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Eleuterio F. Fortino

Referring to divisions between Christians and ethnic-political tensions, as well as to armed conflicts in Europe, Pope John Paul II, at the Sunday Angelus, on the eve of the opening of the II European Ecumenical Assembly in Graz (23-26 June), proposed the following positive considerations. «In this context, the call to reconciliation among Christians is particularly urgent. The ecumenical movement, due to the grace of God has given beneficial fruits; it has created a new situation among the disciples of Christ. There are however problems which still exist and which sometimes give way to unexpected disruptions, new concerns arise, unconscious fears linger. The Assembly of Graz for Europe, with its programme of meetings, exchange and prayers, intends to strengthen the dialogue of charity, the only one truly capable of promoting even theological dialogue, which is still facing a very challenging path» (Osservatore Romano, 22-23 June 1997).

The theme of the Assembly was: Reconciliation, gift of God and source of new life. It was open to a wide range of aspects which comprised: reconciliation and the visible unity of Christians, reconciliation of peoples, cultures, social conflicts, men-women relations, relations among Christians and Jews. Aside from the general theological concept, it must be kept in mind that Jews also contributed to the formation of European culture. This wide spectrum of problems led to discussions which were sometimes converging, but often contrasting. In effect it is reality itself which is often complex and dense with different options. The theme of reconciliation was chosen after due consideration, as a current need of the concrete situation, in particular following the tensions which emerged after the fall of communist regimes in countries of Eastern Europe.

Theological base of the Assembly

This II European Ecumenical Assembly was held 50 years from the creation of the Ecumenical Council of Churches (1948-1997), nearly 40 years from the creation of the Association ( - later, in 1964 - Conference of European Churches) and over 30 years from the II Vatican Council (1965-1997). The activity of these bodies put Christians of Europe in contact in a thick network of dialogue. The Catholic Church is committed to a theological dialogue which embraces all the Churches both of the East and the West. Already in 1965, at the end of the II Vatican Council, a Mixed Working Group was established with the Ecumenical Council of Churches, which ensured a varied co-operation in various fields and in particular in that of the doctrinal Commission Faith and Constitution and in the joint promotion from 1968 onwards of the prayer for Christian unity. This initiative lay the foundations for the creation of various mixed commissions for bilateral dialogue with the individual World Christian Communities:

  • With the Anglican Communion (1966);
  • With the World Lutheran Federation (1967);
  • With the World Reformed Alliance (1970);
  • With the World Methodist Council (1967);
  • With international pentacostal movements (1972);
  • With the Coptic-Orthodox Church (1973);
  • With the Disciples of Christ (1977);
  • With the Evangelicals (1977);
  • With all the Orthodox Churches together (1980);
  • With the World Baptist Alliance (1984);
  • With the Sira Church of India (1989).

Parallel to these dialogues in which the Catholic Church is taking part there is another network of dialogues in which other Christians are involved among each other, including:

  • The Anglican-Lutheran dialogue (1970);
  • The Anglican-Orthodox dialogue (1966);
  • The Anglican-Ancient Churches of the Orient dialogue (1990);
  • The Baptist-Lutheran dialogue (1966);
  • The Baptist-Reformed Churches dialogue (1973);
  • The Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue (1978);
  • The Methodist-Reformed dialogue (1985);
  • The Old Catholics and Orthodox dialogue (1975);
  • The Orthodox and Precalcedonese dialogue (1989);
  • The Orthodox and Reformed dialogue.

To the international dialogues, which also directly influence in Europe, must be added the persevering work of the Conference of European Churches which groups the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Churches in Europe and its co-operation with the Council of European Episcopal Conferences, from the meeting of Chantilly (France, 1978) to date.

These dialogues as a whole have created a new situation among Christians and have given to contacts and ecumenical demonstrations the solid base of common faith, re-discovered and re-affirmed. This common faith is partial and thus there is still no total communion of faith, thus the ecumenical problem remains open and, according to the words of the Pope, «is still facing a very challenging path». All the same, the existing common faith has given to relations between Christians a consistent platform, to intensify dialogue, to establish common prayer, to justify a co-operation which can taken on the quality of common testimony. «A precious fruit of relations between Christians and the theological dialogue which they entertain is the growth of communion» (Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, 49). And it is precisely on this increased communion that the Graz Assembly was based.

Ecumenism of people

The expression "ecumenism of people" dominated the Graz Assembly. And possibly it expressed the true nature of the Assembly. Certainly eminent pastors were present - such as the Patriarch of Moscow Alexi II, the Catholicos of the Armenians Karekin I, Cardinals Martini, Vlk and Cassidy, or the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Carey - who provided themes of discussion and directions with their interventions, but the great majority were lay people, men and women, sensitive and committed to the ecumenical problem. Naturally together, pastors and simple faithful, constituted the people of God. But the expression "ecumenism of people" possibly meant, an ecumenism lived, experienced and felt in the existing communion, in the fraternal encounter, in common prayer, in projects aimed at the future. Here an always valid intuition of the conciliar decree on ecumenism was being reached, which declared: «the cure to re-establish union regards the whole Church, both the faithful and the pastors, and each according to his own abilities, both in daily Christian life, and in theological and historical studies» (UR 5). Certainly this expression could not signify an ecumenism in contrast to that of true and proper theological dialogues which remain indispensable to resolve the problem of divergence, the true ecumenical problem. The expression intended the needed involvement of the entire people of God in the ecumenical search.

