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Ecumenical Commission


Letter to National Committees for the Year 1998

«Come Holy Spirit!

Giver of life - Sustain your creation!

Spirit of truth - Set us free!

Spirit of unity - Reconcile your people!

Holy Spirit- Transform and sanctify us!»

This was the prayer of Christians of many Churches and ecclesial Communities at the Seventh General Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Canberra (1991) invoking the Holy Spirit who sustains, liberates, transforms, sanctifies, reconciles and unites. The same intentions and invocations are often to be found in the hymns and prayers of the various Christian traditions, such as Veni, Creator Spiritus (Come Creator Spirit) of the Latin tradition, the Vasilev Ourànie Paràklete (Heavenly Paraclete King) of the Byzantine tradition, as well as those from other Christian traditions of both East and West, each with its own specific characteristics.

In these days Christians are asking the Holy Spirit, light of eternal wisdom, to reveal the great mystery of God the Father and the Son united in one love. This prayer makes us mindful of the grace with which the creator Spirit fills the hearts by him created, and of the consolation and anointing which increases faith, hope and charity in the believer. We ask that he strengthen us with his gifts: stir in us the Word, kindle the light of the intellect, arouse our hearts while also healing our wounds. We ask to be protected from evil and to receive the gift of peace. In the context of the division between Christians and the search for a growing communion between Churches and ecclesial Communities, we ask that together we may be introduced through the Holy Spirit to a knowledge of and greater sharing in the mystery of love that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May the Spirit nurture in our communities a keener desire for and commitment to communion and a greater readiness to listen «to what the Spirit is saying to the churches» (Rev 2,7).

1. Creator Spirit

Although the mention of the Spirit of God hovering above the waters in the first chapter of Genesis (1,2) is not to be understood as a revelation of the Holy Spirit, it serves to draw our attention to the spiritual dynamism which - from the very beginning and well before the explicit revelation of the work of God in Christ - pervades all creation and all history. The Byzantine prayer addresses the Holy Spirit as he who «is present everywhere and fills all things».

In ancient times God spoke many times and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets (cf. Heb 1,1). The Old Testament is the story of God's action amongst his people. In it, the New Testament has found the language and the prophecy to explain the gospel message. In the light of the Gospel the Christian community has understood the full significance of that action. More than ever in the history of Christianity, the Church has become conscious of the breadth and universality of the mysterious and effective presence of God and of His Spirit in all of creation, humanity, history, cultures, religions. Despite sin, perversions, contradictions, infidelities and weakness, the human being remains an "image of God", inspired by the Holy Spirit and oriented towards fulfilment in the Kingdom of God. The conviction that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, acts in all of creation opens a vision of the fundamental aspects of each and every communication and communion between persons, a vision which goes beyond all differences and barriers. The Holy Spirit «stirring people's hearts and quickening in our world the seeds of the full salvation which will come at the end of time» builds the Kingdom of God throughout history and prepares its full manifestation in Jesus Christ (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 45).

2. The Holy Spirit and the Church

The Holy Spirit brings about and reveals the new creation in Christ: at the moment of the Incarnation, overshadowing Mary with the power of the Most High (cf. Lk 1,35); at the moment of Christ's baptism, descending and remaining on him; and at Pentecost, firing the community to preach the Lord to the world. The third article of the Apostolic Symbol, «I believe in the Holy Spirit», intrinsically relates the Holy Spirit to the holy and catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh and eternal life. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit has been thus manifested through to our own day. Faith in the Holy Spirit unites the Church with an origin which overcomes every subsequent historical division and alienation. This faith also offers a perspective on the "communio sanctorum", which is mystery but also expresses the union of wayfarers - those belonging to Christ and possessing his Spirit who live in hope of the resurrection and eternal life - with our brothers and sisters who have died in the peace of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, 50). This journey presupposes the constant forgiveness of sins.

Amongst the signs of the times in Churches and ecclesial Communities, we perceive in groups and movements a greater sensitivity to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Avoiding temptations to be sectarian, these groups must celebrate in a special way the presence of the Holy Spirit in the whole Church and in all creation. They are called to bear testimony to ecumenical openness towards others, conscious that the Spirit blows like the wind, that we know neither where it comes from nor where it leads, that he is secretly at work everywhere, and that he opens towards communion between Christians in a world called to the Kingdom of God.

Faith in the Holy Spirit includes faith in the Church of Christ. It is «a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind» (LG, 1). As a sacrament and sign it constitutes a complex reality resulting from its twofold nature, human and divine, a society comprised of hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ, a visible and spiritual community. It serves Christ's Spirit, «who vivifies it by way of building up the body» (cf. LG, 8).

