One of Jesus’ final wishes before He died was that His followers would remain united. He offered a prayer for this at the Last Supper (see Jn 17:21).
Here, the will of Jesus is clear, which makes it all the more regrettable to think of all the divisions that arose among Christians in the second millennium. Even today Catholic and Protestant missionaries attest that current Christian divisions impede people from hearing Jesus’ message. People say something like, “How can so many Christian churches differing from one another, and sometimes even in opposition to one another, be from God?”
The search for unity among Christians was one of the central concerns of Pope St. John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Catholic bishops, gathered from all parts of the globe, gave expression to this concern about the separation among Christ’s followers and embraced the path forward known as ecumenism. The council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, received overwhelming approval on Nov. 21, 1964.
In the very first section of the decree, the bishops reflect on the tragedy of Christian division: “Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature” (No. 1).
In the upcoming year we will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, by which we are reminded of our divisions and brokenness even more. But this anniversary also provides an opportunity to recall the unity that we have been seeking intently for the last 50 years. Together we seek the peace of Christ so we may bring peace to the world.
Symbolic of this shift in focus, Pope Francis began this 500th year after the Reformation by praying with various Lutheran leaders on Oct. 31, 2016, in Lund, Sweden. Results of recent dialogues have brought Catholics closer to other churches and ecclesial communities than we have seen in centuries.
We believe our common desire for unity is because we have been open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Pope St. John Paul II, in his striking encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That They May Be One,” on commitment to ecumenism) stresses the unalterable commitment of the Catholic Church to the search for Christian unity. He points to the primacy of prayer as he quotes the council: “This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and can rightly be called ‘spiritual ecumenism’” (No. 21).
Spiritual growth and the movement toward Christian unity are, therefore, intimately connected. Those involved in ecumenism like to say, “In coming closer to Christ we come closer to one another.” Following the Holy Spirit, opening ourselves to a deeper conversion to Christ, and thus to a deeper love for one another, is at the root of our ecumenical convergences.
This deeper love for one another is manifested in a variety of Christian virtues. Certainly patience is a prime virtue for ecumenical conversations. In many ways, ecumenism is about building relationships with others. Some of these may be formal, but most are informal. Today, many Catholics do not have to go far to be in relationship with Protestants, Anglicans or Orthodox Christians. Many Catholics marry Christians of other traditions. Often members of our extended families are active in other Christian churches. Most likely we have friends at school or at work who are Christians of various communities.
As in all relationships, patience is needed to grow in relationship with one another. Most relationship building takes time. Sharing about our beliefs and our spiritual journey in life does not come easy for many of us. Even interchurch couples report this difficulty. Sometimes taking a little risk brings us closer to one another and to God. Patiently walking with one another and patiently sharing what we can is an important aspect of ecumenism.
When we consider relationships, we also need a bit of humility. Here, we may have to acknowledge:
Our reluctance to grow spiritually.
Our past hurts, some self-inflicted, that may be separating us from others.
Our fears of Christian unity itself.
We need to bring these obstacles to God in prayer. We need humility to acknowledge them before God and be healed. These obstacles can be catalysts for spiritual growth rather than impediments to ecumenical conversations. At times we may need the counsel of a spiritual friend or the Sacrament of Reconciliation as we work our way through these inevitable problems connected with being human.
In opening ourselves to healing and reconciliation, we prepare to go deeper in relationships. We have much to learn from one another. God has given our fellow Christians and us many gifts.
We need to be humble enough to know we have some things to learn. God, who can be a God of surprises, often reaches out to us in unexpected ways. Sometimes a Christian family member or friend can be our best instructor. It is always good in our relationships to be attentive.
“Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren 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” (Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 4).
Saints and spiritual writers tell us that one of the signs of the movement of the Holy Spirit is inner peace and joy. In our regular self-examinations we need to be attentive to what God might be saying to us through others and the inner movement connected with this learning.
Grasping what God is saying to us may take some time — but also might come like a bolt of lightning! The example of a Protestant friend whose sensitive actions call us to practice racial justice can “light our way” and lead us to a change of direction. Most change, however, is of the ordinary day-to-day variety in which we gradually realize what God is saying to us through others.
