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The Decree on Ecumenism: 50 Years Later part 1

January 19, 2015
SVC
On January 17, 2015, the Archdiocese of Vancouver sponsored a Symposium on Christian Unity, titled Have We Answered the Call?, at St. Francis Xavier Church, in honour of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, of Salt + Light Catholic Media Foundation, gave the keynote address titled The Decree on Ecumenism: 50 Years Later. In part 1 of his address, Fr. Rosica delves into the background of Ecumenism and the Catholic Church, particularly in the context of St. John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Read part 1 the full text of Fr. Rosica's address below:
Part I
Introduction and Background
The ecumenical movement, born in the twentieth century is the means by which the churches which form the house “oikos” of God, seek to live and witness before all peoples the wonders God has worked among us, especially through the crucified and risen Christ and his life-giving Spirit. We cannot forget the historical background of that century, which began with a belief in progress and turned out to be one of the darkest and bloodiest centuries in the history of humankind, with two world wars, many local wars, civil wars and ethnic conflicts, two humanity-despising totalitarian systems, concentration camps and gulags, genocides, expulsions and waves of refugees. Never before had so many people violently lost their lives in one single century. But out of the utter despair of those years, a bright light shattered the darkness: the ecumenical movement. After centuries of Christian fragmentation, a counter movement quietly began as churches became painfully aware that such a situation contradicted Jesus Christ’s will, and was a sin and a scandal. The separation of the Churches – 1500 years ago with the Ancient Oriental Churches, 1000 years ago with the Orthodox Churches, and almost 500 years ago with reformed Christianity, with a tendency to still new divisions – had seriously prejudiced the credibility of the Christian message.
Nor can we forget that this new ecumenical awareness developed in connection with the missionary movement. The birth of the ecumenical movement finds its roots in the 1910 World Missionary Conference of Edinburgh. The division of the Churches was recognized as a serious obstacle to world mission. A second impulse came from the war experiences and the national-socialist terror. In the concentration camps, courageous Christians from different Churches discovered that in their resistance against a new pagan totalitarian reign of evil, they had much more in common than what divided them. Thus, the ecumenical movement emerged fully in the second half of the 20th century. The founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948 in Amsterdam was an important milestone on the ecumenical way.
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John XXIII and Vatican II
Fifty-six years ago January 25, St. John XXIII announced an ecumenical council that would bring together the bishops of the Catholic Church as the Church’s most important deliberative body. In a series of meetings from 1962 to 1965 later to be known as the Second Vatican Council – the bishops of the world sought to update and renew the life of the Catholic Church. A second, related goal of the Council was “the restoration of unity among all Christians”. We must never forget that one of the two goals of the Council was Christian unity: ecumenism.
Having served early on in his career as Apostolic Visitor and later Delegate to Bulgaria where there were Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but few Roman Catholics, Angelo Roncalli, who would become John XXIII, understood diversity of religion and diversity of culture. In 1934 he was transferred to Greece and Turkey as Apostolic Nuncio to those predominantly Orthodox and Islamic nations. Because of his sincere humility and his desire to build relationships and mutual understanding, he won the respect and affection of many people, especially non-Catholics. He was on the cutting edge of what would become known among Catholics as the ecumenical movement. He learned the importance of dialogue and love of neighbour, and became convinced that these were the only authentic paths to Christian unity, world peace and mutual prosperity.
The “Good Pope” understood that as each church renews its fidelity to the gospel, it grows closer to the others. The presence of 169 “fraternal” observers from other churches and ecclesial communities at the Second Vatican Council was a sign of John XXIII’s commitment to Christian unity and to the inseparable link between the Council’s desire for Catholic renewal and for ecumenical engagement. With the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church formally joined the ecumenical movement. The participation of the Roman Catholic Church in this movement is irrevocable.
This past November 21 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio. The Council Fathers approved almost unanimously the Decree: 2,137 voted in favour, only 11 against. Such a final vote revealed the positive degree to which the Episcopal conscience had evolved and matured since the 78-year old former Patriarch of Venice, only three months Bishop of Rome and believed to be merely “a transitional pope” announced three years earlier an Ecumenical Council.
The Decree on Ecumenism received an overwhelming majority vote despite having previously been the object of many heated and considerable debates. In view of the strong language of previous centuries against schism and heresy, it is not surprising that the decree was hotly debated, with many unwilling to break radically from the traditional language. In the end, however, the decree showed much generosity. It accepts that Catholics must take their share of blame for the divisions among Christians and that the living cannot be blamed for the sins of their ancestors. Other Christians are spoken of as "brothers and sisters," and the unity that already exists is emphasized. The decree recognizes however, that obstacles remain to full communion and it urges Catholics to do their best to overcome them. The opening paragraph of the Council’s Decree states:
 “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves … as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”
In doing research for this address, I discovered an interesting “Canadian” connection to the discussions that resulted in UR. One of the Fathers of Vatican II was then Canadian Archbishop George Flahiff, CSB, former Superior General of the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers) and Archbishop of Winnipeg.
