PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY
HIS EXCELLENCY MSGR. BRIAN FARRELL, L.C.*
Celebrating the Second Vatican Council on its fiftieth anniversary calls for making an effort to see that great event in all its completeness. This implies on the one hand revisiting its core teachings, the great ideas that constitute its intentions and interpretative criteria; and on the other, discovering its minor formulations and implications, which also are part and parcel of the imposing body that is the Council’s achievement. Some of these minor elements have nevertheless become crucial issues in later theological reflection.
Ecumenism is one of those major perspectives that have shaped theological thinking during the Council and after, given that “the restoration of unity [was] one of the main goals of the Council”, as recalled at the beginning of the Decree on Ecumenism (UR,1), and as anticipated by Pope John xxiii on the evening of 25 January 1959, after Vespers in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, when he spoke of his intention to convoke an ecumenical council. Ecumenical formation on the other hand belongs to those topics that were not extensively developed in the Council texts, but proved to be a neuralgic issue in the immediate aftermath and to this day. It soon became clear that formation is a priority requirement of the search for the visible unity of Christians. Ecumenical formation too, therefore, is marking its fiftieth year and deserves some reflection.
Unitatis Redintegratio (n. 5) brings us to the heart of the question: “Concern for restoring unity involves the whole Church, faithful and pastors, and touches each according to his ability, both in every day Christian life, as well as in theological and historical studies”. That clear statement necessarily presupposes that ecumenical formation is a key aspect of the search for full unity among Christians. It implies that formation is a kind of conditio sine qua non for ecumenical awareness effectively to take hold. And it also implies that formation must be programmed in ways that respect the variety of vocations, charisms and ministries in the Church. It must be adapted to them, with different levels of objectives, methods, practices and procedures. In fact, if the body is vital and healthy, it is thanks to the specific contribution of each organ, as noted by the Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12: 1-24) — a text that inspired the communion ecclesiology of Vatican II. Just so, it is attention to and responsibility for the promotion of dialogue and the exchange of gifts between the Churches, according to the capacity of each member, that will make fruitful the search for unity and lead to the attainment of full communion. This is not just pragmatic thinking, whereby ecumenical sensitivity and the assumption of responsibility on the part of many guarantees an effective network of individuals and institutions at the service of unity. It is also a profound requirement of our doctrine on the Church. In fact, to adapt ecumenical formation programmes to the diversity of vocations and ministries means organizing ecumenical formation according to the requirements of “catholicity”, that is, according to the universality and, at the same time, particularity of the people of God. The Church in fact is called to proclaim the universality of salvation in each specific situation (cf. Lumen Gentium, 9 and 13). In other words, the ecumenical imperative of John 17:21 — “that all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” — touches all the faithful in every situation. Jesus prays that all may be one, entrusting this prayer to every Christian in order that all Christians and all mankind may fulfill their destiny. To some extent, what was implicit in Unitatis Redintegratio, 5, has been further articulated in various documents of the Magisterium, at least at the theoretical level: see, for example, the ecumenical dimension extensively cited in pronouncements on seminary training – from Optatam Totius (no. 16) to Pastores Dabo Vobis (no. 54) — and on theological studies - from Sapientia Christiana (articles 67-69) to the Basic Plan of priestly formation of the Congregation for Catholic Education (nn. 64, 77, 80, 96). The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which has specific responsibility for encouraging ecumenical formation, has published a number of documents on the theme. As early as 1970, in Ecumenism in Higher Education, it highlighted the need for training those working within the ecumenical movement, including teachers of theology, seminary personnel and pastors. The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism 1993, which deals at length with objectives, content, participants and methodology in the training process, devotes an entire chapter to ecumenical formation and another to structures at the service of unity. The expectation is that educational institutions at all levels might offer space for an introductory course on ecumenism for pastors and future educators, and that, in terms of content, every theological discipline might include an ecumenical approach. In this way dialogue and the search for unity would be part of every educational effort in the life of the Church (nn. 73-90). The Directory likewise encourages the setting up of centres and institutes specializing in ecumenism (n. 90). And finally, another document of the same Pontifical Council, The Ecumenical Dimension of those Engaged in Pastoral Ministry, issued in 1997, outlines a basic curriculum for academic institutions that offer such training, presenting in detail the subjects to be taught. An innovative aspect of the 1993 Directory, and one that directly applies what is recommended in Unitatis Redintegratio 5, is the emphasis on the formation of the laity. This is an important point: full unity between the Churches, in fact, cannot be realized merely on the basis of theological discussion, even when such is essential. It will only come about when all the baptized – the whole people of God – journey together towards that goal, questing after true and genuine communion in an encounter of grace and love, accepting the gift of each other. Every event in the life of faith, and every education programme, can become an opportunity to initiate and develop ecumenical formation: listening to the Word of God, preaching, catechesis, liturgy, spiritual life and the activities of groups or associations (nn. 59-64). Similarly, every setting can become a place of formation for dialogue, especially where personal growth and development are promoted: the family, parish, school, associations of the faithful, monasteries and seminaries (nn. 65-69). In this perspective it is significant that the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in encouraging ecumenical formation — and specifically the Directory, n. 55 — insists on the principal role of the local Church, where it is concretely possible to offer a programme of formation fitted to local circumstances.
