The March election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as bishop of Rome has opened a new chapter on ecumenism in the Catholic Church — a chapter that is part of a long story that dates to the early centuries of the Christian faith.
The situation of Christianity in its present state of division is complex, with each division having its own theological, historical and cultural causes. The early ecumenical councils were called by the Roman emperors, then enthroned in Constantinople, to heal the divisions in the church that surfaced after Emperor Constantine ended Rome’s persecution of Christians. The councils may have achieved some consensus among Christians, but often these councils — and the manner of their implementation — deepened divisions that remain today. Those who rejected Ephesus in 431, for example, found refuge in the Church of the East, while opponents of Chalcedon in 451 formed the Oriental Orthodox family of churches.
The gradual divorce of the “Catholic” church of Rome from the “Orthodox” churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem became more definitive after the mutual excommunication of the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople in 1054. The Reformation of the 16th century shattered the Catholic unity of Western Europe, a process that continues to this day.
Search for unity. Yet even as these schisms deepened, awareness grew among some Christian leaders that division among them was wrong. Throughout the modern era, Anglican prelates approached Orthodox patriarchs and Orthodox clerics approached Catholic bishops, seeking dialogue, consensus and even unity.
The ecumenical movement — from the Greek oikoumene, meaning “the whole, inhabited world” — began in the early 20th century when Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike began to pray for the unity of Christ’s followers. The observance of the Church Unity Octave, later to become the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was one of the early responses to this growing feeling. Began in 1908 by the Rev. Paul Wattson, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, the Church Unity Octave was extended to the entire Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XV in 1916. At the same time theologians, largely in France, reflected on and wrote about the importance of the unity of Christians.
The work and prayers of so many have borne fruit. In 1960, Pope John XXIII set up the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity to assist in the preparations for an upcoming council the pope had called, he said, to open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air. He invited members of different Orthodox churches and Protestant communities as observers to the Second Vatican Council, during which the council fathers pressed for openness to dialogue, taking a clear stand for Christian unity in the post-Vatican II church.
“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council,” reads the opening paragraph in the council’s “Decree on Ecumenism,” proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
“Christ the Lord founded one church and one church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves … as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”
With the decree, the Catholic Church made ecumenism an integral and irrevocable part of its mission. This was something entirely new — and a sign of the church’s practical commitment to Christian unity.
Thirty years later, Pope John Paul II affirmed this in his encyclical, “Ut Unum Sint.”
“It is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian Unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ [the Holy Father’s emphasis] that is added to the church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently, must pervade all she is and does.’
In 1967, Paul VI took another step to underscore the importance of ecumenism, making the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity an office of the Roman Curia charged with engaging in dialogue with other Christians and promoting Christian unity. In March 1989, John Paul II restructured the curia and renamed the secretariat the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. The council maintains official international theological dialogues with the various Orthodox churches and Protestant communities.
Though the official dialogues of the Catholic Church take place under the auspices of the council, local and regional ecumenical efforts take place all over the world. For example, national episcopal conferences have an office for ecumenical and interreligious affairs. In some countries, the Catholic Church is a full member of the respective national council of churches, while in most dioceses, an ecumenical officer is charged with deepening relationships with other Christian communities.
The Catholic Church also enjoys a close relationship to the World Council of Churches (W.C.C.) in Geneva, to which 349 different Orthodox churches and Protestant denominations belong. Though not a member of this council, the Catholic Church is a full member of the W.C.C.’s Faith and Order Commission and holds a place on its Standing Commission. Every year a joint committee from the Faith and Order Commission and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity meets to prepare the theme, texts and prayers for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Thus, the ecumenical movement in the Catholic Church operates on several levels.
Toward unity. On 7 December 1965, as the council was drawing to a close, Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, Orthodoxy’s “first among equals,” issued a joint declaration that, among other things, rescinded the mutual excommunications of the year 1054. Though the declaration has not solved all the problems between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, nor has it restored full communion between them, it remains a powerful symbol of the desire of both churches to overcome more than a thousand years of division.
Every 29 June, a delegation from the ecumenical patriarchate observes the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome, at celebrations in the Eternal City. Likewise, a delegation from the Holy See takes part in ceremonies in Constantinople (Istanbul) marking the feast of St. Andrew, the founder of the Byzantine church, every 30 November.
The Catholic Church has also engaged in a productive dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, which include the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic and Syriac churches. In 1988, for example, the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church signed a Statement of Christological Agreement that removed many of the theological differences that had existed between the two churches since the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Christological understandings with the Armenian Apostolic and the Syriac Orthodox churches have also been reached while relations with the other Oriental Orthodox churches have improved.
In 2001, John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV, catholicos-patriarch of the Church of the East, issued a set of guidelines for admission to the Eucharist between the Catholic Chaldean Church and the Church of the East. Though full and perfect communion does not yet exist between the two — which have been separated since the Council of Ephesus in 431 — the guidelines provide for limited eucharistic sharing between believers of both communities. This follows developments between the two churches ending the relative isolation of the Church of the East since the fifth century.
Urgency of dialogue. It has been almost 50 years since the publication of the Decree on Ecumenism. It would be a mistake to underestimate the tremendous progress that has been made as Christians come to a deeper understanding of what we believe as we work toward the unity willed by Christ. That is not, however, a call to self-satisfaction.
As recently as the General Audience of 18 January 2012, the first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Benedict XVI said “the ecumenical task is a responsibility of the entire church and of all the baptized.”
He recognized that “since the birth of the ecumenical movement more than a century ago, there has always been a clear awareness that the lack of unity among Christians is an obstacle to a more effective proclamation of the Gospel.” But, the pope added: “The fundamental truths of the faith unite us more than they divide us.”
A long and challenging road lies ahead to complete Christian unity. But it is a road Pope Francis seems eager to travel. In addressing the delegation of the ecumenical patriarchate in Rome for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in late June, Pope Francis stressed that “the search for unity among Christians is an urgent task — you have said that ‘it is not a luxury, but an imperative’ — that, today more than ever, we cannot put aside.”
In this regard, the pope commented on the significance of “being able to reflect together in truth and charity … starting from what we have in common without, however, concealing that which still separates us.” He also stressed: “This is not a theoretical exercise: it demands in-depth knowledge of one another’s traditions in order to understand them and sometimes also to learn from them.
“It comforts me,” Francis said, “knowing that Catholics and Orthodox share the same conception of dialogue … based on the deepening of the truth that Christ has given to his church and that we, moved by the Holy Spirit, never cease to understand better. This is why we should not be afraid of encounter and true dialogue. It does not distance us from the truth but rather, through an exchange of gifts, leads us, under the guidance of the Spirit of truth, to the whole truth.”
Rev. Elias Mallon is a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement and CNEWA’s external affairs officer. He has written extensively about ecumenism and the Middle East.