Ecumenism in the 21st Century: Can We Really Be One?

The Gospel of John tells us that, shortly before his Passion began, the Lord prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are” (John 17:11). While we often associate division among Christians with the schisms that led to the Orthodox Churches and the Reformation that led to Protestant denominations, division among Christians goes back to the early Church. Paul himself asked the Church of Corinth, “Has Christ been divided?” when he heard that Christians were claiming to belong to Paul, Apollo or Cephus. He urged the Christians to “be united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).

Two thousand years later, we look around and see that we are still far from Christian unity and must still work on being of the same mind and purpose. We talk about it. We long for it. We reiterate the significance of Christian unity every time we say the Nicene Creed and refer to the Church the Lord founded as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. But we don’t live it, as can be seen by the existence of countless Christian denominations, individual faith communities, megachurches and non-denominational communities.

When we see this division and realize how many differences come between us and full Christian communion, we might get a little discouraged. Nonetheless, each of us, as a baptized Christian, is called to actively engage in ecumenism and trust that the Holy Spirit can bring about the unity the Lord wills for his Church. In the end, Christian unity is possible because it doesn’t rely only on our efforts, but on God’s grace.

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Real Challenges

The Catholic Church and other ecclesial communions interested in union face very real challenges that can’t be reconciled overnight. Theological challenges, such as the understanding of the role of the Papacy, the sacraments, the date of Easter, the nature and role of the Blessed Mother and the saints, and the relationship between faith and works come to mind.

There are other, less obvious challenges as well, such as ethnic realities. Sometimes conflicting cultures and traditions make it difficult for ecclesial communities to come together. Lack of trust between groups and painful memories from the past can make unity difficult. This can be true on the macro level, with different denominations hesitant to trust each other, and on the micro level as individual Christians from different faith communities struggle to overcome prejudices or let go of hurtful experiences. Lack of respect mutual respect or fear of “sheep-stealing” can also come into play.

All of these attitudes, as well as actual differences of belief and moral expectations make ecumenism an ongoing challenge. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. As Pope Francis explains, “Unity will not come about as a miracle at the very end. Rather unity comes about in journeying” (Homily at the Conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 27, 2014).

Real Progress

Yes, the challenges are real, but progress is real too. Many theological and pastoral steps toward greater unity have been achieved.

  • The Catholics and Lutherans released a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification in 1999, almost 400 years after the start of the Protestant Reformation. While numerous differences remain, we have reached agreement on one of the major issues that caused the original split. The World Methodist Council, representing 80 Methodist denominations accepted the declaration in 2005. As the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation approaches in 2017, numerous Lutherans leaders have invited the Catholic Church to join them in studying and discussing the history of the split, the current relationship between the Lutherans and Catholics, and pathways to future unity.
  • While Church leaders and theologians talk about doctrinal differences with the goal of ultimately reaching visible unity, Christians from various denominations have worked together around the world to provide healthcare, education and basic aid to the suffering and marginalized.
  • Multiple denominations have worked together within the U.S. to promote common Christian values, including respect for life in all its phases, and witness to the truth of the gospel.
  • Catholic and Orthodox leaders have increased the frequency of joint declarations, and mutually acknowledge the importance of unity. Representatives from both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches have spoken of the urgent need for reconciliation between the two Churches and the possibility of reaching union if a common understanding of the role of the papacy and synodality can be reached and theological dialogue on other issues continued.

Beyond Structural Unity

The road to Christian unity is a messy one that takes patience, reconciliation, forgiveness, humility, Christian charity and an enduring desire for truth. This means all of us need to be involved; unity happens at all levels. While theologians keep studying and dialoguing about tenets of the faith and how structural unity can be reached, the rest of us can be fostering unity through personal relationships, ministry and community engagement.

  • The Lord called his disciples friends. All of us united in the Christian faith are brothers and sisters. We share the same Father. We are all called to be friends of the Lord and friends to each other. We can increase Christian unity by developing personal friendships with people from different denominations and faith communities. Getting to know each other is the best way to build trust, come to understand the differences between us and overcome our differences through Christian charity.
  • We share the same God and we all believe in salvation through Jesus Christ. Even though we can’t share at the same Eucharistic table until differences of belief have been resolved, we can come together in prayer. We can pray together for each other, for the needs of others, and for Christian unity.
  • Christians can’t be united in what we believe without first genuinely understanding what we believe. We need to study what we believe and what other Christians believe. We need to talk to other Christians and, above all listen to them. Studying the history of different denominations can help us understand better different cultural factors that played a role in divisions between Christians and shed light on possible misunderstandings. Studying the current tenets of various denominations can help us identify not only differences, but also commonalities. Things we share in common provide a great starting point for unified action, advocacy, ministry and prayer.
  • We can join each other in bearing witness to God’s love by voicing the truth of the gospel message, reaching out to the marginalized and defending the dignity of life.

