This year, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25) the Epiphany passage was chosen, in particular the following verse: ” We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him” (Mt 2:2). We know that – together with the shepherds – the “magi” (in Greek μάγοι, often translated as “wise men” or “men who studied the stars”) were the first ones who, according to the Gospels, came to adore the child Jesus in whom they recognised a very important person, so much so that they wanted to adore him as God. Perhaps, however, we are not aware that these very people, both shepherds and magi, were among those whom the Israelites of that time considered the most distant and the least appropriate ones to encounter God. They were excluded from the temple, from the rites considered sacred, from possible communion with God. Yet, it seems that they were the ones who were most open to God’s revelation. Indeed, it was thanks to them that the Lord manifested himself to the world, revealed himself and made himself known to others.
Regardless of who these magi might be, one thing is quite certain: they were foreigners. They were not part of the People of Israel and they did not share their religion. In this sense, they would have been considered as pagans by the Jews of Jesus’ time. Despite this, as the story of Peter and Cornelius testifies (cf. Acts 10), many pagans also received the Holy Spirit, who was able to make known to them the Son of God and through him God the Father. The magi and many other pagans opened their hearts to the love that the Holy Spirit gives (cf. Rom 5:5).
And how is it that these were more open to the triune God than the scribes and Pharisees who were considered the best of the chosen people? Perhaps because they were freer, not bound by the rules and prescriptions imposed by the religion of the people of Israel? Yes, the Holy Spirit can only be received by free people, both from the people of Israel and from others. Only free people can recognise the Son of the Father, both in the little child Jesus, and in the man Jesus during his passion and at the moment of his death. Indeed, in this moment according to the gospel of Mark it was only a Roman centurion, a foreigner and a pagan, who recognised him as the Son of God (cf. Mk 15:39).
This certainly does not mean that one has to be a shepherd or a magius or a pagan or a foreigner in order to be open to the Holy Spirit. However, one condition seems quite clear: one needs freedom from rules, from prescriptions, and above all from oneself, from one’s own interests. In such a freedom, the Virgin Mary was able to receive the Spirit and the Word that became incarnate in her. Later, He Himself, Jesus Christ, came to set us free, as St Paul emphasises (cf. Gal 5:1). Thanks to this freedom, after Christ’s death and resurrection, the same Spirit was able to unite the dispersed disciples and from them form his Body, the Church. From the beginning it was a Church in which there was much diversity and many tensions but united, thanks to the openness of its members to the Holy Spirit. From the beginning, Christians sought to live in communion by opening themselves to the love they had received, which made them free and made them members of the communion of faith.
Reflecting on this passage form the Gospel of Matthew, we can use it to through some light on relations between Christians throughout history and particularly in recent years. I will limit myself to relations with the non-Catholic Churches of the Christian East, especially the Byzantine Churches – in fact, they are the ones I know best and with whom I have most relations. We believe that these Churches have, like the Catholic Church, an apostolic succession and valid sacraments. With them, at least from the Catholic point of view, there are no real dogmatic obstacles to full communion, but rather the difficulty of understanding each other because of the long centuries each has lived in separation from the other. Why, then, are we unable to truly meet and celebrate the Eucharist together? What is it that really divides us? But more than answering this, I would like to see the steps that have been taken to overcome this division, and those that are still ahead of us.
Thanks be to God, we have taken many steps towards each other, especially following the openness on the Catholic side after Vatican II, but also the desire for encounter on the part of the Orthodox Churches, although not all equally. There have been many meetings at all levels, many gestures of welcome and also requests for forgiveness, many opportunities to get to know each other better. However, in recent years, the initial fervour seems to have cooled, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other. In addition, new difficulties have recently arisen, especially concerning relations between the Byzantine Orthodox Churches. While it is true that even up to now there have been tensions between them, they have, nevertheless, preserved the basic communion expressed in the Eucharistic communion and beyond. In recent years, however, this communion has been interrupted between some Orthodox Churches and tensions seem to be growing. Unfortunately, this has a negative impact on relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.
What is the way to overcome divisions? I do not want to pretend to have an answer, even though I believe that it is quite clear and is probably the same as always: openness to the Holy Spirit who fills us with love, who frees us from ourselves so that we can meet and welcome the other. In a certain sense, even the magi can teach us something in this sense: open your heart, make a sincere and free search, let yourself be guided, recognise the other person and give trust. All this opens the way to encounter, encourages mutual understanding, helps to overcome prejudices and rediscover communion between people.
This, however, also means to “relativise” – in the good sense of the word – one’s own doctrines, rules and structures, in order to be able to meet the other, to be able to know and appreciate him or her, and thus also come to know oneself better. “Relativising” here means nothing other than giving precedence to “relationship”, to the love that the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts and who alone can give meaning to teachings, prescriptions and structures. In fact, if primacy is given to relationships, everything else can also help in the journey towards full communion, as the Lord himself prays: “that they may be one” (Jn 17:22). Otherwise, teachings and norms, however good they may be in themselves, risk leading to tensions and even division.
In the current situation, I see no other way but to continue in commitment and fidelity to the relations already undertaken, both at an institutional and personal level. But since official relations in some cases seem to be more difficult, it would be all the more important to multiply and deepen personal ones. In this sense I am often helped by the testimony of Fr Tomáš Špidlík, who liked to say that he did not meet the “Orthodox” but he met “friends” – and he had many, with whom he had frequent relations. My own experience in this respect is also good albeit small: I have experienced several times how a free relationship without interest opened doors, overcame prejudices on both sides and allowed mutual acquaintance, respect, and sometimes even lasting friendship. In some cases, such a personal relationship has even opened some doors at the official level.
Let us then ask God the Father to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, so that he can free us from ourselves and unite us with his Son in the communion of the Church, the Body of Christ. Amen.