SASKATOON — Rev. Thomas Ryan, CSP, a member of the Paulist Fathers, gave a public lecture during the Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation (PESF) banquet June 22, which was hosted by the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism (PCE). Ryan spoke about the importance and necessity of ecumenical work.
Ryan began by expressing his pleasure at being part of this year’s PESF: “I want to affirm the work of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism and all that it is doing to bring Christians together.”
The PCE opened in 1984 and, as Ryan said, “much has been achieved over the last few decades. Separated Christians no longer regard one another as strangers, competitors or even enemies but as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “in the last decade it seems Christians are expressing a sense of tiredness, or disillusionment and stagnation in Christian unity efforts. The dialogues and meetings continue, but one asks, where is the forward movement? Situations and movements seem to have changed: it is pragmatism, not unity, that is the prime value today. Yet, the fact remains that Christians still have work to do, and we need to keep advancing our own unity.”
For the past 37 years, Ryan has served as an ambassador for Christian unity in Canada and the United States. “In order to stay inspired over that length of time, working for a cause where visible results are slow in coming, one needs some substantive motivating reasons,” he said, offering five fundamental reasons why unity is worthy of our time, energy and resources.
No. 1 is Jesus Christ, he said. “In Jesus’ final hours with his disciples at the Last Supper, the message he leaves with them has the character of a last will and testament. In John 17, he says, ‘Father, I pray for those who believe in me. May they all be one as you Father are in me and I in you, may they be one in us so that the world may believe.’ There’s no doubting the centrality in Jesus’ priorities and values for his followers.”
Ryan continued, quoting Pope John Paul II, who in the encyclical On Commitment for Ecumenism writes: “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.”
Ryan explained further that “concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone according to the ability of each. Christ calls everyone to renew their commitment to work for full and visible communion of Jesus’ followers.”
The second reason that keeps Ryan engaged in the work of ecumenism is the teaching of the apostles.
“The theme of Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his followers is picked up by his associates and is expressed in a variety of images in their writings and teachings. In the Letters to the Ephesians and to the Corinthians, Paul places emphasis on ‘one.’ ”
Ryan offered 1 Corinthians 12 as a scriptural reference for this emphasis, which speaks of the one Body of Christ with its many members: “Faithful to the biblical mandate,” he explained, “the World Council of Churches states that the goal of the ecumenical movement is ‘to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.’ ”
A third motivation is what Ryan called the “credibility of the Gospel.”
Christian lack of unity presents a great obstacle for the proclamation of the Gospel, he explained. “The essential message of the Gospel is that we are reconciled with God and with one another through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the primary mission of the church is to carry that message to the world.” If our Christian mission is not unified, the Gospel message we proclaim loses its credibility. “Evangelism and ecumenism are two sides of one coin. We can’t effectively promote the Good News when we are divided among ourselves.”
A fourth reason for remaining engaged in ecumenism, according to Ryan, is the Trinity. A way of understanding the triune God is to “conceive of the Trinity as life in community. A community of persons made up of diverse gifts and missions, all of whom love, honour and respect one another.”
Ryan highlighted the importance of recognizing the diversity that exists within the unity Christians seek: “God’s own life in community is a model for our life in the community of the church, and the overarching characteristic of God’s trinitarian life is unity in diversity.” This diversity “is a dimension of the church’s catholicity, its universality.”
Finally, Ryan outlined the vocation of the church as the fifth motivation for staying faithful to the work of ecumenism: “A key concept of what the church essentially is, is the biblical notion of koinonia, which is the Greek word referring to our deep communion with one another in the trinitarian life.”
The church is called to be a communion of communions, “and the ultimate goal of the movement for Christian reconciliation is the establishment of full, visible unity among all the baptized, so that the churches may truly become a sign of that full communion in the one, holy and apostolic church of Jesus Christ.”
We must be ambassadors for Christian reconciliation, Ryan concluded. “The reception of a common life among Christians is at the very heart of God’s plan for the church and the world.”