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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 105 (Suppl.), December 2007



EcumeniCAL Collaboration in

relation to the threats of Terrorism



Bishop Brian Farrell, L.C.


 Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity


The complex world of air travel brings together people from every extraction, social condition and religious belief. The practice of ecumenism and interreligious relations is very much a part of your experience as airport chaplains. As someone involved in the promotion of Christian Unity, I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak at your seminar.  

Ecumenical cooperation and communicatio in sacris

In the Catholic Civil Aviation Pastoral Directives issued by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People in 1995,  n. 13 states that in giving Christian witness, “cooperation with pastoral agents from other Churches and ecclesial Communities is recommended”. What is the theological basis for such a recommendation? The Second Vatican Council brought significant change in the way we view members of churches not in full communion with us. The Decree on Ecumenism states that: “All those justified by faith through Baptism are incorporated into Christ. They have therefore a right to be honoured by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord by the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church” (n. 3). Our relationship with other Christians and their communities is not just a question of goodwill and nice sentiments. The decree specifies the objective, theological, nature of the bond between Catholics and other Christians: “The Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers and sisters. For those who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are brought into a certain, though imperfect communion with the Catholic Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3; see also Lumen Gentium 14 and 22).

They are brothers and sisters in the Lord! Therefore, when appropriate, they can be proper recipients of the Church’s spiritual and pastoral care. Questions arise when it is a matter of giving or receiving the sacraments across confessional lines. The practical norms are to be found in the Code of Canon Law and the Ecumenical Directory, as well as in the Guidelines issued by the various Conferences of Bishops. Cardinal Kasper recently published a Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism, with lots of practical suggestions about what can be done in specific situations to promote prayer for unity, common witness and collaboration. The Pontifical Council for Migrants is in the process of publishing a set of guidelines for the pastoral care of maritime people (Apostleship of the Sea), which has a section on ecumenical cooperation that in most cases is applicable to your own situation as civil aviation chaplains.

The law depends on the underlying theology. From the standpoint of the norms regarding communicatio in sacris it seems clear that the guidelines contained in the Ecumenical Directory have reached the limits of the what is permitted by theology. Bishops and priests should be familiar with the norms of the Ecumenical Directory. The analysis of local situations is the task of the diocesan bishop (and of the Bishops' Conference) for their respective territories, whereas the discernment of individual personal cases is the task of the ministers who celebrate the sacraments, on the basis of the pastoral instructions of the local bishop.

There are limits, and we are not helping the cause of Christian unity by going beyond them! The lack of full communion, the differences that still exist in teaching regarding both faith and morals, and the wounded memories of a history of separation — each of these limits what Christians can do together at this time. But within the theological and canonical limits of what is possible on the basis of “incomplete” communion, and in the spirit of Pope John Paul II’s masterful encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, a priest should rejoice to be able to attend to the spiritual needs of any and all Christians who accept his ministry. In doing so he is practising an ecumenism of love founded on the Lord’s command, “Love one another; just as I have loved you . . . By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (Jn 14:34-35).

The specific text of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical runs thus: “It is a source of joy to note that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid” (n. 46). 

Terrorism and religion

Ecumenism in the context of terrorism! Terrorism has become the number one scourge of our world. It has forced into the background other great afflictions which until recently we thought were the proper social and political priorities of governments and international organizations: hunger, poverty, disease. Any discussion of terrorism immediately brings out the question of the link between terrorism and religion. In this regard there is a growing critique of religion – especially of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which are accused of promoting intolerance and consequent violence because they all claim to possess the truth about God and his self-revelation.

Certainly, the three monotheistic religions have reason enough, as do all religious traditions, for repentance and a critical revision of their own past histories. Today though, terrorism is generally associated in the public mind with the Islam - West divide: a clash of culture, civilization and religion between the Christian West and the Islamic d_n. It is generally not associated with differences between Christians. Yet, not so long ago, even in our own life-time, there have been instances of inter-Christian conflict and violence. We can remember Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and more recently still there has been a certain level of violence in clashes between Catholics and Evangelicals in Chiapas, Mexico. I would like to say something about the role of ecumenism in such situations.

