An individual's last words usually represent the deepest feelings, hopes and dreams for those being left behind. The prayer of Jesus we heard today is part of his farewell at the Last Supper and represents an emotional appeal for unity among his disciples. Perhaps he envisioned that there would arise conflicts and differences of opinion as his followers brought his message to the world, and he wouldn’t there physically to offer advice. In fact, soon after, the Church in Jerusalem did have some concerns and questions when Paul began his missionary journeys among the Gentiles, those outside the Jewish faith and culture. For instance, how much of the Hebrew religious practice would they have to embrace as members of the "new way" in order to be accepted by those who had previously found comfort and hope in the tradition given them through Moses? What was important, and what was not? Where could the two sides meet, one without giving up too much of what they treasured; the other, without being discouraged by demands foreign to their culture? How would the message of Jesus overcome such differences and make unity possible?
These are issues with which the Church still struggles.
For example, the talks among various branches of Christianity revolve about what issues are fundamental to faith and which differences developed because of misunderstandings, concerns for authority and power, or were influenced by political realities.
While there is a longing for unity, it must not be confused with uniformity. Nor can differences always be associated with better or worse, right or wrong. For example, apples are different from oranges, yet both are fruits. Is one a better fruit than the other? Personal preference may make that judgment, but in and of themselves they are only different.
As we ponder Jesus' prayer today, may we make these words of Pope St. John XXIII, and then borrowed by the Second Vatican Council in its document on The Church in the Modern World our own motto:
“For the bonds which unite the faithful
are mightier than anything which divides them.
Hence, let there be Unity in what is necessary,
Freedom in what is unsettled,
And charity in any case." (# 92)