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William Henn

Pope John XXIII admitted that he was "trembling a bit with emotion, even though humbly resolute in purpose", when he announced on January 25, 1959, to a group of seventeen cardinals gathered in the chapter hall of the monastery of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, his intention to convoke an ecumenical council. There could be no doubt about the significance of the pope's choice of the time and the place for this announcement. It occurred at the principal church in Rome dedicated to S. Paul, after a liturgy in memory of the apostle's Conversion - the feast which, each year, brings to a close the annual octave of prayer for Christian unity. Clearly Pope John intended the council to be not only an instrument for the aggiornamento of the Catholic Church, but also a contribution toward healing the wounds which divide Christian communities. To emphasise this, the Pope extended a warm invitation to the faithful of the other communities to take part in the "quest for unity and for grace" which he hoped that the council would be.

The first fruits of his initiative appeared already in 1964, with the ecclesiological doctrine of Lumen Gentium and its ecumenical application in Unitatis Redintegratio. In the years which followed, these documents contributed much to that rich harvest, which Pope John Paul II recounted with joy in the second chapter of his encyclical dedicated to ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (41-74). What is the fundamental vision of the Catholic Church regarding the ecumenical movement? What concrete steps have resulted from this vision in the period after the council?

The Ecclessiological Basis for Ecumenism

The Catholic commitment to Christian unity is based upon the conviction that the Church is and must be one. This is the will of Jesus Christ himself, as most clearly expressed when He prayed during the Last Supper, as John's gospel tells us, "that all might be one" (John 17,21). Addressing the Church in Corinth, which was tempted to divide into factions following Paul, Apollos and Cephas, St. Paul shows that Christian unity ultimately is based upon Jesus, the one and only saviour. "Is Christ divided?" he asks. "Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?" (1Cor 1,13). Both in this letter and in other places, St. Paul insists that the Church forms one body, of which Christ himself is the head (1 Cor 12-14; also Rom. 12, 4-8; Eph. 4,13; Col 1,18).

Pope John Paul II very beautifully echoes this fundamental reason for commitment to Christian Unity: «To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father's plan from all eternity. Such is the meaning of Christ's prayer: Ut unum sint »(UUS 9). The pope's reference here to the "communion of grace" may be seen as a key for unlocking the Catholic vision of the Church and of the ecumenical movement. At its deepest level, the Church is a "sharing" or a "communion" in the life of God (see 1 John 1,1-3; LG 1).

The ecumenical "breakthrough" of Vatican II can be located precisely in the council's recognition that, for all of their damage, the unfortunate divisions which occurred between Christians over the course of the centuries did not succeed in completely destroying the "communion of grace" which still unites them (see LG 15 and UR 3). Lumen Gentium speaks of the "many elements of sanctification and of truth which are found outside the visible confines" of the Catholic Church (also UUS 12). These elements include aspects of faith , such as belief in the Triune God, in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God (LG 15; UR 20-21). The Council also acknowledged the celebration of sacraments such as baptism in other Christian communities, which have led many Christians who are not Catholics to live, even heroically, the virtues of faith, hope and charity (LG 15; UR 3; 14; 23). Pope John Paul seems to rejoice in this, when he writes: «Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs. The communio sanctorum speaks louder than the things which divide us» (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 37).

Vatican II described communion in terms of three basic elements: "the confession of the faith, the common celebration of divine worship and the fraternal harmony of the family of God" (UR 2; see also UUS 9). There exists already a real, though imperfect communion between the Catholic Church and the other Christian communities (see UR 3; UUS 11), in varying degrees, according to specific doctrine, liturgy and communal life of each of these communities. Ecumenism consists precisely in those initiatives which promote growth toward that full communion in faith, worship and fraternal harmony which will allow us one day to celebrate the Eucharist together again.

This basic ecclesiological and ecumenical vision has been received profoundly into Catholic theology since the council and has given shape to official texts such as the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (1993) and Ut Unum Sint (1995). In addition, one of the most striking qualities of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), when compared with catechisms prior to Vatican II, is its appreciation of the positive ecclesial values present in other Christian communities (817-819) and the encouragement given to all believers to work for the achievement of full communion (820-822).

