More than 30 years ago, when the quest for Christian unity was given a high priority by the Second Vatican Council, it is unlikely that the council fathers had any particular outcome in mind. At that time, they spoke of the restoration of unity, whereas in prior decades Roman Catholics used words like return, even submission. It was hoped then that an organic unity would be forthcoming. Trusting in the Holy Spirit, the church moved into high gear to engage other Christian communities in dialogue. With better information and better education on the nature of these other churches, the glacial climate that had enveloped Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics for centuries began to warm. Exchanges of ideas, visits and personal cordiality at the highest and lowest levels brought about a new atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation among Christians. As an outcome, that is a remarkable change that is now a solid reality after centuries of hostility and suspicion. Pope John Paul II characterized this as brotherhood rediscovered.
This rediscovery has energized the ecumenical dialogue and it has enhanced ecumenical cooperation. It has also provided deeply moving moments like the commemoration of the witnesses of the 20th century which, more than any previous century, has been the century of martyrs in all the churches and in all ecclesial communities. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, found in the commemoration of this common heritage of martyrdom a source of hope and a seed of Christian unity.
But Cardinal Kasper was realistic as well as hopeful when he provided an overview of the ecumenical situation to the members of his council in November 2001. He noted that the Orthodox and Eastern churches that are nearest to us theologically are more remote both mentally and culturally than the Protestant ecclesial communities. This distance often creates misunderstandings and sometimes makes dialogue difficult and emotionally charged. And those churches, very diverse among themselves, face a changed world in which they are no longer persecuted but see many of their people moving away into the diaspora in Europe, Australia and America.
On the theological and hierarchical level, the climate of relations with the Anglicans is very goodas might be expected, since we come from the same Latin tradition and live in the same Western world. But there are strong tensions within the Anglican Communion, and concern whether common documents, however carefully prepared, are representative of the whole or even the majority of Anglicans. The Lutheran communities worldwide also have unresolved problems among themselves. And between Catholics and Lutherans, differing expectations about the consequences of agreements sometimes led to disappointment and frustration.
On the other hand, Evangelical and newer Pentecostal communities are often closer to us on ethical questions than to the historical Protestant churches and to the World Council of Churches, even though they are distant from us in terms of theological questions.
If there is a crisis in the ecumenical movement, this is to some degree at least due to its success. The closer we come to one another, the more painful is the perception that we are not yet in full communion. There are still serious differences, which must be recognized. We are hurt by those that still separate us and hinder us from assembling around the table of the Lord. Ecumenical progress is, paradoxically, the cause of ecumenical malaise.
Those involved in ecumenical work see education, including catechetical and homiletic instruction, as a crucial issue, as well as personal and community spiritual renewal. These are the keys to providing inspiration and identity, especially to the young. The importance of identity is clear in a world of postmodern pluralism. We must make it clear, to ourselves and others, that serious ecumenism is different from confessional indifference and relativism that tends to meet on the lowest common denominator. But we are heartened by the emergence of a maturing and adult ecumenism, one that has gone beyond early enthusiasms. We must now envision a period during which we will continue living in the present situationan already existing and profound communion, but still not a full communion. We must remain realistic and not make blueprints of abstract models of unity that sooner or later lead only to new disappointments. Instead, we must do what is possible today with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, step by step and with pilgrim patience.