Ecumenism in the 21st Century

John 17:11 tells us that shortly before his Passion began, the Lord prayed to the Father, “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may become one just as we are” (John 17:11). 

Although 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 can be traced back to the early Church. 

When he heard that Christians were claiming ties with Paul, Apollo, or Cephus, Paul himself asked Corinthians, “Has Christ been divided?” 

He urged the Christians to “be of one mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).

Two thousand years later, we look around and see that Christian unity is far from complete and that we must continue to work for it. 

Christian unity is something we talk about. It’s something we long for. It’s something we repeat every time we recall the Nicene Creed: “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” 

But we do not live it. This can be seen by countless Christian denominations, individual faith communities, megachurches, and non-denominational communities.

We might get discouraged when we see this division and realize how many differences come between us and full Christian communion. 

Nevertheless, as baptized Christians, we need to actively engage in ecumenism and trust that the Spirit can bring about the unity the Lord desires for his Church. 

Christian unity, in the end, comes from God’s grace rather than our efforts.

Real Challenges

There are genuine challenges that cannot be resolved overnight for the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communions seeking union. 

Theological challenges like understanding the role of the Papacy, the sacraments, Easter date, nature and function of the Blessed Mother and pilgrim saints, and the relationship between faith and works come to mind.

There are other, less obvious challenges. Sometimes conflicting cultures and traditions hinder ecclesial communities from coming together. 

Mutual distrust and painful memories from the past can stifle unity. 

On the macro level, denominations tend to trust each other hesitantly, and on the micro-level, individual Christians struggle with prejudices and hurtful experiences. 

Lack of mutual respect or fear of “sheep-stealing” also play a role.

All of these attitudes and actual differences of belief and moral expectations make ecumenism an ongoing challenge. 

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. As Pope Francis explains, “Unity won’t happen by a miracle at the end. One thing that brings unity, rather, is the journeying” (Homily after the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 27, 2014).

Real Progress

Yes, there are challenges, but progress has been made too. Many theological and pastoral steps have been achieved toward greater unity.

Joint Declaration 1999

In 1999, almost 400 years after the Protestant Reformation began, the Catholic Church and Lutherans released a joint statement on the doctrine of justification. 

Although there are still many differences, we have agreed on the central issue that caused the split. 

The World Methodist Council, representing 80 Methodist denominations globally, ratified the declaration in 2005. 

As 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, numerous Lutheran leaders have invited Catholics to explore the history of the split, the relationship between the Lutherans and Catholics, and the possibilities of reunification.

Church Leaders

While Church leaders and theologians discuss doctrine to eventually arrive at visible unity, Christians have worked together to provide healthcare, education, and essential aid to those in need.


Several denominations have worked together within the U.S. to promote Christian values, including respect for all life and witness to the gospel’s truth.

Catholic and Orthodox leaders have made more joint statements and acknowledge that unity is essential.

Orthodox and Catholic 

Orthodox and Catholic representatives have talked about the need for reconciliation between the two churches and the union’s possibility of theological dialogue on a shared understanding of the papacy and synodality.

Beyond Structural Unity

Christian unity requires patience, reconciliation, forgiveness, humility, Christian charity, and an enduring desire for truth. 

Unity requires all of us; it occurs at all levels. While theologians continue to study and suggest how structural unity can be achieved, the rest of us can foster unity through personal relationships, ministry, and community engagement.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 Christian unity.
  3. 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 various 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.
  4. 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

  • Participate in ecumenical events, study groups, and prayer services whenever you can.
  • Invite friends of different denominations to pray when you get together.
  • Educate your children about the importance of ecumenical dialogue, ministry, and friendship.
  • Read documents about ecumenical dialogue.
  • Become a member of a local ecumenical organization or ministry or volunteer at a local ecumenical organization.
  • Join Bible studies with other faith communities. Share your beliefs and perspectives and respect the contributions others have to offer.
  • Continue reaching out, talking to others, taking part in joint events, and being open to dialogue about unity. Unity doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but friendships are formed over time, and new points of unity are discovered or achieved.

What Your Parish Can Do

  • Host ecumenical events. Invite speakers from your denomination and other faiths to discuss specific topics, addressing both common beliefs and differences.
  • Be sure to keep your parish community up to date with ecumenical teachings and progress through the bulletin and parish website.
  • Invite other local ecclesial communities to participate in a Bible study.
  • Promote religious events organized by others.
  • Find out what ministries other local parishes offer. Work together to address the needs of the local community and reach out to the marginalized.
  • Let us establish an ecumenical committee to organize and lead the parish’s ecumenical efforts.
  • Celebrate liturgical feasts like Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter.
  • Team up with another Church to fundraise for a typical project or cause.
  • Plan an ecumenical day to reflect on Christian unity.
  • Choose a day of the week or a day of the month to be dedicated to Christian unity. Invite nearby churches to join you in praying for more vital Christian unity on that day.

Tips for Ecumenical Dialogue

If you’re reaching out on your own or as part of a parish sponsored event or committee, you’ll find yourself interacting with Christians of other faiths. Here are a few simple steps you can take to increase your effectiveness.

  • Be respectful. Let the other person know that you care about them and respect their views.
  • Be willing to learn. As Catholics, we believe that our Church possesses the fullness of truth for which we are called to share. Other Christians as well and need to be open to their contributions.
  • Dialogue cannot begin unless all parties are sincere and trust the other.
  • Listen to what the other person has to say before responding. Try to approach the table without preconceived assumptions and listen without interrupting.
  • Be grateful for the opportunity to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters, to pray with them, and to be aware of the movements of the Holy Spirit.
  • Serve and open yourself to the other person.
  • Look for points of agreement. Shared beliefs are the foundation of Christian unity.

Where You Can Learn More

The Catholic Church has been advocating Christian unity for centuries. Since Vatican II, an ecumenical dialogue has emphasized Christians’ necessity to be united in mind and heart and bear witness to Christianity’s truth in the public sphere. Several documents explain the Church’s teachings on ecumenism.

  • Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism).
  • Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One)
  • Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus). 
    • The Fullness of Revelation in Jesus Christ
    • The Incarnate Logos and the Holy Spirit in Salvation
    • The Unity and Universality of the Salvific Mystery of Jesus Christ
    • Unicity and Unity of the Church
    • The Church: Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Christ
    • The Church and Other Religions in Relation to Salvation
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church.
  • Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. 

In the end, ecumenism is not about who’s right or wrong on a given set of issues. It’s about a standard search for the good. Truth and the quest for Christian unity are emphasized in the Gospels. 

The Lord himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, so we can all participate in this search for truth. If all Christians unite in searching for the truth, we will journey together and reach our shared goal of full Christian unity in the person of Jesus Christ.