The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC) held an online Ecumenical Prayer for Christian Unity and for the Future of Europe on Friday 21 May 2021 under the theme “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit”. The event, hosted by Ms Patrizia Toia, Member of the European Parliament, was an occasion to pray and reflect on the European values of peace and justice, and the role of the European Churches – especially amid the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The prayer was led by the Presidents of COMECE and CEC, His Eminence Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich and Reverend Christian Krieger, who highlighted the importance of unity in challenging times. They prayed together to overcome divisions and foster reconciliation across Europe. The participants emphasised the significance of the Charta Œcumenica – Guidelines for the Growing Cooperation among Churches in Europe on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, affirming the role of this landmark document in developing fellowship among European Churches. The event featured a special message from His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, which reads as follows:
Your Excellencies, Ms Patrizia Toia, Members of the European Parliament, Reverend clergy, Ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour and privilege to have been granted the opportunity to address this ecumenical, virtual prayer at the European Parliament, hosted by Parliamentarian Patrizia Toia and organised by the Conference of European Churches, jointly with the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe.
While the Orthodox Church has just celebrated Holy Pascha, Easter, (almost three weeks ago), most of the rest of the Christian world is preparing for the great feast of Pentecost, when believers worldwide typically gather to commonly pray for Christian unity. Unfortunately, like last year, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to keep believers away from our places of worship. So, unlike the Apostles, we will be unable to join together physically in one place (Acts 2:1), but, thanks to technology, we can still manifest our unity and reinforce our centuries-old common bonds founded on the Christian Gospel.
For us, Europe is a great experiment of solidarity and peace, a project of freedom and justice. In this sense, the European Union is not a “Kopfgeburt”, that is, a pure product of the mind, but rather embodies high human ideals and, we could say, an idealism. Europe has an ethical and spiritual foundation and orientation. It is rooted in a long tradition of values and struggles for human dignity. One of these roots is unquestionably Christianity. We are convinced that it is impossible to understand and access our common European identity without reference to its Christian origins.
In this perspective, we are sceptical about the characterisation of contemporary Europe as “post-Christian.” Europe’s secularised present cannot be separated from its Christian past. Any retreat of the Christian consciousness in Europe ultimately has a negative impact on its identity. Fears are raised that in a wholly secularised European society, humanitarian values would not survive. As Pope Benedict XVI had clearly observed, this total secularisation, which was shaped in the West, “is completely foreign” to the non-European cultures. They are convinced that “a world without God does not have any future.”
Our image of ourselves, of our origin and destination, of our body and soul, of our place in the world and our happiness, determines our stance in life. The ways we perceive and treat a human being are closely interrelated. Christian faith is an inexhaustible source of crucial truths for human beings and the world, for our relation to God, to ourselves, to other people and creation, for our freedom, for the meaning of life and the final destination of all. The Church offers help and truth; it orients the human being towards eternity and does not allow it to be reduced to a sheer living being. The Christian ideal regarding humanity surpasses the level of all humanisms. The way of life, as it was revealed by Christ and as it was followed by all those who responded to His call, represents an “ethos of freedom,” which exceeds human measure.
The pericope of the Gospel according to John the Theologian (15:1-17), which we just heard, describes precisely that ethos. The main motive is the image of the vine and branches, also known from the Old Testament. Christ characterises Himself as the “vine” and His disciples as the “branches.” “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). The Lord accentuates the significance of being in communion with Him, in a union, which is so close, just as the connection between the vine and the branches. Characteristic is the use of the term “remaining,” of staying, of the unceasing relation and mutual perichoresis, of the remaining of the disciples “in Him” and He “in them” (Jn 15:4).
This salvific relationship is a gift of Christ towards the human being. The initiative belongs to the Lord: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16). We freely accept the invitation, and our life becomes a challenge to apply Christ’s commandments. The great commandment is love, ἀγάπη. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). The criterion and measure of this love is sacrifice for the others: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).