Northern Ireland

The violence which affected NI for more than thirty years has its background in the history and prevailing social conditions of that region: a dominant community with full political and civil rights controlling all public institutions, and a minority with a huge sense of unjust discrimination. When fundamental rights are violated, it is easy to fall prey to the temptations of hatred and violence. Hardly anyone denies that the direct causes of the violence were social and political. But in what way did the religious divide contribute to the environment of violence, and become a justification for it? Among the religious leaders of Northern Ireland it was eventually acknowledged that before the “troubles” there was “ambivalence in the attitudes of all of us (Church leaders) to the situations and conditions which have produced violence, and indeed to violence itself or the threat of it when it has been used successfully” (Inter-Church Dialogue in Ireland, p. 59). The Churches were locked into a dynamic of inward-looking defence of their identity, in separate and antagonistic communities, rooted in the 16th century divisions and conflicts not yet healed. With few exceptions, people on both sides were living a seemingly impregnable form of sectarianism. Sectarianism is that frame of mind which exploits confessional differences to promote a sense of superiority, a denial of the rights of others, even a justification of violence.

The violence which broke out from 1969 on had its seedbed in the frustration and humiliation of the Catholic nationalist community, which looked to union with the rest of the island of Ireland as a way of emerging from the vexations of life in Northern Ireland. Catholic nationalist violence was met by Protestant loyalist violence, with the stated aim of creating a climate of terror and reprisal. Violence became the order of the day: a calculated terrorism which began as attacks on police and army, who represented the status quo, and then progressed to random and even mass killings of innocent people trying to go about their daily business.

Eventually, the circumstances themselves forced the Churches to come out of isolation and to engage in ecumenism. Meetings began to take place between the leaders of the various denominations in response to specific acts of violence or situations in which they felt obliged to invoke the intervention of the government and the legislature. A civil rights movement began, led by courageous Christians from both sides, walking side by side in marches, even at the cost of suffering attacks from extremists in both communities. Ecumenical groups were often the only available space in which people from both communities could meet in constructive solidarity. Ecumenical activities became a significant source of creative thinking and energy for change through means other than violence. Such activities breached the walls of the sectarianism with which both communities in Northern Ireland had for generations sought to defend themselves. The practice of ecumenism showed that the nihilist characteristic of terrorism can be effectively critiqued and circumscribed whenever people from different confessions achieve a meeting of minds and hearts, in respect for all that they hold in common, in spite of and beyond their differences.

A first general conclusion is surely that ecumenism is antithetical to terrorism. Ecumenism leads communities out of mutual suspicion and hatred, into contact, and eventually into a relationship of mutual trust and collaboration. The enemy of yesterday becomes the friend and co-worker of today.  

Multilateral Ecumenical action against violence

All Churches pray for peace. But they also preach, teach and work for the justice needed for peace. The commitment of the Catholic Church in the cause of justice and peace is well-known. As one who works in contact with other Christian Communions, let me mention some of the initiatives presently being carried out in the ecumenical world.

The World Council of Churches is the principal ecumenical gathering-place for the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Churches. Its membership extends to hundreds of millions of Christians in about 350 churches. Down the years after the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church, while not being a member, has built up a solid relationship, a partnership, with the WCC in many areas of theological, social, humanitarian activity. In 2001 the WCC began The Decade to Overcome Violence, a global movement that aims to strengthen existing programs and networks involved in overcoming violence, as well as inspire the creation of new ones. The DOV is a process of study and reflection on issues of violence; an opportunity for creative projects at the local, regional and global levels. It seeks to establish points of contact with related programs and initiatives within the United Nations Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001‑2010). Because it is church-based, it is a spiritual journey for individuals, movements and Churches themselves. The DOV will end with a major worldwide mobilization of churches for peace, culminating in an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, to be held in early May 2011. 

The goals of the DOV are:

  • to address holistically the wide varieties of violence, both direct and structural, in homes, communities, and in international arenas
  • to learn from local and regional analyses of violence the ways to overcome it
  • to challenge the churches to overcome the spirit, logic and practice of violence; to relinquish any theological justification of violence; and to affirm anew the spirituality of reconciliation and active non-violence
  • to work with communities of other faiths in the pursuit of peace, and to challenge the churches to reflect on the misuse of religious and ethnic identities in pluralistic societies
  • to create a new understanding of security in terms of cooperation and solidarity, instead of in terms of domination and competition
  • to challenge the growing militarization of our world, especially the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

During the DOV, the World Council of Churches has launched many projects and programmes, too many to mention. Among them, an international, inter‑church advocacy initiative for peace in Israel and Palestine ‑ the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum; a joint Christian and Muslim Peace Committee for Somalia. A very pragmatic initiative is a programme in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in which participants are monitoring and reporting violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, supporting acts of non‑violent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, offering protection through non‑violent presence, engaging in public policy advocacy in support of human rights.

