Where is the Holy Spirit leading us in the ecumenical movement? I would like to reflect prayerfully on the new springtime that is emerging gradually, quietly and peacefully. This new era in the movement will encompass the momentous gains of five decades of dialogue and also lead us closer to that full communion with other Christians that is the prayer of Jesus and our goal—“that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).
In this meditation, I look at emerging trends while also remaining aware that unexpected interventions of the Spirit are always possible. I think that in some ways we will be returning to the early history of the ecumenical movement; an emphasis on “mission” and the contributions of laypeople are again coming to the fore.
Our mission to share the teaching of Jesus Christ with the world is gaining high prominence in ecumenical circles. We followers of Christ seek to share Christ’s message of salvation with others. For Catholics this missionary impulse is expressing itself in the new evangelization. The church is not only reaching out to those who have not yet heard of Christ but also inviting those who once walked with us but have taken a byroad to join us again.
Pope Benedict XVI, in addressing the assembly of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity last November, put it this way: “As is known, the Council Fathers [of Vatican II] intended to stress the very close link that exists between the task of evangelization and overcoming the existing divisions between Christians.” Benedict pointed out that Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples “so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). This unity serves a profound and most important purpose: the good of humanity.
Benedict, now pope emeritus, saw the spiritual poverty of many people as a great challenge for Christians. How can we offer the message of Christ in a hope-filled, joyful and convincing way that can fill this spiritual vacuum and bring inner peace?
Reconciliation and Morality
As he did frequently, Pope Benedict in his address to the pontifical council called Christians to self-examination and repentance so they could become more effective witnesses. Ecumenism and the new evangelization, he said, “both require the dynamism of conversion, understood as a sincere desire to follow Christ and to adhere fully to the Father’s will.” Personal transformation is a prelude to offering an invitation to others.
Thus we ourselves must go deeper spiritually. Visible unity will require a true and lasting reconciliation among Christian communities. Perhaps the contemporary experiences of communal reconciliation, facilitated in several countries by groups like the internationally prominent Focolare movement, can provide “roadmaps for reconciliation” among Christian communities. We must pray for this reconciliation.
There has been much progress toward reconciliation. One example of many, though less known, comes from the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation. It was first convened in 1965, meets twice each year and has produced at least 25 shared statements. The dialogue partners have agreed that certain steps need to be taken to prepare for full communion between Orthodox and Catholic churches. One of their most recent statements, “Steps Towards a Reunited Church,” issued in 2010, offers a way forward.
There are, of course, some issues on which the Christian churches seem to be diverging. These include questions of sexual morality. Ecumenical dialogues among experts often begin with a discussion of issues that the partners agree on, then move on to issues where our understandings seem complementary and, finally, to harder issues where the dialogue partners seem to diverge. Convergences and complementarities can shed light on the reasons for divergences between the dialogue partners.
Formal ecumenical dialogues are finally beginning to address questions of personal morality, like family disintegration, cohabitation, contraception, sterilization and so forth. Until recently, there had been little ecumenical discussion of these highly emotional questions. The current Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue is working to identify the points of convergence and the lines of divergence in our understanding of these issues of personal morality. Such efforts can lead to unexpected mutual affirmations.
Deacon and Lay Involvement
The Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers, an organization established in 1971 to help ecumenical leaders network and exchange ideas, and the religious orders with an ecumenical mission, like the Paulists and the Franciscan Sisters and Friars of the Atonement, have provided an educated cadre of ecumenical leaders for decades. Priests and religious, with their special charisms, will always play an indispensable role in ecumenical relationships, but this contribution is changing as the number of priests and religious diminishes.
Lay women and men have played a significant role in the ecumenical movement from the beginning. The Focolare movement, for example, brings Christians of many churches together. The movement’s spirituality of unity is the basis for the ecumenical formation of its members and the “dialogue of life” it promotes with others. Their life of daily love for neighbor is attractive to those who are searching.
Today we are seeing the gifts of the Spirit given to permanent deacons and to lay Catholics coming to the fore even more significantly. This is part of the divine plan. There are now 16 deacons serving as ecumenical officers for their dioceses.
Lay women and men continue to serve on diocesan ecumenical commissions and as ecumenical representatives in their parishes. As we move forward, the roles of these lay representatives will continue to expand. Laypeople educated in the basics of ecumenism will be serving dioceses in varied relationships with our fellow Christians. This direction is very much in keeping with church teaching. The Second Vatican Council, in the “Decree on Ecumenism” (1964), exhorts “all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.”
New Forms of Training
Education is essential for taking an “active and intelligent part” in ecumenism, and this learning has many dimensions. A person certainly needs to know the basic ideas provided in the Vatican II’s “Decree on Ecumenism,” as well as the “Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism,” revised and published by the Vatican in 1993, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “Ut Unum Sint” and Pope Benedict’s many statements on the topic.
The U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs is beginning to develop new models for training local leaders. These models will be deeply rooted in our spiritual tradition. They will include readily available online videos and other resources available on the U.S. bishops’ Web site. We envision integrated programs that respond to the needs of priests, religious, deacons and laypeople. Lay formation must include not only those who serve on ecumenical councils but also those who collaborate in social justice ministries or couples in ecumenical marriages.
Some recent work will help advance education in ecumenism. One significant example is the publication of Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (Continuum, 2009), by Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. In this book Cardinal Kasper brings together the results of almost 50 years of dialogue with four major international partners (Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed) in a concise and readable form. He synthesizes convergences in four major areas, including a very rich chapter on our progress in understanding the church. Cardinal Kasper also points to “open questions and remaining differences.”
This achievement is echoed elsewhere. Cardinal Kurt Koch, for example, Cardinal Kasper’s successor at the pontifical council, recently called for a declaration that would serve as a summary of the achievements of a bilateral dialogue between the Catholic Church and a partner community. Such achievements could be formally recognized by the churches. A declaration would also indicate questions for continuing discussion. Cardinal Koch’s call is already resonating with some of our Protestant colleagues.
Decades of common effort to heal the wounds of past disagreement are finally becoming available to a wider readership. Previously, only dedicated scholars had the time to study the many tomes on our ecumenical bookshelves. Now, however, summary texts are becoming more available, which will affect local communal prayer and discussions in unforeseen ways.
Continuing the Work
Along with these emerging trends, there is much continuity. Existing agreed statements will provide a foundation for our continuing theological dialogue with our Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican friends. One example is the “Agreed Statement on Baptism,” recently approved by the U.S.C.C.B. and four Reformed churches: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Reformed Church, our partners in dialogue.
A second example is the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” which the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican approved in 1999. The World Methodist Council signed this statement in 2006. This document states: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” The preeminent theological issue of the Reformation has thus come to a “differentiated consensus.” We have agreement on the core question. There are still many related issues where we disagree. Leading theologians will spend decades, if not centuries, debating these.
Spiritual renewal will always be at the center of the ecumenical movement. The future will see less “going our own way” and more mutual discernment of God’s will for all of us. We all need to become more deeply rooted in prayer. We need time for silence and stillness. This is a time for listening to the Holy Spirit.
We need to listen attentively to other Christians. To learn from others requires humility. We will become more like Jesus who humbled himself. Ultimately the ecumenical movement will prosper as we, together, become more like Christ.