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Ladislas OrsyFebruary 05, 2007

More than 40 years have passed since Nov. 21, 1964, when the bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Counil—after much argument and amid great rejoicing—approved solemnly the “Decree on Ecumenism.” Ever since, we have paused from time time to ponder, trying to assess our progress toward the one and only church of Christ. How far have we come? How much remains to be done?The recounting of some recent facts and events may put us into a somber mood: the progress is slow, and much remains to be done. The goal, the blessed unity of all Christians, appears as elusive as ever. We are tempted to say with a heavy heart, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “We had hoped” (Luke 24: 21).


Here are a few findings that can hardly be contested:

• The dialogues increasingly reveal their limits. True, as appointed groups of experts meet each other, they succeed in creating friendly relationships. They raise pertinent questions and listen to learned answers. They apologize for past wrongs, and time and again on a subtle point of doctrine they reach a consensus. Yet no matter how much they may accomplish, they leave more undone. Judging by what they have achieved over these 40 years, by any reasonable estimate, centuries more of conversations are needed to reach the communion of minds and hearts for which Christ prayed.

• While the groups of experts are doing their selfless work, large segments of ordinary Christians of different denominations remain content to be as they are and feel no pressing need for a greater unity. Bad memories or unconsciously absorbed prejudices may hamper them. Yet committees of specialists cannot achieve full communion: a mass movement of the faithful alone can bring it about. The one and only church of Christ cannot exist without the people (saints and sinners) from all corners of the earth crowding into it, all “being of one heart and soul” (Acts 4: 32). The lesson of the aftermath of the Council of Florence (1439-45) must not be forgotten: although at that council the representatives of the Eastern church consented to the union, when they returned home with the agreement, the people rejected it. And that was the end of the reconciliation.

• In spite of the efforts expended for union, new disagreements are emerging in various communities. The Episcopalian (Anglican) church is struggling with centrifugal forces. The autonomous churches of the East are searching, not without trying crises, for the correct relationships among themselves. There is disunity among the Lutheran synods. Behind the apparent calm in the Roman Catholic communion, strong conflicting dynamics are testing the strength of unifying forces.

• Reliable witnesses, whether detached observers or engaged workers, report signs of tiredness, indifference, even despair in the cause of unity. Admittedly, it may be difficult to prove such hearsay by hard evidence; yet the witnesses are too numerous and their voices too strong to be ignored.

Such appears to be the state of the ecumenical movement. Facts and events do not lie, nor should we deny them or cover them up with an irrational rhetoric of optimism. No serious thinking or effective work can be done in God’s kingdom without utmost respect for verifiable facts and occurring events: God is in the real.

But if this is true, we should take a second look at the whole extent of “the real.” God’s plan is broader than what our senses can perceive. Hence the question, is our interpretation of the facts and events correct? Have we grasped their full meaning? Remember how the two disciples left Jerusalem and took the road to Emmaus because (as they were told by the stranger who joined them) they failed to understand the Scriptures? Are we like them? “We had hoped,” we say, and walk away from God’s plan because we do not understand the grace-filled time of God?

Could it be that God’s plan is unfolding precisely through the facts and events narrated, but that we are not reading the plan correctly?

What follows is an attempt to penetrate into the mystery of the ecumenical movement within the horizon of faith, hope and love—the only way we can enter into God’s plan. My intent is not to deny or to cover up sobering facts and events, but to discover how they are part of a greater project. If there is a way of overcoming the crisis, it is not in trying to change occurrences over which we have no power, but in changing our attitudes in handling them.

The One Church of Christ in Focus

The ecumenical movement makes sense because we believe that the one and only church of Christ exists in God’s plan. Christ prayed for it on the solemn night of his transitus: his prayer could not have been in vain. Hence, our duty is to build this church even if—as yet—we have no glimpse of its internal harmony in unity and diversity; even if we have not seen its “glory.”

When Vatican II declared that the church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic church, the council meant that we are in possession of the fullness of revelation, but in no way did the council affirm that we understand what we have in all its breadth and depth. Hence we can believe in both the present fullness and the future revelation of riches.

