BY BISHOP HOWARD J. HUBBARD
Later this month (Jan. 18-25), we celebrate the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, during which we in the Roman Catholic community are called to engage in prayer with our sister Christian denominations for the unity which Jesus envisioned for His followers, "that all may be one as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us that the world may believe that you sent me" (John 17:21-22).
This year's observance takes on particular relevance as we observe the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, which issued the 1964 Decree on Ecumenism, "Unitatis Redintegratio."
It should be noted that this decree of the council brought the Roman Catholic community into ecumenical dialogue after a half-century of resistance. The pioneering project for seeking unity between Christians is usually seen as dating from 1910, the year of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. That was a gathering of Protestant missionaries who came to realize that, in their missionary work, the Gospel of the unity of humanity in Christ was being preached from competing and, indeed, conflicting pulpits.
Out of this meeting came two movements, "Life and Work" and "Faith and Order," which led to the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, consisting of the mainline Protestant churches and the Orthodox communities.
However, as Archbishop Emeritus Kevin McDonald of Southwark, England, notes: "The Roman Catholic Church saw ecumenism as a danger, a movement that gave the impression that all Christians were on an equal footing." Thus, entering the council, in the minds of most leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, the goal of ecumenism was to end the schism with the Orthodox and to have Protestants return to the one true Church.
However, following the council's Decree on Ecumenism, because we as a community opened ourselves to dialogue and communication and this openness was met with mutual reciprocity, and because we have come to realize that the bonds which unite us are much stronger than the historical and doctrinal differences which have tended to separate us, this pre-council mindset changed dramatically.
After Vatican II
Subsequent to the council, there was a renewed burst of ecumenical activities. In our Diocese, a Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs was formed. Many Catholic parishes began participation in ecumenical and interfaith organizations.
There emerged pulpit exchanges; joint Thanksgiving Day, Palm Sunday and Good Friday observances; and an ecumenical baptismal witness program. There also arose shared social service ventures like TAUM (Troy Area United Ministries), SICM (Schenectady Inner City Ministry) and CREO (the Capital Region Ecumenical Organization).
The denominational leaders of the mainline Christian denominations formed a Judicatory Executive Forum that meets quarterly to discuss issues of mutual concern, and there was launched an Association of Ecumenical Officers. These are just a few of the developments within our Diocese over the past half-century.
These local initiatives have been mirrored by dialogues and activities at the national and international levels, which produced the 1999 "Joint Declaration [between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic communities] on the Doctrine of Justification," resolving the central theological issue which gave rise to the Reformation.
There has also been a common understanding of the nature of ministry. A "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" document was adopted in Lima in 1982, and there was also the development of a project known as Christian Churches Together.
Pope John Paul II, in particular, was a staunch advocate for Christian unity, striving for reunion with the Orthodox churches so that the Church may again "breathe with both lungs." In his encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" ("That All May Be One"), he invited ecumenical dialogue about how the papacy or Petrine office should be exercised in a markedly changed Christian world.
Slowing down However, while these ecumenical strides have been significant and sustained, it must be noted that the pace of ecumenism has slowed considerably in recent years and new obstacles to unity have arisen. In other words, the initial wave of advances which were made especially following the Second Vatican Council has now been followed by a period of sobering realism.
The reasons for such are complex, including declining membership, fiscal constraints being experienced by denominations and internal issues to be addressed between and within our churches - like recognition of same-sex marriage, the nature of authority or who can be ordained, and the natural ebb and flow of movements and relationships, just to mention a few.
As one noted ecumenist observed, "We have had the honeymoon and now we are faced with the arduous task of building a solid marriage."
Others have suggested that ecumenism is in crisis. But crises can be viewed not only in the negative sense of the breakdown of what has been built up over the past century or so, but also in the original Greek sense of the term "crisis," which signals a turning point where things are hanging in the balance. In time of crisis old ways come to an end, but this opens up the doors for new possibilities.
Commenting on this reality, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the former president of the Vatican Council for Promoting Christian Unity, suggests there are some immediate dangers to be avoided.
Do's and don'ts The first danger is that many young people of all our denominations in the United States are unaware of the divisions and hostilities which existed formerly and are still prevalent elsewhere. Hence, there has developed a kind of indifference or lack of interest.
Second, despite the warning of the Council that we must not bypass issues of doctrine and simply come together as friends to do service, unfortunately, at the grassroots level, this latter approach frequently has become the norm.
The third problem is that the ecumenical and interfaith dialogue runs the risk of becoming a purely academic affair among scholars. Although not denying the importance of a serious theological underpinning for ecumenical dialogue, as the first admonition noted, there is the concern that, often, the faithful in the congregation are excluded, and thus become either disinterested or uninformed.
The final danger is that we embark upon an endless series of conferences, symposia, commissions, meetings, sessions, projects and high-level events with the perpetual repetition of the same arguments, concerns, problems and lamentations.
The ecumenical documents of the past few decades at the national and international levels, to say nothing of regional and local documents, now comprise more than 5,000 volumes. Cardinal Kasper asks, "Who can read all of this stuff - and, indeed, who wants to?" Most of these findings do not reach the local faith communities either at the leadership or grassroots level.
We need results Thus, many clergy and lay people rightly ask, disappointedly, "What and where are the concrete results? What is the specific outcome of all of these rarified discussions and dialogues?"
The answer, Cardinal Kasper proposes, is to be found in the spiritual dimension of ecumenism. This means first and foremost that we must recall the foundation of the ecumenical pursuit to which we are called: namely, the bond we have with Jesus Christ.
While denominational creeds, moral codes, liturgical practices, governing structures and ecclesial histories and traditions are important and must be an integral part of the ecumenical dialogue, we must never forget that, first and foremost, ecumenism is about a relationship: a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, the Father He revealed and the Spirit he promised.
If ecumenism is not rooted in a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the source of all unity, peace, healing and reconciliation, then our efforts - well-motivated and well-intentioned as they may be - will count for naught.
Therefore, while it is important that we seek to resolve differences, heal wounds and foster mutual understanding, respect and tolerance, it is even more important that we spend time praying together and listening to one another. Unless we know who Jesus is for us and how we experience Jesus in our respective Christian traditions, then we will not have that solid foundation necessary to achieve the unity which Christ so urgently wants for the members of His flock.
Spiritual ecumenism also means that prayer must be a priority in all of our ecumenical endeavors. We cannot make or organize church unity; unity is a gift of the Holy Spirit who alone can open hearts to conversion and reconciliation. Thus, we must come together to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
There can be no ecumenism without conversion and renewal. Spiritual conversion means reading the Scriptures together, sharing faith experiences and collaborating in the service of the needy, sick and the outcast. This type of ecumenism is not restricted to the theological "experts," but is accessible and obligatory for all.
Therefore, there is need for greater emphasis on spiritual ecumenism: on clergy and church members spending more time together reading the Scriptures, talking about who Jesus is for us, sharing stories of lived faith and in prayer.
It is here, I believe, that we will come to appreciate more fully the bonds that unite us and experience more acutely the pain and futility of our separation. It is in such spiritual activity that we will become more sensitive to the repercussions of unilateral decisions upon our brothers and sisters of other churches - and it is here that we will become more open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who reveals to us our God of surprises and who leads us into the future, not with a blueprint but a compass, focused on our one God and our one Savior, Jesus Christ.
May this be the compass we follow during this Year of Faith and in our Amazing God evangelization initiative, with its theme this year: "filled with the Spirit."
(January 3, 2013)