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 it.

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 earth.” (#6)

 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