Further, in our “theological imagination,” we should never see this future church of Christ as a merely religious phenomenon isolated from the rest of human history. It is God’s gift to the whole human family: the very “threshold of salvation” for all generations to come. St. Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19) and “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom 8:22). In a mysterious way, the one church of Christ is instrumental in the redemption and exaltation of the whole creation.

When we position the future church of Christ as the goal and measure of the ecumenical movement, the very nature of the movement reveals itself with a clarity and simplicity that otherwise we cannot have. Ultimately, the goal of the movement is not to reach mutual agreements among the churches, but for each community to transform itself to the image of the one church of Christ—as far as each can discern it. The ecumenical task consists of a continuous effort to know the mystery better and to move toward it. Then, agreements among the separated communities are bound to follow.

The dialogues should be seen as forms of mutual assistance among believing people to help one another to penetrate the word of God to a greater depth. There they will find unity; there they will cease to disagree. The ecumenical dialogues should be common efforts to receive the gift of unity from God. We are disposed to receive this gift through the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

Seeing by the Light of Faith

Faith reveals that the Spirit of God alone has the power to create or restore the one church of Christ, and the divine Spirit, the creator, alone can give us the vision and energy to build it; that such work of the Spirit is discernible in recent developments; and that in fact the Spirit has already created a substantial unity among the Christian people.

1. We believe on the authority of our tradition, reaffirmed by Vatican II, that only the Spirit creator has the power to establish the one and only church of Christ. The conciliar texts (“Decree on Ecumenism,” 1964) amount to a profession of faith:


It is the holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the entire church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the church’s unity (No. 2).


Further, this council declares that it realizes that this holy objective—the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only church of Christ—transcends human powers and gifts (No. 24).

The council says with no ambiguity that the Holy Spirit is the originator of the movement for union and communion, and the Spirit remains in charge of it. We humans can be cooperators but not creators. For its course we cannot lay down our own laws and conditions.

2. The history of the last 40 years offers quasi-empirical evidence that the Holy Spirit is indeed in charge and active. All we need is to put side by side what happened (or did not happen) in the last four centuries and what happened in recent decades. Attitudes of extreme rigidity that pervaded generations of persons and communities have melted away, if not everywhere, certainly far and wide, and have given place to a disposition of openness and flexibility. Christians who once refused to say even the “Our Father” together learned to praise the Lord with one voice, even if they have not come so far as to share the eucharistic table. We must admit that such deep transformation of attitudes could not have happened without an immensely strong injection of healing grace.

3. Through faith we know that a substantial unity already exists among the Christian communities. Admittedly, the language we use daily is misleading us into thinking otherwise. We speak of “our separated brothers and sisters,” but the fundamental truth is that our brothers and sisters in their gatherings outside the Roman communion are united to us, as we are united to them, through our common baptism and profession that “Jesus is the Lord” (1 Cor 12:3).

Ordinarily, the fact of historical separation dominates our discourse. Yet the ontological reality (what is really real) is that the Spirit, in whom they dwell and who dwells in them, holds all baptized believers together. Now, it makes some difference if the ecumenical movement consists in working for the reconciliation of separated bodies, or if it is a healing process within one sacramental but internally lacerated body. In the former case, negotiations take primary importance. In the latter case, the liberating of the internal healing forces does the real work.

Radically Different Divine Hope

The theological virtue of hope is often misunderstood: we conceive it on the pattern of human hope. On an earthly level, to hope is to define expectations (variously grounded) for the future and then cling to them, happen what may. Obviously, to hope in this manner may lead to a disregard of facts and events and to a stubborn pursuit of a fallacy that can bring only disaster at the end.

Divine hope is radically different. It regards more the present than the future. It means to surrender to God who is in charge of the events. It is to blend into his plan, here and now. It creates an unbounded optimism (and a well-grounded one) in the one who hopes: God guarantees a good outcome but without telling us what it will be. Divine hope installs a human person into the flow of God’s project; it is to join him in his creative activity. In this prospect the sobering and depressing facts and events reveal their true nature: they are part of God’s plan, a plan of which we see only some fragments. Considered in isolation from their broader context, they may be disappointing, but as parts of a whole they are bound to make sense.

