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How Africa's Suffering May Lead to Christian Unity

Interview With Father Donald Bolen

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 19, 2007 (Zenit) - In 2004, Father Donald Bolen returned from a visit to South Africa as a Vatican observer, overwhelmed by what he saw.

It was that experience that gave rise to this year's theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today.

This is a recent interview Father Bolen, a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, gave to Vatican Radio.

Q: This year the week of prayer is inspired by the experience of the South African Christian communities of the Umlazi region, overwhelmed by enormous suffering. Where did this idea come from?

Father Bolen: Each year, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches alternate in requesting a particular country or region to prepare a first draft of the week of prayer materials.

For the 2007 texts, it was the World Council's turn to organize the texts. But as it happens, when the international commission met -- in September 2004 -- to prepare the 2006 texts, I had just returned from a visit to South Africa. I was there as the Vatican's observer at a Methodist assembly, but while there, I had the opportunity to visit several townships and informal settlements near Johannesburg.

I visited townships where half of the population was HIV-positive, and where the poverty was beyond anything I had ever encountered. But I also attended a confirmation celebration there which was incredible; the singing was amazing, the spirit of joy and celebration was very moving.

And I had the opportunity to visit numerous church projects, including schools, hospices, even a care center for children born HIV-positive -- some of these were Catholic, some Anglican, some Methodist -- and here, one could see church communities courageously seeking to respond to the needs of people living in the townships.

These were incredibly inspiring. It was immediately following that trip that we had our international planning meeting for the week of prayer, and over the course of a couple of meals, I spoke about my experience there. My World Council of Churches colleagues then got the idea that they would find a community in the townships of South Africa to prepare the week of prayer materials for 2007.

Q: The texts which were prepared initially by a group of the region, were then submitted to an international group responsible for the preparation of the final texts. How was this done? How were you able to make this initial situation helpful for each country throughout the world, where the realities can be diametrically opposed?

Father Bolen: Once the texts have been prepared for international distribution, they are sent out to Catholic episcopal conferences worldwide, as well as to all of the member churches of the [World Council of Churches]. In each local context, we invite Christians to work ecumenically in once again adapting the texts for their particular local context. Sometimes the original material is not seen as appropriate in a particular local context. It is my hope that something of the South African origins of this material still shines through.

Q: This year's texts reflect the concerns and experience of a people overwhelmed by an enormous suffering. This year two intentions emerge: the search for Christian unity and the search for a Christian response to human suffering. Is this a novelty in relation to previous years?

Father Bolen: At the international meeting where we worked on the texts, we were joined by a representative of the local group from the township of Umlazi, near Durban, an Anglican priest named Father Thami Shange.

In fact he did not so much bring us texts as he came to tell us stories from Umlazi, and from those stories, much of the material was prepared. Because of the daily crises facing the people of Umlazi, the focus of the churches, ecumenically, is joining together to respond to the suffering of their people.

It is self-evident. On the other hand, the work of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and that of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, is centered on the task of addressing the differences which keep Christians divided, and trying to resolve those differences through dialogue and through prayer.

We also encourage cooperation among Christians in the work of social justice, but that is not the core of our work. So at the international meeting, these two different perspectives had to come into dialogue with each other. When we talked about these two tasks -- working for Christian unity, and working together -- ecumenically -- in responding to human suffering, we gained a better realization of the extent to which those two tasks were intrinsically related.

That's what we try to reflect upon in the introduction to this year's materials.

Q: This week of unity is prepared jointly by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, a relationship that has lasted 40 years. To what extent is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity a key moment of this cooperation?

Father Bolen: Yes, for 40 years we have collaborated in the preparation of texts for the week of prayer, and working together in this regard is of great importance. Perhaps the most valuable fruit of this cooperation is that it offers a tangible encouragement to Christian communities to gather ecumenically in diverse settings the world over, to pray: to pray for their common needs, and to pray for the unity that Christ wills for us.

When we stand together before Christ in prayer, when we are converted more and more to Christ, we come closer to each other as well. In those situations, we come to see more clearly that it is the Holy Spirit which is at work leading us on our ecumenical journey.

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