The pope focused on ecumenism at his weekly general audience Jan. 18, the first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Departing from his prepared text, the pope also announced that his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), would be released Jan. 25, the closing day of the week of prayer.
Although the encyclical is not specifically tied to the theme of ecumenism, he said, "the foundation is ecumenical because God's love and our love is the condition for unity among Christians and for peace in the world."
In his prepared text and in extemporaneous remarks, Pope Benedict said Christians must pray and work for unity, but they also must give thanks to God for the progress already achieved in bringing Christians closer together.
While not directly related, the pope's focus on the celebration of ecumenical progress was reflected in a special performance at the beginning and end of the audience, when jugglers and acrobats from four different circuses shared the pope's stage in the Vatican audience hall.
In his talk, Pope Benedict said much hard work has led to a rediscovery of brotherhood among different Christians, to strong bonds of solidarity among them, and to a growth in unity and in agreement about matters of faith, although "certainly in an uneven way in the various dialogues" with different churches and communities.
Pope Benedict said the prayer week is an occasion for Christians "to reflect on the drama of the division of the Christian community and together to ask Jesus 'that all would be one so that the world might believe.'"
"Public and private prayers, the conversion of hearts and holiness of life" must be the centerpiece of efforts to restore Christian unity, he said, because the key problem is "obedience to the Gospel in order to do the will of God with his necessary and effective help."
The faith that Christians share, despite their divisions, is what gives them the possibility of praying together, he said.
"Communion in Christ supports the whole ecumenical movement and is the reason for seeking the unity of all Christians in the church of God," he said. "This is what distinguishes the ecumenical movement from every other initiative of dialogue and relationship with other religions and ideologies."
Pope Benedict said that, like Pope John Paul II "who did so much and suffered so much for the ecumenical questions," he would celebrate the end of the week of prayer Jan. 25 at Rome's Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
"I will pray with our Orthodox and Protestant brothers and sisters and thank God for all he has given us and pray that he will guide us on the path to unity," the pope said. "We continue to pray because we are aware that the holy cause of the re-establishment of Christian unity is beyond our poor human efforts and that definitive unity is a gift of God."
- Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops