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Hopeful signs for ecumenism 50 years after Vatican II

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — In the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, observers see hopeful signs for ecumenism and interfaith dialogue under Pope Francis.

“Pope Francis uses language very frequently on how important it is to walk together with other Christians,” said Saint Paul University professor Catherine Clifford, noting theological dialogues are being complemented “with initiatives of common witness.”

“It’s an invitation to do everything we possibly can together, not to wait for all i’s to be dotted and t’s crossed and all the texts approved, but that we kind of live into the experience of mutual communion by beginning to act together today,” she said.

“A central image of the Christian life for Pope Francis is the movement toward Christian unity — a movement that happens one step at a time,” said Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Scripture scholar, CEO of the Salt + Light Catholic TV network and English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office in a keynote address Jan. 17 to a Vancouver symposium entitled “Christian unity — have we answered the call?” marking the 50th anniversary of the Decree on Ecumenism.

“For Francis, it is not about waiting for others to catch up with us,” he said. “It is about everyone continuing to walk with and toward the Lord, supporting and learning from the brothers and sisters whom God places on the same path. The deeper we all grow in holiness, the closer we will be to one another.”

“The work of deepening our knowledge of each other through praying together, working together in common witness, created the kind of trust that will allow us to move forward in the future,” Clifford said.

“While Francis’ gestures are new, and even disconcerting to some, the idea of growth in unity being the result of growth in fidelity to Christ is not,” Rosica said. “The unity we seek requires inner conversion that is both common and personal. It is not merely a matter of cordiality, or good co-operation, it is necessary above all to strengthen our faith in God, in the God of Jesus Christ, who spoke to us and took on our flesh and blood in the Incarnation.”

Rosica noted the ecumenical movement is one of “ongoing conversion and a search for reconciliation among all Christians.”

“Over the past 50 years, ecumenism and the ecumenical movement have become commonplace for most Christians,” said Rosica. “While ecumenism hasn’t yet achieved full reunion, it’s still among the most visible, powerful, successful Christian movements of the late 20th century.”

“Separated Christians no longer consider one another as strangers, competitors or even enemies, but as brothers and sisters,” he said. “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,’ ” he said. “Such a change was unthinkable at the turn of the 20th 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.”

Clifford highlighted Pope Francis’ historic meeting in Jerusalem last May with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, 50 years after Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras pledged to work together toward unity. In May, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch issued a joint declaration that affirmed the continued desire for ecclesial unity, the pursuit of peace through reconciliation and dialogue and the promotion interfaith dialogue.

The pope met the patriarch again in Istanbul when he visited Turkey in November. Clifford noted their joint statement spoke of “how important it is for churches to work in interfaith dialogue, especially with the people of Islam, in light of the violence in the Middle East.”

“Both Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are not only motivated by the cause of ecumenism but also by forming a united front against the persecution of Christianity in the Middle East where the number of Catholics and Orthodox have dwindled over the past couple decades,” said Rosica.

Challenges remain in Catholic Orthodox dialogue largely because of tensions within Eastern Orthodoxy itself, especially between the patriarchies of Constantinople and Moscow, Clifford said. In 2016, a pan-Orthodox synod is planned and “the question of ecumenism is very high on the agenda of this meeting.”

“Pope Francis has also worked very conscientiously to be seen acting together in common witness with leaders of other faiths,” she said. For example, “he and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby launched an international effort to stem the tide of human trafficking.”

Rosica admitted recent decades have shown “signs of tiredness, disillusionment and stagnation” after the euphoria immediately following the Council. “Recent decisions and directions by our sister churches in the areas of moral theology, ethics, life and death issues, ordained ministries, questions regarding the family, marriage, sexuality and human life are essential issues that must not be ignored out of fear of jeopardizing our ecumenical consensus,” the priest said. “In the business of authentic ecumenism, communication must be frank and robust, respectful and charitable.”

“Catholic participants are expected to hold fast to the church’s teachings, presenting doctrines clearly and avoiding all forms of reductionism or facile agreement,” he said. “When we are in dialogue with other Christian churches, must treat each other as partners and presuppose that each partner desires unity, even when we speak about contentious or divisive issues.”

Clifford also noted Pope Francis’ historic meeting with Evangelical leaders at a private lunch inside the Vatican that included leaders of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and prominent American televangelists.

Pope Francis already had a long experience from his pastoral ministry in Argentina of working closely with Evangelical leaders, she said.

“Today one in four Christians is Evangelical or Pentecostal Christian,” she said. Though there has been official dialogue with Evangelicals and Pentecostals for many decades, “these relationships will take on more importance in coming years.”

There is work being done by the Lutheran Catholic International Commission to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, she said. Resources are being prepared for local groups to look at the progress that has been made in 50 years of interchurch dialogue, she said.

“What we did discover through dialogue is that we do not disagree on the central dividing issue of the 16th century Protestant Reformation,” she said, noting the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Catholics and Lutherans. “In 2005, the World Methodist Council signed onto that same agreement.”

“Many other western Christians can find themselves in that agreement,” she said. “It puts our discussions of other issues, such as the recognition of sacramental life, on a different footing because we do not disagree on the basic theology of grace.”

“What ecumenical dialogue helps us to do is do that discerning together, each church has to examine its own inner life and undertake the renewal that’s required,” she said. “It’s encouraging. In some ways, Pope Francis is inviting us to carry forward some of the central insights of the Second Vatican Council in its commitment to working for Christian unity.”

Vatican II prompted a new self-awareness that had the church reexamining how the gospel is communicated to modern people, she said. “The structures we put in place 50 years ago, are they still serving us now? If they are not we should take a look at them.”

Pope Francis is “carrying forward some of the central insights of the Council, and that has to do with understanding that the form of the church and its proclamation will always need to be adapted,” she said. “He is calling us to focus on the central message, but the way we express it and incarnate it in the structures of the church is adequate for the people of today.”

Pope Francis is also stressing the importance of interfaith dialogue, Clifford said. In June, Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew and the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas met in Rome for joint prayer and a tree planting ceremony in the Vatican gardens, she said.

Rosica cautioned against letting interfaith dialogue make ecumenism seem “outmoded.”

“There is a difference but not a competition between the two dialogues, for ultimately to be effective, inter-religious dialogue presupposes that Christians can speak one and the same language,” he said. “The necessity of inter-religious dialogue makes ecumenical dialogue even more urgent.”

The need for mutual understanding among religions “should make the work of Christians coming together have a greater sense of urgency, so we as churches can dialogue together with representatives of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and other religions,” Clifford said.