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Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations

By Tom Ryan, CSP


Environmental call to Christian solidarity in action



“St. John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council for two specific purposes: aggiornamento — bringing the church into the modern world and presenting the enticing mystery of the church to the modern world; and second, for the cause of Christian unity. One of the main achievements of the Council in the mid-1960s was to find a theological logic to break down the walls between Christian churches, and to usher in a new era of dialogue and partnership that we now refer to as ‘ecumenism.’”

Speaking at the Catholic-Orthodox Orientale Lumen Conference in Washington, D.C., on June 18, Rev. Thomas Rosica, CSB, addressed the question of how the Bishop of Rome is tracing new paths of unity for the churches. Acknowledging that many of the great expectations raised by the Second Vatican Council half a century ago have not been fulfilled, Rosica posited that “Pope Francis has energized the ecumenical movement, not just with the mainline Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches, but especially with the fast-growing movement of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity that he got to know well during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.”

The founding chief executive of Canada’s first national Catholic Television Network, Salt + Light, Rosica drew some examples from Pope Francis’ daily homilies of how he is promoting the gospel cause for which Jesus prayed: the unity of his followers (John 17). In one homily (May 13, 2013), Pope Francis stressed the courageous attitude of St. Paul in the Areopogus in Greece when, in speaking to the Athenian crowd, the Apostle to the Gentiles sought to build bridges to proclaim the Gospel. Francis called Paul’s attitude one that “seeks dialogue” and is “closer to the heart” of the listener. The pope warned that “Christians who are afraid to build bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are not sure of their faith, not sure of Jesus Christ.” He exhorted Christians to do as Paul did and begin to “build bridges and to move forward.”

On Oct. 13, 2013, in the Chapel of the Domus, Pope Francis warned Christians against behaving as though the “key is in (their) pocket, and the door closed.” He reiterated that, without prayer, one’s faith can descend into ideology and moralism. “And ideology does not beckon people. In ideologies there is not Jesus in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. Ideologies are rigid, always. . . . And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology . . . he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought,” said Francis.

At the heart of Pope Francis’ approach to Christian unity, observed Rosica, is that the unity we seek is not just a matter of cordiality or co-operation, but requires inner conversion and growth in fidelity to Christ.

As the English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office, Rosica has had the opportunity to witness a growing co-operation among the recognized leaders from the Eastern Orthodox churches. Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has for years addressed the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet: “For human beings . . . to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life — these are sins,” said Bartholomew, for “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and against God.”

In 1989 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Eastern Orthodox churches, published an encyclical addressed to all Christians and persons of goodwill warning of the seriousness of the ecological problem and its spiritual and ethical implications. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed, and compulsion.” He proposed the dedication of Sept. 1 every year to prayer for the environment.

When Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You) was presented on June 18 to a large press conference at the Vatican, a representative of Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, spoke on his behalf:

“I believe the significance of the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ is not limited to the subject of ecology as such. I see in it an important ecumenical dimension in that it brings the divided Christians before a common task which they must face together. We live at a time in which our fundamental existential problems overwhelm our traditional divisions and relativize them almost to the point of extinction . . . Pope Francis’ encyclical is a call to unity — in prayer for our environment, in the conversion of our hearts and our lifestyles to respect and love everyone and everything given to us by God.”

Rosica observed that Metropolitan John’s presence at the Vatican press conference presenting a papal encyclical was truly unprecedented and a great sign and portent of ecumenism and the deepening relationship that exists between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.