An example of theological reflection regarding violence is an interesting study on cruelty ‑ the ugly face of violence (Crêt‑Bérard, Puidoux, Switzerland, 5 ‑ 8 December 2006). What often goes unnoticed is the cruelty embedded and active in certain historical processes, cultures, traditions, as well as social, economic and political structures. The history of slavery, colonisation, religious persecution, concentration camps, genocides, military occupation, atrocities resulting from caste structures, physical and psychological torture, the killing of children, sexual violence, together with forms of terrorism and counter‑terrorism: all these instances portray the ugly face of violence. 

Peace, justice and forgiveness (the purification of memories) in bilateral ecumenical dialogues

The final aim of ecumenical dialogues is to bring the Churches involved in them into reconciliation, closer communion, and eventually into full visible union. Almost all the churches are involved in dialogue. The resulting documents fill volumes. The hope is always that these reports will be received in a way that helps replace negative attitudes, which often have been held by successive generations for centuries, with new attitudes enabling the two communities to begin to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. The Catholic Church is a major participant in such dialogues. Our Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity is involved in fifteen international dialogues and various other consultations and conversations with other Christian communities.

Issues of peace, justice, the memory of past wrongs and the need for mutual forgiveness are often present in these discussions, and in the studies and statements they produce. One interesting example is:

The Catholic-Mennonite dialogue

A first phase of international Mennonite-Catholic dialogue started in 1998, and in 2003 a report entitled Called Together to be Peacemakers was issued. It makes for fascinating reading. Mennonites are persons in the Anabaptist tradition, who took a more radical stance on certain issues of the 16th century Reformation than did the followers of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. For example, Anabaptists called for complete separation of Church and State, and took what we would describe today as a pacifist stance on matters of war and peace. Believing that baptism must be administered only to those capable of a personal decision, they practised re-baptism of those baptised as infants (thus the name Ana-baptist). For such positions they were perceived as a threat to civil society and to the Church, and were subjected to persecution both in Catholic and Protestant territories. 

Called Together to be Peacemakers examines the history of conflict between Catholics and Mennonites; it seeks the contemporary theological understanding of their differences; and explores the steps necessary for a healing of memory between the two. The healing of memories is seen as involving four steps: 1) the purification of memories, which requires understanding as precisely as possible the difficult historical events which marked our divisions, and the correction of prejudiced readings of those times; 2) a need for a spirit of repentance, asking God’s forgiveness for the harm done to one another during past conflicts; 3) an effort to ascertain the degree to which Catholics and Mennonites have continued to share the Christian faith despite separation; 4) commitment to improving their relationship today, finding ways to collaborate and act together in certain cases will create new memories for future generations, to replace the bitter memories of the past.

It is notable that this report has been translated into various languages; it has been reprinted in many different countries, and a whole series of follow-up meetings between Catholics and Mennonites have been held in Europe, in North and South America. All of this in some way contributes to ensuring that inter-Christian conflict remain a thing of the past. Again, ecumenism appears as the antithesis of violence and terrorism. 

Is ecumenism effective?

The question can be asked: Just how much does ecumenism serve to keep terrorism at bay? There is of course no clear answer. Two observations might offer some assurance.

I already mentioned the Balkans. The 1990s brought the demise of the ex-Yugoslavia – Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims were caught up in a maelstrom of violence and terror. May I be forgiven for thinking that if relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches had been as good then as they are today, much of the sting might have been taken out of the religious ardour that fuelled that conflict. In recent years much progress has been made in relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches in Central Europe, particularly in the Balkan region. After the fall of communism, many of the Orthodox Churches are living a new-found freedom and are looking for suitable partners for collaboration in such areas as the training of clergy and laity, the translation and publication of important writings, the development of media projects, a fresh look at relations between Church and State, projects on human rights and on the safeguarding of Christian values in European society. Personal and institutional relations are not what they were ten years ago. We may not yet be in broad daylight, but a candle has been lit and in its light we can see a path leading to a better future. If ecumenical progress continues to be made, the integration of the predominantly Orthodox countries into the European Union will happen at a much deeper level, at the level of the spiritual and cultural values of the peoples involved. Again, ecumenism must be seen as an essential factor in reaching the goals of European integration.

A final observation I would make, briefly, is that in all ecumenical contacts and discussions today people are keenly aware that without closer, factual collaboration between Christians themselves, it will be very difficult to move forward in interreligious dialogue with Muslims. As an example, the Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches has identified this priority as a matter of urgency for the coming years. With some very productive results, in this area too ecumenism is finding ways to foster mutual understanding where reciprocal exclusion has so far prevailed, and reasonable discourse where fanaticism often holds sway.

Ecumenism stands for unity of spirit, communion, collaboration, friendship, respect for others and their beliefs; it works against division, exclusion, separation and any kind of discrimination. In this way, ecumenism is antithetical to violence, especially violence perpetrated in the name of religion.