Learning From Other Churches: Ecumenists Find Hope in Pope Francis

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (CNS) — Supporters of a new method for promoting Christian unity hailed the election of Pope Francis as presenting new opportunities for the Catholic Church to do what they believe all Christians must do: honestly face their internal problems, grow in fidelity to Christ and ask what their ecumenical partners can teach them.

In a message to the third International Receptive Ecumenism conference, Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury said, “This is a period that represents grace and trust.”

Addressing about 150 church leaders, ministers and theologians attending the conference 9-12 June at Fairfield University, Archbishop Welby said, “We now know each other well enough to show our wounded hands to each other, asking that the other will minister to us from their particular gifts so that we each might be drawn close to the teachings of Christ and grow more deeply into Christ in the way we each need, so that we can in turn grow more closely together in the communion of the Trinity.”

“The papacy of Pope Francis,” he said, “provides us, as I see it, with a time of grace-filled opportunity, where there is confidence, humility, Spirit-filled spontaneity, and recognition of the strength of symbol and gesture for greater commitment to learn from each other’s traditions and see the potential in the other in a way that can transform us as church.”

Paul D. Murray, professor of theology at Durham University in England, convener of the receptive ecumenism conferences and a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, has described receptive ecumenism as a method in which the churches stop asking what the other needs to learn from them and begin asking what they need to learn from the other. It includes taking action to make visible what the churches have said, in 50 years of ecumenical dialogue, that they hold in common.

Receptive ecumenism is “a call to conversion, to grow, to learn more about the Lord’s call to us, not just learning about the other, but from the other,” he said at the conference’s opening session.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, also sent a message to the Fairfield conference.

“In all parts of the world,” he wrote, “receptive ecumenism is seeking to provide a road map for further progress along this path” of dialogue aimed at full Christian unity.

“Receptive ecumenism proposes that, in a dialogue of truth, we are honest about our weaknesses and allow them to become ‘a bond of union,’“ the cardinal wrote. Christian communities face so many common problems that openness and honesty about those challenges can provide a new opportunity for their relationship to grow.

Father Anthony Currer, an official at the pontifical council, told conference participants that all Christian communities in Europe and North America share the challenge of smaller congregations, difficulty in communicating the faith to a new generation and to secular societies, declining numbers of clergy and, very often, internal differences that strain the denomination’s unity.

Calling the current time the “middle miles of the marathon” of work toward full Christian unity, Father Currer said receptive ecumenism seems to provide a response to those disappointed in the pace of ecumenism by recognizing how much has been accomplished and building on the relationships that have been established.

Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Catholic co-chair of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, noted that since the last receptive ecumenism conference in 2009 both the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Communion have elected new leaders and that both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby have incorporated ideas from the method into their speeches and writing.

For example, in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis wrote, “If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from other another. It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us.”

“A shift is taking place and there is support for receptive ecumenism among our leaders,” Bishop Bolen said on 10 June.

Catherine E. Clifford, a professor at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario, and a member of the Canadian Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, told the conference, “I see a quantum leap forward in Pope Francis’ call for the evangelical renewal of ecclesial structures,” including his specific mention to an Orthodox delegation in June 2013 about how much Catholics can learn from the Orthodox about the collegiality of bishops and the collaborative work of synods.

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