A Reflection for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
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 – over 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.
John XXIII and Vatican II
On January 25, 1959, 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 neighbor, 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.
A very important document of the Second Vatican Council was its Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), which 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.”
I discovered an interesting “Canadian” connection to the discussions that resulted in the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism. 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 Archbishop Flahiff’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 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. 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.
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.”
Is the ecumenical movement in crisis?
So much has been achieved in joint efforts for Christian unity over the past 50 years. Separated Christians no longer consider one another as strangers, competitors or even enemies, but as brothers and sisters. We have largely removed the former lack of understanding, misunderstanding, prejudice, and indifference; we pray together, together we give witness to our common faith; in many fields, we work together. We have experienced that “what unites us is much greater than what divides us.” Such a change was unthinkable at the turn of the twentieth century and those who wish to go back to those times seriously risk being forsaken not only by a good, warm, friendly spirit but also by the Holy Spirit.
The crisis of the ecumenical movement is paradoxically the result of its success. Ecumenism for many became obvious. But the closer we come to one another, the more painful is the perception that we are not yet in full communion. We are very impatient. We are hurt by what still separates us and hinders us from joining around the table of the Lord; we are increasingly dissatisfied with the ecumenical status quo; in this atmosphere, ecumenical frustration and sometimes even opposition develops. Paradoxically it is ecumenical progress that is also the cause for the ecumenical malaise!
As we move closer to Jesus Christ, in him we move nearer to one another. Therefore, it is not a question of Church political debates and compromises, nor of some kind of superficial union, but of a reciprocal spiritual exchange and a mutual enrichment. Ecumenism is a spiritual journey, in which the question is not about a way backwards but about a way forwards. Such unity is ultimately a gift of God’s Spirit and of his guidance. The “oikoumene” is neither a mere academic nor only a diplomatic matter; its soul is spiritual ecumenism. The practice of prayer is an indispensable means of sustaining the activities of common witness and dialogue as we progress along the path to Christian unity. All are invited to enter into the prayer of Jesus, who before his passion asked the Father that his disciples might be one, so that the world may believe (Jn 17:21).