The following article by Fr. John Crossin, OSFS, appeared in Catholic News Service's Faith Alive blog in Fall 2012.
The Ecumenical Movement: A School for Virtue
“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the
principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” This first sentence of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism (1964, #1) is still
surprising to many Catholics.
How did the church come to embrace the ecumenical movement?
Most authorities date the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement to the
Edinburgh (Scotland) World Missionary Conference of 1910. The Conference was a
gathering of Protestants and Anglicans. The Conference was concerned with collaboration
in Christian Missions. Then as now divisions among Christians were hindering
the acceptance of the gospel.
The sole Catholic participation was through a letter sent by
Bishop Bonomelli of Cremona, Italy wishing the participants well. The letter
was read aloud at the beginning of the Conference. Bishop Bonomelli mentioned at
the time to some priests that he knew, including Angelo Roncalli, that an
ecumenical council could come from the emergence of these church relationships.
The following fifty years witnessed occasional Catholic
participation in ecumenical conversations. There was some softening of Catholic
concerns about ecumenism over the decades.
There was interest among some theologians such as the Dominican priest Yves
Congar—who much later was named a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II—in ecumenical
matters. Congar wrote his groundbreaking book on Christian disunity in 1937.
These decades saw the founding of the World Council of
Churches after World War II and the increased activity of the National Council
of Churches in the United States.
Early in his pontificate Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) called
the Second Vatican Council. The Holy Spirit, who is the principle of Church
unity, had been gently at work during Pope John’s days as Papal Ambassador
first in Bulgaria (an Eastern Orthodox country), then in Turkey( a Muslim
country) and lastly in France (a secularizing country).
The Decree on
Ecumenism set the stage for the last fifty years of Catholic dialogue and
conversation with our Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican brothers and sisters. The Decree
gives “Catholic Principles on Ecumenism.”
Jesus prayed for unity, that his disciples be one, [Jn 17:21)
at the Last Supper. It is the Holy Spirit who brings about “the wonderful
communion of the faithful…” (#2) Ultimately Christian unity is God’s will and
God’s work and not solely our own.
The Decree exhorts
all Catholics to participate in the work on Christian unity (#4). This work,
our conversation, dialogue and service with others, calls for complete honesty.
We must represent the position of others with truth and fairness.
We are called to a gentle mutual respect and trust in one
another. For example, in the past we have sometimes engaged in comparing ‘our
best to their worst’. Honesty and mutual
respect call us to search the past and the present together in order to come to
the truth. Our conversation is based on the truth—as well as we can determine
This search leads us to acknowledge our own faults. ‘Christ
summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation
of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of men here on
Humility is a key virtue
for ecumenists. We need to repent of our past faults in order to embrace the current
guidance of the Holy Spirit. (#7)
The search leads us to value the virtues of our ecumenical
colleagues. “…anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of
our separated brethren can contribute to our edification.” (#4) I always
remember that after Vatican II one of the senior priest-theologians of my
religious order engaged in regular conversation with an Anglican colleague. He
remarked one day at lunch that while they had theological differences, the
Anglican priest was outstanding in living the Gospel.
In my experience, our conversation with our fellow
Christians leads us to look deeper into the roots of our own faith. We clarify
our deepest beliefs—and sometimes need to acknowledge our own misunderstandings
of Catholic belief.
Ecumenical dialogue, rather than making us less Catholic,
makes us more.
A deep search into our own faith can make us aware of
commonalities that we share with our fellow Christians. It is the Holy Spirit
who will help us work our way through the divergences which we also discover.
Ecumenical conversation leads us back to prayer. “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 merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism.’” (#8)
I think that ecumenical relationships are a School of
Virtue. To engage others we need humility, honesty, patience, and gentleness.
Sometimes we see these in our ecumenical partners. I hope they see them in us.
I believe that we need saints to lead us on the road to unity.
A final virtue for today is courage. Many Christians throughout the globe are dying
for their faith. Cardinal Koch of the Pontifical
Council for Promoting Christian Unity speaks of the Ecumenism of the
Martyrs. We have no better leaders.
John W. Crossin, OSFS