Our Future Course is Christian Unity
Various important Catholic figures brought vigorous growth to the Catholic Church’s sense of its own identity in relation to the world and to others who believe in Christ, as well as all who have faith in God. Above all this can be seen in the recognition of “spiritual ecumenism” in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio 8), as the heartfelt prayerfulness of the Catholic Church in response to the call of Christ, and that insistent call from the world for the service of those who claim to follow him. Thus the wholehearted participation of the Catholic Church in the ecumenical movement is generally recognised as a fruit of the Second Vatican Council. It has been long nurtured in the mind and prayer of Catholics over decades to be the realisation of its very nature as a church endowed with the fullness of unity and communion. Specifically, it is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) that exhibits the first indication of the Holy Spirit’s prompting the Council fathers in this direction.
The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as a visible organisation through which he communicates truth and grace… But the society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches, are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complex reality, which comes together from a human, and a divine element. For this reason the Church is compared, in a powerful analogy, to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature, inseparably united to him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a somewhat similar way, does the social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ who vivifies it, in the building up of the body (cf. Eph. 4:15).
This is the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care (Jn 21:17), commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it (cf. Mt 28:18ff), and which he raised up for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). This Church, constituted and organised as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.” (Lumen Gentium 8).
It was this statement, of the highest dogmatic authority, that made way for deeper reflections at the Council upon the Catholic Church’s relationship with the “separated brothers and sisters” as they were named at the time. Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism, and Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, further articulated the Catholic Church’s desire to pursue relationships with other Christians with whom the Church of Rome is not at the moment in full, visible and eucharistic communion.
The term ‘ecumenical movement’ indicates the initiatives and activities encouraged and organised, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity. These are:
First, every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult…
… then, “dialogue” between competent experts from different Churches and communities; in their meetings, which are organised in a religious spirit, each explains the teachings of his communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. Through such dialogue everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both communions. In addition, these communions engage in that more intensive cooperation in carrying out any duties for the common good of humanity which is demanded by every Christian conscience. They also come together for common prayer, where this is permitted.
Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and, wherever necessary, undertake with vigour the task of renewal and reform (Unitatis Redintegratio 4).
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has actively pursued officially sponsored international and national dialogue with other major Churches and Christian ecclesial communities. At the time of the year 2000, the Jubilee celebrating the dawn of the third Christian millennium, Pope John Paul II encouraged Catholics towards a full return of the exchange of gifts that enriched the Churches of East and West in the first millennium as they walk together in unity, famously evoking a memory of when the Church breathed with “both lungs”. He proposed a similar commitment to pilgrimage towards unity, especially “in the great ecumenism of holiness” with our brothers and sisters belonging to the Anglican Communion and Ecclesial Communities born of the Reformation (Novo Millennio Ineunte 48).
A significant factor in the ecumenical pilgrimage towards unity is the grass roots dialogue, permanent encounter and sharing of faith that happens in family life where there is an ecumenical dimension through marriage of partners with different Christian backgrounds. The Association of Interchurch Families, to which many of such families belong, makes a strong contribution to the search for Christian Unity through its analysis of challenges and opportunities in the exchange of gifts between people of different traditions within the marriage bond, as well as offering advice and resources.
Catholics, working alongside other Christians, also have the benefit of a growing experience of engaging upon matters of social justice and works of charity both at national and local levels. This is the fruit by which the truth of faith is known. So our faith sharing and ecumenical exchange and encounter must always find practical expression in our common service of the world which God has made.
The Catholic Church appeals to all Catholics and warmly invites members of other Christian churches and traditions to seek out the paths by which, together, the world may receive afresh the message of God’s uniting love. For this task, the objective of our ecumenical journey into visible unity, we must stake everything on Charity for “the charity of works ensures an unmistakable efficacy to the charity of words”. (Novo Millennio Ineunte 49)