This expression carried in a real context a direction given by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical on ecumenical commitment: While dialogue continues on new subjects - he wrote - or is developed at deeper levels, we have a new task to fulfil: «how to make use of the results achieved so far. They cannot remain statements by bilateral commissions, but must become common heritage. In order for this to happen and for ties of communion to be strengthened, there needs to be a serious examination which, through different forms, ways and expertise, must involve the people of God in their entirety» (Ut Unum Sint, 80). "Ecumenism of people" cannot signify a search for unity outside the theological criteria nor can it accept a situation "as if" divergence no longer existed. To the contrary in its conclusive message the Assembly of Graz declared: «The gift of reconciliation in Christ drives us to commit ourselves in the untiring effort to reach a visible unity».

Dialogue of charity

Varied and profound tensions were naturally expressed in Graz during the discussions of the Assembly: but even outside the Assembly there were certain significant episodes with regard to ecumenical relations. The Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I gave up going to the Assembly in Graz, although his intervention had been long expected; the Patriarch of Moscow Alexi II, based on a decision of the Synod was not able to meet the Holy Father, although such a meeting - he declared - «was desired»; the Ecumenical Patriarch considered that this year it was not possible «for the Patriarchate to be represented at the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul» in Rome, despite an already existing over 20 year tradition. In addition during the Assembly of Graz strong protests were voiced against the "proselytism" without the needed and adequate distinctions. All this together and along with other elements, was an expression of true discomfort in the ecumenical field.

Are they residuals left over from communist regimes? Are they insurgencies of "new concerns" or expressions of "unconscious fears", as Pope John Paul II said? Or are they indications of true failures in fraternal relations between the Churches?

In Graz there were lengthy discussions on the need for an ecumenical spirituality. The expression used by Claire Lubich in her intervention was mentioned in many speeches. This showed that a real need was being noted.

The decree on ecumenism of the II Vatican Council was categorical in this respect. It stated: «There is no true ecumenism without interior conversion, because the desire for unity is born and matures with the renewal of the mind, the abnegation of oneself and the full exercise of charity» (UR, 8). In Graz this need appeared in all its usefulness. Words circulated which were not always understood in the same way, words which for the person pronouncing them signified a right, for others the violation of another right. Words circulated with mental restrictions or with malevolent allusions. The decree on ecumenism in the chapter regarding the exercise on ecumenism quoted the following advice given by Saint Paul: «I beg you to conduct yourself in a way worthy of the vocation, to which you are called, with every humility and sweetness, with generosity, accepting each other with love, and studying one other in order to maintain unity of spirit through the bond of peace». (Ef 4, 1-3)

When discussions were held to study whether and when to open theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, the pan-orthodox conferences of Rhodes proposed a preparation of the spirits. In this perspective each Church could have fraternal relations with the Catholic Church. The ecumenical Patriarch Athenogoras I of Constantinople proposed that process known as "dialogue of charity". He based himself on the invitation of the deacon in the Byzantine liturgy who introduces the sign of peace and the recitation of the profession of faith with the following exhortation: «Let us love one another, so that in unity of spirit we may profess our faith». In order to profess the faith - in the ecumenical field, to be able to profess the common faith and perhaps attain it if one does not have a full communion of faith, as the case may be - it is necessary to establish a situation of reciprocal charity. Indeed this process had expressions and gestures heavy not only of charity, but also of theological value. It was thus possible to open a dialogue between the Catholic Church and all the Orthodox Churches together. An absolutely new event.

In the Jerusalem meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras (6 January 1964) referring to the needed theological dialogue in the future Pope Paul VI said: «What can and must progress from now, is fraternal charity, ingeniously finding new ways to express itself: a charity which, learning from the past, will be ready to pardon, incline to believe more willingly to good than to evil, attentive above all to adapt itself to the divine Maestro and to let itself be attracted and transformed by Him» (Tomo Agapis, n. 49).

The dialogue of charity is thick with possibilities. It purifies the eye, the heart and the word. It makes one see in a new way, it makes one feel the true motivations of others and it transmits transparent thoughts, comprehensible even when they are not acceptable. This is the true condition of dialogue.

The dialogue of charity has many dimensions, three of which are of primary importance. Helping the purification of the historic memory with the soul disposed to pardon and understanding of others. To this end the appeal of Graz declared the commitment "to begin a process of renewal of memories". The second dimension is precisely reciprocal love as a realisation of the "new commandment" left by Jesus Christ to his disciples to love one another. And that shows that they are truly his disciples. Finally charity is not hypocritical, it loves the truth. Thus, it becomes the true incentive of the ecumenical movement, that is, of the search for full unity in the unity of faith. The manifestations of malaise expressed over the last few years by the ecumenical movement perhaps highlight the need for re-launching the dialogue of charity, a greater reflection on the spiritual dimensions of the relationship between Christians and among the Churches. Perhaps a purification of the idea of ecumenism which is spreading is also needed, increasingly moving away from the directions and needs expressed in the decree on ecumenism and, particularly recalled by the Directory for the application of the principles and measures on ecumenism, and, particularly, by the encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

The letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente expresses a direction precisely in this sense, with its invitation to an examination of conscience, to penance, forgiveness, prayer, to significant consideration of Christian values present and active among the other Christians, to the preparation of a pan-Christian meeting in which the common faith in Jesus Christ Lord and Saviour of the world may be declared.


In such a situation and perspective the dialogue of charity has a permanent role among Christians. Only if substantiated by charity will theological dialogue become an instrument of communication and true vehicle of exchange to be able to ensure a transparency of faith.