Archbishop Flahiff attended every session of Vatican II and spoke only once to the full assembly of bishops gathered in Council. His intervention on October 2, 1964, addressed a draft document or schema, which led to Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism that would be promulgated by Pope Paul VI a little over two months later on November 21, 1964.
Two points of Archbishop Flahiff’s speech stand out in particular, since they came to be included, almost verbatim, in the final draft of the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism. First, Flahiff lamented the many divisions between Christian ecclesial communities and polarization within the Catholic Church itself. Flahiff recognized these realities as a counter-sign to God’s kingdom. He told the assembled bishops at Vatican II that “schisms can remind the Church that she is not yet as holy as she should be and not yet perfectly obedient to her vocation to be catholic.” Second, on a more positive note, Flahiff highlighted the vital role of the Holy Spirit in ecumenical activities: “The Spirit of God himself brings forth the varied fruit he wishes and leads all Christians to greater fidelity to the will of God.”
We can certainly sense the impact of George Falhiff’s words in UR #4. On inter-Christian and intra-Catholic divisions, the decree states:
 “For although the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace, yet its members fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should, so that the radiance of the Church’s image is less clear in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, and the growth of God’s kingdom is delayed… The divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her, in those of her sons and daughters who, though attached to her by Baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her.”
 The same paragraph of UR speaks in this way of the work of the Holy Spirit in fostering Christian unity:
“Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.”
UR clearly marked the opening of a new way of doing ecumenism in the Catholic Church, entering officially into the wider ecumenical movement. The conciliar decree had three parts: Part 1 outlines the Catholic principles which are still very important for Catholics today. Part 2 addresses the practice of ecumenism, the dialogue of truth and the dialogue of love, with spiritual ecumenism as the basis or the soul of all ecumenical engagement. Part 3 examines the two main splits in the Church, between East and West in the 11th century and within the Western Church in the 16th century and the different ways of resolving these problems.
FrancisEcumenism
The Decree on Ecumenism, like any other conciliar decree or statement, never tried to address all of our present concerns regarding Christian life or Christian teaching. The documents of Vatican II reflected on Church life preceding the Council, and presented us with a framework upon which the future could be built. We must never forget that the teachings of a particular Council do not automatically become part of the life of the universal Church merely because the hierarchy of the Church has officially promulgated such documents. In this way, the Decree on Ecumenism was never a handbook of ecumenical theology nor an encyclopedia of Christian divisions. It is, more than anything, a pastoral statement, a charter for a movement and not the dogmatic decree of a static position frozen in time.
The very soul of the ecumenical movement is an ongoing conversion and a search for reconciliation among all Christians. This search is primarily a spiritual task involving the seeking of truth as we try to follow more closely the One who is the Way the Truth and the Life.
Over the past fifty years, ecumenism and the ecumenical movement have become commonplace for most Christians. While ecumenism hasn’t yet achieved full reunion, it’s still among the most visible, powerful, successful Christian movements of the late 20th century. Church leaders who promote the re-establishment of unity among all Christians described their efforts as “ecumenical.” However activity for the promotion of unity between Christians – all of whom belong to one family of faith – is to be distinguished from interfaith activities, which aim to foster understanding between Christianity and the other religions.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has engaged in official dialogues at the international level with the Orthodox Churches of Byzantine Tradition, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Methodist Council, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Baptist World Alliance, the Christian Church – Disciples of Christ, the Mennonites, the Pentecostal Churches, and the World Evangelical Alliance.
In Canada, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Christian Unity, Religious Relations with the Jews, and Interfaith Dialogue supports dialogues with the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Lutheran Church-Canada, the United Church of Canada, the Polish National Catholic Church and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The Conference of Bishops participates as a full member of the Canadian Council of Churches.
These dialogues converge in the fact that they revolve around the concept of communio as their key concept. This convergence in the concept of communio corresponds to the vision of the Second Vatican Council. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 1985 stated that the communio-ecclesiology is the “central and basic idea of the Council documents”.
Today the ecumenical question can no longer be one directed only to theologians and officeholders of the different churches. The unity of Christians must be more effectively introduced to the entire people of God in a visible and tangible way. As long as Christians remain divided, ignorant of the need for unity so too will their proclamation go unnoticed or even not understood in the world today. In a world where unbelief is a rapidly growing phenomenon, Christians must continually ask themselves if they are truly working to make God’s purpose known on earth so that the world will recognize Jesus as the true Lord and Savior of the “oikoumene.”
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CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo
CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano
CNS photo/courtesy of Archbishop Loris Capovilla

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