Steps Toward Full Communion

No one can seriously doubt that the decades following the Second Vatican Council have been marked by a growing reconciliation between many Christian communities. Many thousands of concrete initiatives toward unity have been taken at the local, national and international levels. These steps illustrate that the path toward full communion is not one dimensional, but rather entails various kinds of activity.

Ecumenical dialogue is perhaps one of the most well known forms of ecumenism. The Catholic Church has engaged in ecumenical dialogues with the Orthodox and with other churches from the East, as well as with many Reformation and post-Reformation communities of the West, such as the Lutherans, the Anglicans the Reformed (Presbyterians), the Baptists, the Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, the Pentecostals and Evangelicals. These dialogues show that the degree of communion in faith between Catholics and other Christians can vary quite strikingly from one dialogue partner to another. At the same time, dialogues have demonstrated a profound unity concerning many of the most central doctrines of Christian faith. In recent years, most bilateral dialogues have placed their emphasis upon the theme of the nature of the Church. These discussions have confirmed some basic agreements between Catholics and Orthodox and have led to the discovery of many ecclesiological convergences with various communities in the West - even on potentially divisive topics such as the ministry of primacy exercised by the Bishop of Rome. It was in light of these positive developments and, in particular, in response to the important advances made in the multi-lateral dialogue of the Faith and Order Commission, sponsored by the World Council of Churches, that Pope John Paul invited other ecclesial leaders and their theologians to dialogue with him about the exercise of papal primacy within the Church (UUS 89, 95-96). It would be difficult to overstimate the importance of these developments.

Prayer and spiritual renewal or conversion have been called "the soul of the ecumenical movement". In Ut Unum Sint , Pope John Paul describes how praying together with other Christians not only acknowledges our need for aid of God in order to arrive at full communion but also brings home, in a very humanly moving way, the extent to which we already are united with our separated brothers and sisters. Common prayer finds an expecially strong expression during the annual octave of prayer for Christian unity. At the same time, local communities have discovered many other occasion to come together to worship God and to listen to His Word. The continuing efforts of renewal which take place among the faithful of all of the divided communities also contribute to their unity. The closer Christians come to Christ, the closer they will be to one another.

Collaboration for justice, peace and the protection of the environment constitute another important form of ecumenical activity. Christians may not sit by as disinterested observers in the face of offences against human dignity and the destruction of the precious but vulnerable patrimony of creation. The years following Vatican II have seen increased cooperation by Catholics with other Christians in acting together so that the values of the Gospel have a concrete effect upon the conditions of society. Usually the local community is the privileged place where problems can be accurately assessed and solutions in harmony with the teachings of Jesus can be promoted. For example, an important contribution to the overcoming of the racial system of apartheid was the common witness by Christians from the various still divided communities. Such witness not only leads to positive changes in society but also draws Christians closer together.

Ecumenical formation has strongly coloured the life of many Christian communities during the last several decades. To speak only of the Catholic Church, there is no level of formation which has not been re-thought and reworked with ecumenical sensitivity. A substantial chapter of the Ecumenical Directory (1993) is devoted to describing the various ways in which preaching, catechesis, spiritual exercises, ministerial training and university studies all must contribute to the ecumenical formation of Catholics. Similar efforts take place in other Christian communities as well.

Towards the Year 2000

Obviously the ecumenical vision fostered by Vatican II has had a tremendous effect upon the Catholic Church. In addition, Catholics have contributed to and learned from the ecumenical initiatives of the other Christians. So much progress has been made that, looking ahead toward the year 2000, Pope John Paul could write: «I pray that the Jubilee will be a promising opportunity for fruitful cooperation in the many areas which unite us: these are unquestionably more numerous than those which divide us» (TMA 16) Nevertheless, that unity for which Jesus prayed is still something for which we must hope: «The approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of consciences and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives, so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium». (TMA 34)

It is the Holy Spirit who is leading Christian communities who are divided from each other to seek that full communion which will make possible once again our common reception of the Eucharist. This action of the Holy Spirit has been received within the Catholic Church, first in the insightful doctrine of Vatican II and, subsequently, in the many concrete steps which followed. But obviously a deeper reception of the grace of the Holy Spirit in favour of unity is still needed. Further ecumenical dialogue, prayer, common witness and formation are the ways toward this reception. These ways of reception will lead eventually to full communion and that day when we can completely receive one another in the common celebration of communion with our Risen Lord which is the Eucharist.