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Promoting Christian Unity

The ecumenical work of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The Catholic Church, after centuries of caution and reluctance, assumed a more open attitude toward the modem ecumenical movement and to those churches not in full communion with the Church of Rome during the pontificate of John XXIII (1958-63). This new era opened with the Pope’s first radio message – delivered on his election day – and progressed with his call for a general council of bishops, Vatican II, which worked for the renewal of the Catholic Church and the union of all Christians.

This openness needed a forceful catalyst. After receiving a proposal from Archbishop Lorenz Jaeger of Paderborn, Germany, Augustin Cardinal Bea suggested to the Pope that he establish a pontifical commission dealing with ecumenical matters. On 5 June 1960, John XXIII created the Secretariat to Promote the Unity of Christians, one of the 11 preparatory commissions of Vatican II. On Christmas Day, 1965, John’s Successor, Pope Paul VI, explained the details of this secretariat and, on 6 August 1966, he made it equal in status to the other conciliar commissions.

During the council, the secretariat worked to ensure that the conciliar documents reflected a sound ecumenical dimension. Another important aspect of the secretariat’s work was with Orthodox and Protestant observers. These observers were a dramatic sign of the Catholic Church’s new attitude in ecumenical matters.

The council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, has become a magna carta of the Church of Rome’s commitment to ecumenism. In the decree, sound Catholic principles on ecumenism are clearly presented, along with procedures and practices of engagement. A new way of viewing other Christians, within the context of an already existing though partial communion, is outlined and emphasized.

This document represents a major move forward for the church. It seeks restoration of ties with other Christians rather than their return to Rome. The document admits that responsibility for the division of the Body of Christ exists on both sides and calls for a change of heart to make ecumenism possible. The document encourages dialogue and calls for the Catholic Church to reform itself as part of the process of reunion.

Pope Paul VI (1963-78) continued his predecessor’s commitment to renewal and reunion, reestablishing the secretariat by confirming its staff and consultors after the council closed. Thus the secretariat became a permanent department of the Holy See, charged with the application of the council’s directives on ecumenism.

In 1988 Pope John Paul II, in his constitution on the Roman Curia (the central administrative offices of the Catholic Church), Pastor Bonus, charged the newly named Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity with responsibility for carrying out ecumenical initiatives and activities and putting into practice those decrees of Vatican II pertaining to ecumenical matters.

The Council for Promoting Christian Unity, itself part of the Roman Curia, deals with the correct interpretation of the principles of ecumenism and directs their execution. The council also supervises the activities of national and international Catholic organizations promoting the unity of Christians.

The Council for Promoting Christian Unity has been responsible for a number of publications. First and foremast of these is the Ecumenical Directory. In the course of Vatican II, Archbishop Martin of Rouen, France, in presenting the third chapter of the draft on ecumenism, noted that in this document the council would deal only with general questions. He suggested publication of a directory, which would be drawn up later to deal with more specific issues.

The first Ecumenical Directory was published in two parts. In 1967, the first section dealt with the establishment of ecumenical commissions, fostering spiritual ecumenism in the Catholic Church and sharing spiritual activity and resources with other Christians. An important theological issue addressed in this volume was the validity of baptism conferred by ministers of other churches and ecclesial communities.

The second section, published in 1970, presented general principles and resources for ecumenical education and the religious dimension of theological education. It also introduced guidelines for ecumenical education and institutional and personal cooperation between Catholics and other Christians.

The Ecumenical Directory proved a valuable instrument of growth within the Catholic Church. A revised edition became more necessary upon completion of several more recent decrees by the Holy See: the Code of Canon Law (1983), the Constitution of the Roman Curia (1988) and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (1990). Consequently, a new Directory for the Application of the Principals and Norms on Ecumenism was issued on 25 March 1993.

In response to Vatican II’s constitution on Divine Revelation, which called for easy access to Scripture, Paul VI entrusted to the then secretariat the task of asking the bishops about the needs and possibilities of Bible translation and scholarship and about cooperation with other Christians in this field.

The United Bible Societies and Catholic scholars formulated guidelines that were jointly published in 1968 as “Guiding Principles for Inter-confessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible.” The document was revised in 1987.

And in order to make known as widely as possible the results of its work for Christian unity, the council publishes a quarterly information service in English and French.

The search for unity involves other dimensions of church life such as doctrine, discipline and liturgy. The Council for Promoting Christian Unity therefore works closely with the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Permanent interdepartmental commissions have been established to facilitate cooperation with these congregations.

General documents prepared by the Council for Promoting Christian Unity are shared with the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith so that any necessary corrections and other improvements may be made.

Several times each year, the cardinals who preside over the departments of the Roman Curia come together to examine more serious questions, coordinate work and exchange information and advice. The Council for Promoting Christian Unity also calls regular meetings to keep the secretaries of these departments abreast of ecumenical issues and trends.

In dealing with local ecumenism, the Ecumenical Directory suggests that the diocesan bishop set up a council, commission or secretariat to put into practice any ecumenical directives or orientations of the bishop and, in general, to promote ecumenical activity in the diocese. Should circumstances require it, several dioceses may establish such a commission or secretariat together.

The Ecumenical Directory further calls on “the synods of Eastern churches or of episcopal conferences to establish norms according to which the persons or commissions are to carry out the activities ascribed to them and to oversee the implementation of these norms.”

The assumption is that all Catholic churches, Latin and Eastern, are to be involved in promoting unity. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity takes to heart the affirmation of Vatican II: “The restoration of unity is the concern of the whole church, laity and clergy alike.”

Periodic meetings of presidents and secretaries of national ecumenical commissions from around the world, called by the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, ensure that the restoration of unity is indeed the concern of the whole church, laity and clergy. These meetings compare and expand the activities of the national ecumenical commissions.

Another priority of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has been to make contact with other churches and ecclesial communities. Under the direction of the Roman pontiff, it establishes dialogues and colloquies for promoting union with Christians of churches and ecclesial communities that do not yet have full communion with the Church of Rome, carrying out the work with trained experts in theology. The council sends Catholic observers to Christian meetings and invites, when appropriate, observers from other churches and ecclesial communities to Catholic gatherings.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is under the direction of a president, an Australian, Edward Cardinal Cassidy. He is assisted by a secretary, Bishop Pierre Duprey, a Missionary of Africa; a deputy secretary, Bishop Jean Claude Perisset; and an under secretary, Msgr. Eleuterio Fortino, a priest of the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church.

In its relations with other churches and ecclesial communities it is divided into two sections. The Eastern section deals with the Orthodox churches of the Byzantine and non-Byzantine traditions as well as the Assyrian Church of the East. The Western section works with the different churches and ecclesial communities of the West.

At present, the council is engaged in international theological dialogue with the Byzantine Orthodox churches, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syro-Malankara Orthodox churches, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Methodist Council, the Baptist World Alliance, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and some Pentecostal groups. Presently, the council also seeks to promote meetings with evangelical Christians.

On 22 October 1974, Pope Paul VI established a Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews as an office distinct from, but closely linked with, the council. The president of the council presides over this commission, with a full-time executive secretary, Father Remi Hoeckman, O.P., who ensures the day-to-day running of the commission, which seeks to implement the guidelines published by the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate.

Within this theological and pastoral perspective one can see the activity of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as a major endeavor of the Church of Rome. If the function of the council is to promote and direct, and its goal the restoration of unity among Christians, the motivation must always be the will of Christ, which obliges not only the hierarchy but all the people of God.

“Father, I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me” (John 17:21).

Father Gallaro, a priest of the Greek-Melkite Catholic Church, was formerly a staff member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

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