May 25 The Ecumenical Imperative
it’s the 25th of May and on this day in Christian History we go back to year 1995 and travel to Rome where Ut Unum Sint, the first encyclical ever devoted exclusively to the ecumenical imperative was issued.
John Paul II had gone to places where other Popes had not and reached out his hand in friendship and asked forgiveness for errors and crimes of the past. The Slavic Pope was particularly keen to reach out to the Orthodox Church, often saying that the great schism had meant the church was breathing with one lung.
In an unique tone for a papal encyclical ( see pod of Apr 9th ) it was a passionate appeal to all Christians to respond to Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His disciples. The title, which in English is ‘to be one’, express the desire of Jesus himself who prayed to the Father that His disciples might be one. It is part of the Farewell Discourse in John's Gospel given by Jesus to eleven of his disciples, after Judas had left to betray him, before his crucifixion. Historical divisions amongst Christians, had seriously weakened their shared mission to preach the Gospel, and the encyclical clearly states that the ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement is to re-establish full visible unity among all the baptized". This is an important definition, as the terms full and visible have a specific theological meaning. Full unity in contrast to partial unity, which often refers to agreements between denominations to share resources or some liturgical practices. Visible rather than invisible also has a specific meaning. The invisible church, is a theological concept of an elect who are known only to God, in contrast to the "visible church"—that is, the institutional body on earth which preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments. However to talk explicitly as ecumenism as being an imperative, marked a significant change in the Catholic approach. Before the Second Vatican Council it’s approach to ecumenism had been much weaker, as it had rejected a false union that would mean being unfaithful to or glossing over the teaching of scripture and tradition.
The encyclical is relatively short, with 103 sections in three chapters that cover, first The Catholic Church's Commitment to Ecumenism, secondly it looks at the Fruits of Dialogue so far and finally attempted to look to the future asking How much further must [we] travel. This was seen as a ground-breaking exercise of the papal magisterium, the Pope affirmed that the ecumenical commitment made at Vatican II was irreversible. He taught his fellow Catholics that the quest for Christian unity ought to be sustained both internationally and in the local churches. This was important in the context, as just seven years earlier an illegitimate episcopal ordination conferred by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, formalized his break with Rome. The French traditionalist had accused the Polish Pope and the Second Vatican Council of what he called “false ecumenism”, saying they destroyed the true faith and led “the Church into ruin and Catholics into apostasy".
In the encyclical the Pope explained that ecumenism was not a matter of “altering the deposit of faith” and “changing the meaning of dogmas”, but was much more nuanced in how he understood the faith had emerged saying that, “the expression of truth can take different forms” because “doctrine needs to be presented in a way that makes it understandable to those for whom God himself intends it”, in whatever culture they belong to, avoiding any form of “ethnic exclusivism or racial prejudice, and from any nationalistic arrogance”. This would lead him later to be accused of relativism. He made two important clarifications, that there was “a hierarchy in the truths” in Catholic teaching and that the church was summoned by Christ to “continual reform”, which “might require a review of assertions and attitudes”. This was a duty for all, especially in ensuring the common good and promoting freedom, justice and peace saying the “united voice of Christians has more impact than any one isolated voice”. The encyclical was under no illusion of the difficult realities of this, calling for a change of language and of attitudes: avoiding the aggressive and antagonistic approach of opposition, of “a defeatism which tends to see everything in negative terms,” or “of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side’, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption”. However, he tried to be realistic about how the Papacy was part of the problem often, appealing to the various Christian communities to help “find a way of exercising the [papal] primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”, as “a service of love”. In insisting that in Peter, unity has its visible point of reference, is a massive hurdle, particularly bearing in mind abuses of the Petrine office historically.
This new tone, became known as "receptive ecumenism," and Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and other Protestant churches published responses to St. John Paul's invitation. The most sustained focus has come in the official Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue. Since 2006, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church has been focusing on the history and exercise of the papacy and the dialogue is ongoing. Pope Francis had carried on the spirit with constantly referring to himself as the bishop of Rome and this has had a positive ecumenical impact.
However, it was not unprecedented, Catholics may be seen as being slow to international ecumenical efforts as in 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland attracted 1,215 delegates predominantly from North America and Northern Europe, although no Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic missionary organizations were invited, and there were only 18 delegates were from non-Westerners. Ten Years later the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, had written a letter "addressed 'To all the Churches of Christ, wherever they may be', urging closer co-operation among separated Christians, and suggesting a 'League of Churches', parallel to the newly founded League of Nations". In 1937, Christian leaders from mainstream Christian Churches thus resolved to establish the World Council of Churches to work for the cause of Christian unity; it today includes most major traditions of Christianity as full members, with the Roman Catholic Church participating as an observer, sending delegates to official gatherings. (See pod of Feb 21). Each year, Christians observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity for the goal of ecumenism, which is coordinated by the World Council of Churches and adopted by many of its member Churches. The World Council of Churches counts 348 member churches, representing more than half a billion members of the major Christian traditions. This, with the Catholic Church's 1.25 billion Christians, indicates that 349 churches/denominations already account for nearly 80% of the world's Christian population.