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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Ecumenism 25 Years Later

Unity between the Eastern and Western churches continues to be an ongoing process.

Pope John XXIII’s respect for the churches of the East is well-documented. This admiration is often cited as a source for the calling of the Second Vatican Council, an ecumenical synod dedicated to reforming the Church. Pope Paul VI, John XXIII’s successor, continued and implemented the reforms of this ecumenical council.

In November 1964, this college of bishops promulgated three documents that have had lasting impact on the life of the Church: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatus Redintegratio) and the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum).

November 21, 1989, was the 25th anniversary of Orientalium Ecclesiarum. This innovative document set the tone for the goal of reunion with the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Members of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church have a need to learn more about their brothers and sisters of the Eastern churches, of their liturgical rites, their rich religious traditions and spirituality. “All clerics and those aspiring to sacred orders should be well instructed in various rites and especially in the principles which are involved in interritual questions. As part of their catechetical education, the laity, too, should be taught about these rites and their rules.” In North America, Eastern Catholics of the Armenian, Byzantine (Hungarian, Melkite, Romanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Slovak and Ukrainian), Chaldean, Coptic, Ethiopian, Maronite, Syrian and Syro-Malabar rites have parishes. As members of the Catholic Church we share the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government.

The Church is the holy sphere in which the Holy Trinity dwells in our midst. The living unity of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit is revealed in their work, the Church. The origin of the Church is from God the Father. He sends his Son into the world so that he may call and gather together out of disunited, sinful humanity a new people.

The life of the Church is a share in the life of Christ, and as Christ exists from the Father, so also does the Church. The mission of the Church is a share in the mission of Christ, and as Christ was sent from the Father, so is the Church.

The mystery of the Church is primarily and at its deepest level an internal communion in faith, hope and charity of those who live out their fellowship with one another and with Christ, his Holy Spirit, and God the Father. But it is also an external, visible institution of means which beget and bring about this communion: the preaching of the Gospel, the administering of the sacraments and the governing of the faithful. The external, visible institution left to human weakness and sin has not always been faithful to its internal communion. Therefore the Council Fathers speak about the need of continual renewal. “In ecumenical work, Catholics must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren, praying for them, keeping them informed about the Church, making the first approaches towards them. But their primary duty is to make an honest and careful appraisal of whatever needs to he renewed and achieved in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may hear witness more loyally and luminously to the teachings and ordinances which have been handed down from Christ through the Apostles.”

However, “the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from effecting the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her sons [and daughters] who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her.

Furthermore, the Church herself finds it more difficult to express in actual life her full catholicity in all its aspects.”

While we all, laity and clergy alike, must concern ourselves with the restoration of unity, we must first begin with ourselves. The Decree on Ecumenism speaks about “interior conversion,” “change of heart,” “holiness of life,” as well as “public and private prayer” for the restoration of unity among Christians.

The Council Fathers outlined the principles and practice of ecumenism. In the Decree on Ecumenism, the principle division between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Western churches and ecclesiastical communities is described. The Fathers concluded that “ecumenical activity must not be other than fully and sincerely Catholic, that is, loyal to the truth we have received from the apostles and the Father, and in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed, and at the same time tending toward that fullness with which our Lord wants his body to he endowed in the course of time.”

The present pontiff, Pope John Paul II, has stated that the one Church must breathe with two lungs: The Church of the East and the Church of the West. Without these two lungs working together, the Body of Christ is handicapped as it strives to live the Gospel.

In the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches, Council Fathers specifically addressed those churches and their ecumenical role. They spoke about these various Eastern rites as “a wonderful bond of union that … so far from diminishing its unity, rather serves to emphasize it. For the Catholic Church wishes the traditions of each particular church or rite to remain whole and entire, and it likewise wishes to adapt its own way of life to the needs of different times and places.”

The decree addresses our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Orthodox churches in tones of genuine affection and esteem. It places the Eastern churches in communion with the See of Rome in a very unique and specific task “to manifest to the separated brethren that church unity can be effected without the particular churches losing their individual characteristics.”

In the conclusion of this document the Council Fathers strongly urge both Eastern and Western Catholics to pray daily that “all may be one.” It then extends beyond the topic of the Catholic Church and Orthodox churches to suggest praying “also that the strength and the consolation of the Holy Spirit may descend copiously upon all those many Christians of whatsoever church who endure suffering and deprivations for their unwavering loyalty to the name of Christ.”

Ecumenism is a mission of hope. Its holy objective “transcends human powers and gifts.” Ecumenical steps are measured in God’s time, not ours. If we are impatient with immediate results in this work, we will simply have to learn something about the patience of God.

Brother William Martyn, S.A. is the executive secretary of the Ecumenical and Inter-religious Commission of the Archdiocese of New York.

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