Once again Christians around the world observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January). This Week of Prayer has special meaning for CNEWA because we work with different Christians and even proclaim on the front of our magazine “One God, World, Human Family, Church.” CNEWA has another deep connection to the Week of Prayer. Servant of God Paul Wattson, the founder of the Church Unity Octave (1908) — which became the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — was also instrumental in the founding of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).
This year I would like to reflect on how the words “ecumenism” and “ecumenical” have evolved in the church over almost 20 centuries. More than just an exercise in ecclesiastical “archaeology,” reflecting on these ideas may open new and creative ways of being ecumenical.
Both the words “ecumenism” and “ecumenical” and the concept they evoke have evolved greatly over time — and perhaps more so in the last 70 years than in the previous 1,900 years. The word “ecumenical” is derived from the Greek word oikumene, which is related to oikia, which means home. In classical times, oikumene meant the known, the inhabited and the habitable world. In fact, it also implied the civilized, cultured, i.e., Greek-speaking world. In Christianity, the word was used to refer to church councils attended by bishops from all over the Roman Empire. Never a purely geographic term, “ecumenical” soon had the connotation of orthodox (as opposed to heterodox) and in communion.
Although there have always been movements among some Western Christians to overcome the divisions between the Eastern and Western Churches and the Catholic Church and the Churches of the Reformation, the second half of the 19th century saw an increasing movement toward Christian unity. Called by several different names, many of the groups in the West working for Christian unity started to use the word “ecumenical.” If for centuries, the ecclesiastical usage of the word presumed an already existing unity and communion — namely those who took part in ecumenical councils — the meaning of the word “ecumenical” in the 19th century took a 180-degree turn and came to mean basically the opposite. It was used to refer to movements that were trying to restore lost or broken unity and communion.
For almost 2,000 years an “ecumenical meeting” meant a meeting of people who were already in communion. In the 21st century, an “ecumenical meeting” means a gathering of people who are not in communion but wish to work towards it.
After Vatican II, the Catholic Church and other churches also began engaging in interreligious dialogue, i.e., dialogue between Christians and members of the other great (non-Christian) religions of the globe. Although the Catholic Church was careful to distinguish between ecumenism, which is between Christians with the ultimate goal of Christian unity, and interreligious dialogue, which is with non-Christians with the ultimate goal of better understanding, one cannot say the distinction has been widely accepted.
Pope Francis, like his predecessors since Pope John XXIII, has been committed to and engaged in both the ecumenical and interreligious (narrowly understood) endeavors. Francis, however, has added a new, rather personal, and important dynamic to the endeavors — namely, personal relationships. What makes this significant is that these relationships are not merely personal; they are eminently practical. Two examples come to mind immediately: papal encyclicals and the friendship Francis shares with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Grand Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb.
Papal encyclicals are letters sent from the bishop of Rome to other bishops and the Catholic faithful around the world. They are “ecumenical” in the ancient sense, i.e., to those in communion with the pope. In his encyclical “Laudato si’: On Protecting Our Common Home,” Pope Francis specifically addresses the letter to all people of good will. In his most recent encyclical, “Fratelli tutti,” Francis writes: “Although I have written it from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will.”
The pope worked closely with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in writing “Laudato si’” and the patriarch had one of his theologians help the preparatory work on the encyclical. In a similar and extraordinary way, Pope Francis and Sheikh el-Tayeb published the joint document “On Human Fraternity” in Abu Dhabi on 2 February 2019.
This is an example of inter-church, interfaith cooperation for the benefit of humanity. It is ecumenism in the broader understanding.
While we must never give up the quest for Christian unity — ecumenism narrowly understood — perhaps the words “ecumenism” and “ecumenical” have continued to evolve. Perhaps this evolution is from God. If ecumenism started off involved with the oikumene, “the inhabited world,” perhaps it is evolving into a movement in which people of good will and all faiths work together to make our world — our common home, as Francis calls it — once again truly habitable.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.