In a world with more than 33,000 Christian denominations, it’s rare to see leaders of several of them gathered in one place to pray for unity.
(Franciscan Intellectual Tradition)
Yet that’s exactly what happened Jan. 20 at St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church in Scottsdale. Leaders of the Arizona Faith Network and members of local congregations gathered for a prayer service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an international Christian ecumenical event held annually since 1908.
The Arizona Faith Network, an interfaith organization whose mission is to “bring together people of faith, under the inspiration of God, as a bridge to understanding and action,” according to azfaithnetwork.org, organized the prayer event. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and Fr. Michael Diskin, diocesan vice-chancellor and AFN president, sat at the foot of the altar at St. Apkar along with other leaders during the evening of prayer.
Bishop Olmsted led those gathered in a series of prayer intentions, praying that the faithful would be of “one heart and mind.” Fr. Diskin, who also serves as director of the diocesan Office of Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs, led a series of prayers for reconciliation among the faithful, asking that God would “make us apostles of love wherever we go.”
The Rev. Sarah Stadler, pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Phoenix, shared a message focused on the baptism in Christ that Christians share, regardless of denomination. She also spoke following a vespers service focused on Christian unity Jan. 24 at St. Mary’s Basilica.
“Wherever we can break down walls and educate ourselves for the sake of the world and not us, let’s do that. Our unity is not dependent on our action,” Stadler said. “All of our ecumenical efforts are important … but our effort does not give us our unity. We are already united by God in Christ.”
Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Western Diocese called the service “inspiring, spiritually uplifting and empowering” and said it “reminds us all that we all are co-workers in God’s holy work.” The leaders of various denominations must be role models, he said, and “when church leaders and faith leaders are united in prayer, no doubt that same unity will be reflected in the life of our communities.”
Bishop Olmsted told The Catholic Sun that praying for unity among the baptized is “both Christ’s desire and our responsibility” and that the ecumenical gathering at St. Apkar was a good way to build relationships of trust and friendship. “In a world fractured by violence and mistrust, such ecumenical work is truly important,” the bishop noted.
Acknowledging that “much has been done to overcome historic animosity between various Christian traditions through respectful dialogue,” Fr. Diskin told The Catholic Sun that “the unity that Christ desires can only be achieved through the work of the Holy Spirit, and so ‘Spiritual Ecumenism’ must be the very soul of these efforts. For this reason, we join in prayer that the divisions among Christians that continue to exist will one day be healed.”
The ecumenical gathering featured prayers led by Bishop Steven Talmage of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Grand Canyon Synod; St. Apkar pastor Fr. Zacharia Saribekyan; AFN vice president Billie Fidlin of the United Methodist Church; the Rev. Dr. Bill Lyons, designated conference minister for the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ; and Mr. Gerrit Steenblick, Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints.
On the final day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Francis celebrated an ecumenical prayer service and asked forgiveness for sins against Christian unity Jan. 25.