Life in Christ is a dynamic event; it has perspective and growth, for which the Saviour again takes care of. The observance of the divine commandments and fruition in love make the disciples “friends” of Christ. “You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants” (Jn 15:14-15). Obedience to Christ and love are freedom and joy in freedom. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11).
The life of the faithful consists of faith in Christ, who is the source of life, and love for our fellow human being. Christ invites us to witness, in word and deed, the unbroken unity of love towards God and the love of one’s neighbour, namely to implement the two commandments, on which “all the Law and the Prophets” hang (Mt 22:40). The message of the discussed Scriptural passage from John is that we are not saved by our own efforts and strength. This fact that we need God is not our incapacity, but our exalted capacity, our true perfection.
Theology treats this pericope as an ecclesiological text. The Church is the place and the way of our “common salvation” (Jude 3) and of our “common freedom,” the foremost area of love. Since the beginning, Christianity always existed as community. Our venerable predecessor John Chrysostom emphasises that the incarnate Word of God “took upon Himself the flesh of the Church.” Interpreting Chrysostom, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon stresses that “the world will not be saved through the Church’s help, but rather, through becoming Church. If Christ is the only Saviour of the world, this is so because He is the Church.” To be Christian means to belong to the communion of the Church, having freely accepted the call of Christ.
At no point did Christ compel anyone to follow Him; never did He impose the faith upon us. On this matter, we hear the reproach of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor before Christ: “Instead of taking possession of human beings’ freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened their soul for ever with the sufferings of this freedom. Thou didst desire their free love that they should follow Thee freely.” The Christian faith is trust in a God, who leaves the choice and the decision to humankind, in a charitable Lord, who seeks and expects from us “faith given freely, that is faith as freedom.” It is no coincidence that the ever-memorable Fr. Alexander Schmemann states that it is incorrect to say that there is freedom “in the Church,” as if Church and freedom are two distinct entities, since “the very Church isfreedom, and only the Church is freedom.”
Freedom is found at the centre of the Theology of New Testament. Even though the term ἐλευθερία is used primarily by the Apostle Paul, it is incorrect to be characterised as a Pauline notion. The Johannine texts significantly enrich Paul’s opinions, with a singular emphasis in truth as freedom and in freedom as the truth, which is Christ. “If ye abide in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:31-32). In this sense, the Scriptural passage of our meditation is a hymn to freedom in Christ.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Christian faith as “inner freedom” inspires and strengthens our common struggle for external freedom in the world and provides support even when it appears to be at an impasse. Faith is a capacity to approach the earthly reality rightly; it does not neglect the earth for the sake of heaven, the present for the sake of the future. Our Churches must make effective use of their spiritual heritage and experience, of their anthropological knowledge and their philanthropic traditions in our rapidly changing world.
This year, we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Charta Œcumenica. This vital document marks an achievement in the field of the rapprochement of the European Churches, and it manifests their strong wish and will to proceed on the way to visible unity. “We belong together in Christ… In order to deepen Ecumenical fellowship, endeavours to reach a consensus in faith must be continued at all costs. Only in this way can church communion be given a theological foundation. There is no alternative to dialogue,” is emphatically proclaimed in the Charta Œcumenica.
The commitment of our churches to unity equally promotes European integration. According to the Charta Œcumenica, “the churches support an integration of the European continent. Without common values, unity cannot endure. We are convinced that the spiritual heritage of Christianity constitutes an empowering source of inspiration and enrichment for Europeans.” Christian principles are also an impetus for openness toward other religions, for the protection of creation’s integrity, for human rights, for social justice, and others.
We must continue our common path in Europe. Our greatest hope is Jesus Christ, “the Lord of the One Church,” in which, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).In this spirit of Pentecost, when our Savior “sent the Holy Spirit to His Apostles and Disciples, thus illuminating them, and through them the whole universe,” we continue, through a courageous ecumenism, although without theological minimalism, to show visible signs of our common Christian consciousness, which will also set the example for how European solidarity can be strengthened and reinforced, based on its Christian roots, thus leading to a better Europe and a better world for all.