What You Can Do

  • Keep an eye out for ecumenical events, prayer services and study groups in your area. Participate whenever you can.
  • Invite friends from different denominations to pray with you when you get together.
  • Are you a parent? Teach your children about the importance of ecumenical dialogue, ministry and friendships.
  • Read Church documents about ecumenical dialogue.
  • Volunteer at local ecumenical organizations and ministries.
  • Join Bible studies with people from other faith communities. Share your beliefs and perspectives and value the contributions others have to offer.
  • Be patient. Keep going. Continue to reach out, talk to others, be open to dialogue, and participate in joint events. Unity doesn’t come easily or quickly, but with time and consistency, strong relationships can be forged and new points of unity can be discovered or achieved.

What Your Parish Can Do

  • Host ecumenical events. Invite speakers from your faith and other denominations to address specific topics, delving into both commonly held beliefs and differences.
  • Keep your parish community up to date on ecumenical progress and teachings through the bulletin and parish website.
  • Start a Bible study and invite other local ecclesial communities to participate.
  • Promote ecumenical events organized by other faith communities.
  • Meet with representatives from other local ecclesial communities and introduce them to any ministries your parish runs. Find out what ministries they offer. Work together to meet the needs of the local community and reach out to the marginalized.
  • Start an ecumenical committee to organize and lead the parish’s ecumenical efforts.
  • Organize ecumenical prayer services in celebration of common liturgical feasts and seasons, like Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.
  • Pair up with another Church for a fundraiser that will go toward a common project or cause.
  • Plan an ecumenical day of reflection focused on Christian unity.
  • Pick a day of the week or a day each month to be dedicated to Christian unity. Invite nearby ecclesial communities to join you in praying for increased Christian unity on that day.

Tips for Ecumenical Dialogue

Whether you’re reaching out on your own, or participating in a parish sponsored event or committee, you will find yourself representing the Catholic faith to Christians of different denominations. Following a few simple suggestions can make your encounter more effective.

  • Be respectful. Show the other person that you care about them and respect their views.
  • Be willing to learn. As Catholics, we believe our Church has the fullness of the truth and we are called to share that fullness. That being said we can learn from the faith and witness of other Christians as well and need to be open to their contributions.
  • Dialogue can’t proceed forward unless everyone involved is sincere and genuinely trusts the good will of the others.
  • Eager as we are to share our own opinions, we need to listen first. Try to approach the table without preset assumptions. Listen to what the other person is saying. Try to understand them before responding.
  • Be grateful. Every ecumenical experience is an opportunity to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters, to pray with them and to be attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit.
  • Be humble. Lead by serving and opening yourself to the other person.
  • Look for points of agreement. What unites us is stronger than what divides us; the beliefs we share are the starting point of Christian unity. Understanding this

Where You Can Learn More

The Catholic Church has believed in the importance of Christian unity for centuries. Given an ever growing urgency for Christians to be united in mind and heart and bear witness to the truth of Christianity in the public sphere, and an openness on the part of multiple ecclesial communities to go forward seeking the truth together, ecumenical dialogue has been strongly emphasized since Vatican II. There are several documents we can refer to if we want to learn more about the Church’s teachings on ecumenism.

  • Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism). This Vatican II decree presents some principles of ecumenism, discusses how ecumenism can be practiced, addresses the Catholic Church’s ecumenical relationship with specific ecclesial communities such as the Eastern Churches and Protestant communities, highlights ecumenical progress and stresses the importance of mutual respect.
  • Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). This encyclical discusses the Catholic Church’s relations with the Orthodox Church and Christian ecclesial communities. It speaks of the importance of Christian unity and illustrates the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenical dialogue and unity. The document also identifies certain tenets of the faith that must be discussed and clearly understood for unity to be achieved: the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the sacramental nature of priestly ordination, the role of the papacy and magisterium of the Church, and the Blessed Mother.
  • Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus). This declaration, promulgated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has six sections dedicated to essential elements of the Catholic faith in the context of the Church’s relationship with other faiths.
    • The Fullness and Definitiveness of Revelation in Jesus Christ
    • The Incarnate Logos and the Holy Spirit in the Work of Salvation
    • The Unicity and Universality of the Salvific Mystery of Jesus Christ
    • Unicity and Unity of the Church
    • The Church: Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Christ
    • The Church and Other Religions in Relation to Salvation
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church. Numbers 813-822 of the catechism focus on the importance of unity in the Church. The catechism addresses the theological foundation for Christian unity, acknowledges the wounds to unity, and gives guidelines for working toward unity.
  • Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. This document discusses practical issues regarding how ecumenism can be carried out by the Catholic Church, and the importance of cooperation, dialogue and witness.

Remember that, in the end, ecumenism isn’t about who’s right or wrong on a given set of issues. It’s about a common search for the truth and the desire to achieve the Christian unity called for in the Gospels. We can all participate in this search for truth. The Lord himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life. If all Christians unite in our search for the truth, we will journey together and reach our common goal of full Christian unity in the person of Jesus Christ.

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