For the first time, a general secretary of the World Council of Churches has taken part with a pope in a Rome service to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which ended last week, recalling the centenary of this initiative born in the United States in 1908.
"I want to assure you of our commitment to continue our co-operation in the best possible way," said WCC general secretary the Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya, at the service at the ancient basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, where, according to tradition, the bones are kept of the apostle, who was executed nearby by the rulers of ancient Rome.
Underlining that "the world needs a church that is one and united in its witness," Kobia referred to the unrest in his home country which has led to more than 800 deaths. "The common witness of the churches for reconciliation and healing of the nation is crucial for peace in Kenya," the WCC general secretary stated.
The Geneva-based WCC has 347 mainly Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox churches in its membership. Although the Catholic Church does not belong to the WCC, it has members on some of its bodies, including the Commission on Faith and Order.
The service gathered about thirty leaders of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches and marked the conclusion of the 18-25 January week of prayer for unity described by the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen as a "week-long ecumenical festival".
Allen pointed not only to the concluding service attended by Pope Benedict and Kobia but also to the award on 24 January of the Paul Wattson Christian Unity Award to the WCC's Commission on Faith and Order and the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The two bodies have since 1968 jointly prepared the Week of Prayer.
The award takes its name from one of the initiators of what was then called the "Octave of Prayer for Church Unity" held for the first time in January 1908 in Graymoor, New York, by the Society of the Atonement.
The official Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano also carried an interview with Kobia, and articles penned by theologians of various denominations.
Benedict referred several times to Christian unity in his speeches and messages during the week. At the service on 25 January he thanked Kobia and the other ecumenical representatives for their presence at the event. "Your participation to this prayer is an evident expression of the links which unite us in Christ," the pontiff stated.
Christians, said the Pope, must pray "indefatigably" for God to obtain the "gift" of their full unity.
Before going to the Basilica of St Paul, Kobia met leaders of Italy's Protestant churches, who account for a small minority in predominantly Catholic Italy.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]