Still, experience shows that, for all their wisdom and efficacy, these indications are still largely unfulfilled or only partially implemented in large sectors of the Church. Yet, the strength of the imperative to dialogue and the insistence of magisterial documents on the need for appropriate formation, demand that we try to identify the reasons why there is such a gap between the goal and the real situation on the ground.
A first reason may be an erroneous idea of what ecumenism really is. Inaccurate stereotypes, by excess (which see ecumenism as compromise or as a watering down of the core values of the faith) or by default (when ecumenism is understood as seeking the lowest common denominator, or as no more than emotive good-neighbourliness), are quite common and damage the real cause of unity. Such notions stand in the way of a serious approach to the question of Christian unity and are incapable of sustaining any real steps forward.
Perhaps a key to breaking that deadlock is to provide worthwhile teaching materials, which, while being useful to those with experience in the field, would explain to pastors and lay faithful the real parameters of the ecumenical movement. Theological output in this field tends to remain at the level of experts, fuelling the gap between a grass-roots ecumenism and an ecumenism d’Úlite. Consequently, what are needed are updated handbooks of ecumenism, solid teaching-aids. One such very useful tool, recently published by Queriniana, is the Manuale di Ecumenismo written by Teresa Francesca Rossi — under the auspices of the Centro Pro Unione of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, directed by Rev. Prof. James Puglisi, sa, always at the forefront of research and ecumenical formation. Here we have an example of a new concept of manual, combining an innovative methodology with completeness of content, and using modern multimedia aids. Professor Rossi’s handbook offers a model of ecumenical formation, useful at one and the same time to the initiated and to the layman in the pew, to the mature thinker and the young person just discovering ecumenism. A second reason for the lack of enthusiasm around ecumenical formation may be, as already mentioned, the perception of ecumenism as a matter for experts, far removed from the concerns of pastors and faithful. While it is true that there are technical issues that require a professional approach, it is likewise true that the search for Chrisitan unity is intrinsic to the vocation of every baptized person and every believing community. All are called to be witnesses of the love of the Father who has reconciled us in his Son, by pouring the Spirit into our hearts so that we might become capable of communion. The ultimate goal of ecumenical formation is none other than to make us all recipients of the gift of communion, and messengers and builders of communion in all our communities. There are certainly other reasons of an historical, cultural and pedagogical kind, but these two focus our attention clearly on the intimate connection between ecumenism and the Church’s very nature and mission. The goal of ecumenism is to rediscover in our very identity as Christians the imperative to love one another; and once this love becomes strong and visible, to make it the moving force of the churches’ shared efforts to serve the Kingdom. But, even more fundamentally, this is the goal of every life of faith and of our vocation to be witnesses to the Resurrection before the world. Ecumenical formation, therefore, as preparation for the dialogue that puts the pursuit of unity and communion at the heart of the Churches’ and individual Christian’s commitment, is Christian formation in the truest sense. The Council, therefore, opened a door on a new era in which it was expected that all God’s people would be educated to respect and care for their neighbour, would be capable of steps along the way of conversion to Christ in his Church, which He willed to be one, by becoming active agents of unity and reconciliation.
Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter at the end of the Great Jubilee of 2000, Novo Millennio Ineunte, signals one of the pastoral priorities of the community that was celebrating two millennia of the Christian message: “[...] we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up. A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as ‘those who are a part of me’. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a ‘gift for me’. A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to ‘make room’ for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens’ (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy. Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ‘masks’of communion rather than its means of expression and growth” (n. 43). In this demanding perspective, ecumenism reveals itself to be a valuable tool for the construction of an authentic ecclesial life, as the Lord wanted it: “all those who had become believers were together” (Acts 2:44). Thus the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council can move from being a mere commemoration to being a decisive moment of active reception of the Council. This, to the extent that Episcopal Conferences, Synods of the Eastern Churches, individual pastors and the faithful of local communities will rise to its challenges in their journey of faith, both theologically and in pastoral practice. And to the extent that they make the Council come alive for generations that have not lived through it, and have insufficient memory of it and of its pressing call for the unity of all Christians.
The Year of Faith proclaimed by Benedict XVI offers us an excellent opportunity, as he himself pointed out at the recent plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, 15 November 2012: “Dear friends, I would like to express my hope that the Year of Faith will also contribute to the progress of the ecumenical journey. Unity is on the one hand a fruit of faith and, on the other, a means and almost a presupposition for proclaiming the faith ever more credibly to those who do not yet know the Lord or who, although they have received the Gospel proclamation, have almost forgotten this precious gift. True ecumenism, recognizing the primacy of divine action, demands, first of all, patience, humility, and abandonment to the Lord’s will. Lastly, ecumenism and the New Evangelization both require the dynamism of conversion, understood as a sincere desire to follow Christ and to adhere fully to the Father’s will”.