Imagine a medieval architect who was asked to design a cathedral, all of it in its magnificence, the soaring towers, the flying buttresses, the rose windows and the impish gargoyles on the roof. The architect sees the entire project, but then—sensibly—portions out the work among the apprentices. They will be in charge of the parts assigned to them; some will be given no more than the ugly shapes of the gargoyles. God has designed this cathedral. We are the apprentices—at times given to see only the gargoyles.

The theological foundation for understanding the virtue of hope lies in the Scriptures. When Mary of Nazareth pronounced the sentence, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), she signaled that she was willing to surrender herself to a plan that she did not know, still less could direct in any way. As she found out later, the plan was full of somber facts and events. Her participation in God’s project was perfect; she never said, “I had hoped.”

We have reached a point where the assessment of the ecumenical movement in function of faith, hope and love reveals its internal cohesiveness and essential soundness. Faith brings an intelligence that no human insight could give; hope opens the door to enter and blend into the dynamics of a divine plan; love leads to action that no human strength could sustain.

Divine Love: Magnanimity

Love does not consist in words but in deeds. Christ repeatedly stated it, saints practiced it, sages affirmed it, and doctors of theology explained it. Love in God, then, is synonymous with giving, but this inclination to give is not a mere attribute. When Moses asked God speaking in the burning bush, “What is your name?” God responded, “I am who I am.” God could have said “I am who gives”; that is, “I am Goodness effusive.” God’s very nature is to communicate himself. Within God and inwardly there are the communications that is the trinity of persons. Within God but outwardly, there is the effusion of life, the act of creation that brings us existence and sustenance.

Let us call this divine giving “magnanimity,” a word borrowed from the philosophy of Aristotle where it has a finite meaning, but a word that can be stretched to reach into the Infinite. Magnanimity is divine when it means to give from an inexhaustible internal resource without expecting any reward.

Such love must be the operating principle of the ecumenical movement. Its source is the living Spirit that all communities possess through their baptism and their gift of faith. It follows that their prime concern should not be what could we do, but how can we remove the impediments surging from our narrow humanity and let the dynamics of the Spirit prevail? The acceptance of the vision of faith and the surrender in hope leads to the operation of love, a divine manner of life. So much for a sublime theory. But how to apply it? Without finding a way of practicing it in our daily work for unity, beautiful as our words may be, they are no more than the sounds of “an empty gong or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1).

In recent years, two practical proposals emerged for effectively promoting unity among Christian churches, no matter what the observers may report. Both are demanding and both demand the communities “to give,” though perhaps in a somewhat metaphorical sense. Both ask for giving in a divine manner; that is, from the internal resources of each community and for no reward. Both are radical requests for down-to-earth manifestations of magnanimity. Above all, both are immediately feasible.

One is the way of kenosis, suggested first by the Groupe des Dombes in France, a permanent association of ecumenists founded by Paul Couturier and meeting since 1937. Their method of seeking ecumenical understanding through intense periods of prayer and the reading of early Christian sources could serve as a model for all. The other way is the way of learning and receiving, suggested by the participants of the Durham colloquium in January 2006. The former speaks of giving up, or giving away what hampers unity; the latter speaks of giving space in our midst to gifts of grace and wisdom coming from others.

The proposal of the Groupe des Dombes is grounded in the analysis of the identity of Christian churches. They see it as composed of three elements. In its core, each communion has a substantial Christian identity, which is not negotiable. Then, in the course of history, each developed a unique “personality,” e.g., Orthodox, Roman, Lutheran, etc., which should not be abandoned since it may represent due diversity. Finally, each denomination has confessional characteristics, accretions by historical accidents, devotional customs and ritual observances—all of which are not indispensable and to varying degrees could be sacrificed for the sake of unity. The ecumenical task for each church is then to turn inward and ask: What is in our manner of life that does not belong to the Christian core? What is not part of the beauty of our unique personality? What among our not necessary heirlooms could be sacrificed for the sake of unity?

Not to cling to precious possessions but to enter a world of poverty can be the correct path toward unity. This is how Christ enriched the world: “though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied (ekenosen) himself” (Phil 2:5-6). This is how individual communities can build the one church of Christ. As a simple beginning, we Catholics could ask ourselves: could we abandon some signs and symbols of power originating in past centuries but hardly meaningful today?

