Ecumenical Beginnings

The Catholic Church's approach to ecumenism has developed significantly since its genesis more than a century ago. Its initial emphasis lay almost exclusively in the invitation to other denominations to return to the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" Church.

Vatican II brought a more positive approach to ecumenism, influenced heavily by the man who summoned the council, Pope John XXIII.

His Holiness' Vision: "Aggiornamento"

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in 1881, the future pope's ecumenical philosophy was formed by his experiences dialoguing with Orthodox and Muslim groups in Turkey and Greece through his appointment as Apostolic Delegate to those countries in 1935.  By the time Vatican II began in 1962, his catchphrase was the Italian word "aggiornamento," or the "updating" of the Church. It was understood to refer to a spirit of renewal sought by the pope.

Eighteen months before the Council convened, he formed a secretariat to oversee the presence of observers from other churches and ecclesial communities at Vatican II. At that time, the Council's Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) not only called for cooperation based on what was held in common, it also directed all Christians to propel themselves toward Christ and conversion of heart. To foster this effort, the Secretariat (now Pontifical Council) was made a permanent office of the Roman Curia in 1966.

The United States Joins In

Meanwhile, meeting in Rome during the third session of the II Vatican Council, the bishops of the United States established their Commission for Ecumenical Affairs, as it was originally called. Anticipating the ecumenical developments that would follow upon the actions of the Council, in April 1964 the Administrative Board of the Bishops' Conference appointed a special ad hoc committee under the chairmanship of Albert Cardinal Meyer to investigate the potential tasks and responsibilities the conference and the bishops would be facing in the ecumenical field and how a commission dedicated to this work might assist them.

The following November the full body of bishops voted approval of a mandate entrusted to this new commission. With then Monsignor (now Cardinal) William W. Baum as its first executive director, the staff office of the Commission opened on January 7, 1965 at the headquarters of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, D.C.

Now located across Michigan Ave. from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs is one of the offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.