html

Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.