A potential misunderstanding should be discarded: in no way does the Groupe des Dombes suggest that the exercise of kenosis should ever allow anyone to abandon the truth for some comfortable common denominator. The way of kenosis requires a sharp intelligence of faith to discern what it is that all must hold for truth in unity, what each must preserve as part of legitimate diversity and what can be left behind for the sake of harmony.

The way of learning and receiving has been proposed by the participants of an ecumenical meeting held in January 2006 at Durham University and Ushaw College in England, close to the hallowed resting place of St. Cuthbert. Cardinal Walter Kasper gave the keynote address and participated in the work. It was a new initiative. Catholics were simply asking the representatives of their sister communities, Anglicans, Orthodox, Methodists and others, what in their view Catholics could learn from them. The three days of conversations revolved around some principal issues of convergence and divergence: the role of the laity, the meaning of collegiality, the practice of primacy and so forth. The inspiration came from Vatican II’s “Decree on Ecumenism” (No. 4):


Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among those separated from us.


Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brothers and sisters can contribute to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed it can always bring a more perfect realization of the very mystery of Christ and the church.


Of course, any learning and reception should be done wisely, without endangering the substance of our faith or the specific diversity and beauty of our Roman communion. Such “enrichment” on the Catholic side has already taken place; for example, we learned and received much in the field of biblical studies from the Protestant communities.

If we have become dejected by hearing the somber news about the ecumenical movement, and if we were tempted to leave it as the two disciples left Jerusalem, the proposals coming from France and England show us new vistas. They may open our eyes to see new opportunitiesand may burn our hearts with new hope (Luke 24:31-32). Let us resume the work with a love that only the Spirit can grant.

Lifegiving News

The issue of Christian unity is mostly thought of, by believers and nonbelievers alike, as an internal matter for Christian communities. But much more is at stake. Christ has come, died and risen for the whole human family. In this immense work of redemption, his church is called to play an indispensable role: it is the keeper of the good news; it is the eminent source of divine energy through the blessed play of sacred actions.

But the very sacrament of the world, the community of Christians held together by the Spirit, is torn internally, and much of its energy is burned up by dissensions. It is handicapped in announcing God’s saving message; it is hampered in dispensing God’s exhilarating graces. Yet in our day the human family is in extreme need of hearing the life-giving news and receiving the infusion of fresh force—divine news and divine force. Never before had evil so much power to put science and technology into its own service. Violence runs rampant. It may even appear that God has abandoned creation and that the Spirit is not moving over the face of the planet Earth (Gen 1:2).

The world needs a church that proclaims with one clear voice the message of peace, God’s peace. We have no time to waste, “for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19).

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17 years 5 months ago
I want to thank and commend you for the feature “A Time to Ponder,” by Ladislas Orsy, S.J. (2/5). Indeed, we need to reflect on the spiritual mystery of the ecumenical movement! Having been a part of the movement as both pastor and writer for more than four decades, Father Orsy is right on target. I trust his words will find their way into the hands of many Protestants and Orthodox. He brings us a realistic optimism and a chance to celebrate what the Holy Spirit has already accomplished among us. My experience in all these years is that the Roman Catholic Church is continually at the forefront and, in my opinion, rightfully so.

17 years 5 months ago
Congratulations on the Feb. 5 issue: John W. Donohue, S.J., on Edith Stein; the review of Bishop N. T. Wright’s book by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.; Ladislas Orsy, S.J., on pluralism; Richard A. Blake, S.J., on “Children of Men”; and above all Patricia Schnapp, R.S.M., on Francis Thompson, of whom G. K. Chesterton said that the best definition of the Victorian Age of English literature is that Thompson was not part of it.

It is so “pre-council” for Sister Schnapp to celebrate his wonderful Catholic imagination with his “Hound of Heaven” and “Ode to the Setting Sun.” Yet the keepers of our heritage are sadly deficient if they dismiss his romanticism or, worse, are unaware of him. I wonder how many graduates of Catholic colleges and universities in the last 20 years have read either of these poems.

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