The result of inner peace is that we become peace-filled bridge builders in our local communities.
Ecumenists tend to be active people. In many parts of the country, churches work together to feed the hungry, help immigrants, aid those who are incapacitated and perform other works of mercy. Often we get to know other Christians by sharing the work involved in caring for those in need. Pope Francis has been a strong advocate of walking together and doing things with one another in service.
Through our common commitment to Christ we often come to a deeper understanding of one another.
A virtue of importance here is fortitude. Poverty, racial injustice and other social problems resist easy solutions. Satisfying basic human needs is very important. But commitment to working together to resolve the underlying causes also requires fortitude. Moving social structures to be more responsive to individuals’ needs can be a decades-long process. Ecumenical collaboration on behalf of those “on the periphery” can be most effective if engaged in over an extended period of time. We need to invite younger Catholics to get engaged in such processes.
Of course, fortitude applies to our dialogue about theological differences as well. We Americans are often in a hurry. But insights into the commonalities amidst our differences can take quite a while to develop. God’s timeline is not our own. Often it seems that the Holy Spirit is not fast. Another way to put this might be that the ecumenical dialogue is more like the marathon than a 100-meter dash. God does not conform to our time schedules.
A final virtue that can be associate with ecumenism is wisdom. Nowadays, we sometimes ask what Christian unity would look like. If we come into “full communion” with each other, how will that affect us? Since God has blessed each Christian community with certain gifts and graces, how will these be treasured if we come together?
Catholics might think of religious orders which have maintained, over centuries, the spiritual gifts (charisms) of their saintly founders for the good of all. How might churches in full communion do likewise? Such questions call for wisdom flowing from divine grace to guide us.
Wisdom, however, is not just about the future. Wisdom is needed right now. Interchurch couples, for example, need wisdom in their spiritual lives together and in raising their children. They ask: How might we discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit right now for our family? There is wisdom from others in our communities about how they have done this.
At the conclusion of this reflection on spiritual ecumenism it is most important to recall the need for prayer. Could you pray the Our Father each day that all of us in the Catholic Church might respond faithfully to Jesus’ prayer for unity?
Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, D.D., is bishop of Springfield in Massachusetts.
Popes and Christian Unity
Pope St. John XXIII: “The Catholic Church, therefore, considers it her duty to work actively so that there may be fulfilled the great mystery of that unity, which Jesus Christ invoked with fervent prayer from His heavenly Father on the eve of His sacrifice. She rejoices in peace, knowing well that she is intimately associated with that prayer, and then exults greatly at seeing that invocation extend its efficacy with salutary fruit, even among those who are outside her fold” (Opening Speech, Second Vatican Council).
Pope Blessed Paul VI: “Are there not those who say that unity between the separated Churches and the Catholic Church would be more easily achieved if the primacy of the Roman pontiff were done away with? We beg our separated brothers to consider the groundlessness of this opinion. Take away the sovereign Pontiff and the Catholic Church would no longer be catholic” (Ecclesiam Suam, No. 110).
Pope St. John Paul II: “Thus it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does” (Ut Unum Sint, No. 20).
Pope Benedict XVI: “The way to unity remains long and laborious; yet, it is necessary not to be discouraged and to journey on, in the first place relying on the unfailing support of the One who, before ascending into heaven, promised His followers: ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Mt 28: 20).
“Unity is a gift of God and the fruit of His Spirit’s action. Consequently, it is important to pray. The closer we draw to Christ, converting to His love, the closer we also draw to one another” (General Audience, Jan. 17, 2007).
Pope Francis: “We have to pray together as Catholics and also with other Christians, pray that the Lord give[s] us the gift of unity, unity among us. But how will we have unity among Christians if we are not capable of it among ourselves, as Catholics? Or in our families? So many families fight and are divided! Seek unity, the unity that builds the Church. Unity comes from Jesus Christ. He sends us the Holy Spirit to create unity” (General Audience, June 19, 2013).