This Church, constituted as a society in the present world, subsists and continues to exist in the Catholic Church, governed by Peter's successor and by the bishops in communion with him. At the same time, the Catholic Church fully recognises that other Christians are justified by faith in baptism, are incorporated in Christ and are to be regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord (cf. LG 8; Unitatis redintegratio, 3). Indeed, beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church there are elements and endowments, such as the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity; as well as other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit and visible elements (cf. UR, 3; LG 15). In his Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint Pope John Paul II underlined the fact that there are ecclesial values among other Christians: "It is not that beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community there is an ecclesial vacuum" (cf. UUS 13; also 10). These riches are such that it must be said that a true communion already exists between the Catholic Church and the other Churches and ecclesial Communities. This real but imperfect communion has to lead to reconciliation and full communion. The Jubilee of the Year 2000 presents an opportunity to discover together more deeply this fellowship and to discern the consequences for a renewed ecumenical commitment.

The Holy Spirit is the bond of unity and communion in the one body which is the Church. But at the same time the Holy Spirit brings about great diversity: variety of ministries and working, of cultures and languages. The Pauline texts of Romans 12,3-5 and 1 Corinthians 12,4-11 on the diversity in the body of Christ have been read in a new light in the history of humanity, of peoples and of the Church itself. The irreversible diversity of Christian communities which has grown up in history represents a challenge to recognise in faith a sign of the Holy Spirit, and an invitation to reintegrate in a renewed communion that diversity which has unfortunately resulted in division. On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that cultural and historical diversity has comprised ambiguous elements. Diversity may be a sign of the creative action of the Holy Spirit, demonstrating its freedom and richness. In contrast, it can also be a sign of rupture and disintegration. Every history manifests both richness and poverty, grace and sin. History is inevitably the meeting point for the good spirit and the bad one, the "diabolos", who brings discord and sows division. There needs therefore to be a constant discernment in the community of the Church to «test everything; [and] hold fast to what is good» (1 Thess 5,21), recognising the fruits of the Spirit, «love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control» (Gal 5, 19).

3. Other Churches and ecclesial communities of salvation

We have already outlined how the Second Vatican Council explicitly recognises that the Holy Spirit operates in Churches and ecclesial Communities which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Council states even more explicitly that: «... the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation» (UR, 3). Both the Council and many of the documents pertaining to ecumenical dialogue have specified the various elements of this already existing communion. Other Churches and ecclesial Communities have been and continue to be instruments through which those who are not yet Christians have learned of the Gospel and have gathered in ecclesial Communities which have become the places of worship, sanctification, witness and service in the Holy Spirit. It is with gratitude that the Churches meditate together upon what they have in common. Indeed, they are stepping stones towards growing communion. Despite the remaining divergences, we can also call to mind joint work concerned with the Bible, and common witness expressed in mission, in charity and in work for justice and peace. We can also recall the results of the ecumenical dialogues on various theological themes, particularly baptism, eucharist and ministry.

The witness of faith given by Christians, even to the shedding of their blood, deserves particular attention in view of the Jubilee. This testimony has become the common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants (cf. TMA, 37). The Christian community cannot allow the memory of these witnesses to Christ to perish, for they demonstrate the presence and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the different Churches and ecclesial Communities. This voice from the communio sanctorum is louder and more convincing than the elements of division (cf. TMA, 37). The memory of their testimony and faith is a pledge of hope for the future. To this end, it could be useful to compile a "common calendar" or an "ecumenical martyrology", a compendium of Christians - Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant - who have rendered testimony to Christ our Saviour, sometimes even by shedding their blood.

And why not proclaim as a gift of the Holy Spirit the various manifestations of culture, music, painting, sculpture, architecture and literature, which while expressing the particular spirituality of one Christian tradition, have nevertheless become the shared treasure of all Christianity beyond confessional boundaries?

4. The Holy Spirit and full unity

The movement for the restoration of communion among all Christians was fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit (cf. UR, 1). It is the Spirit who arouses the desire for unity among Christ's disciples and for those actions which will enable everyone peacefully to reestablish that unity, in the manner desired by Christ. Then the Gospel will be proclaimed more effectively and the world be open to faith. Therefore, the Church «should invoke the Holy Spirit with ever greater insistence, imploring from him the grace of Christian unity ... Unity, after all, is the gift of the Holy Spirit» (TMA, 34).

Our gratitude for the journey undertaken this century, which can be justifiably called the century of ecumenism, includes a commitment to continue the pilgrimage by growing in communion until such time that we are able to celebrate it fully «devoted ... to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers» (Acts 2,42). The ecumenical journey may be compared with Abraham who by faith «obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going» (Heb 11,8). Full unity is much greater and more joyous than anything we can imagine. It is for this that we trust we shall reach it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: «When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come» (Jn 16,13). The truth which is taught and believed cannot be separated from the truth lived in full communion of charity with God and with our brothers and sisters - communion in the truth which has been given and has to be uncovered; truth in the communion which has been given and which has to be more and more fully realised. For this reason, going on pilgrimage to the sources and places where a particular witness of faith has been remembered continues to be a symbolic custom which can revive faith and strengthen ecumenical communion.

As happened with the disciples of Emmaus who discover the Lord's presence along the road in their conversation with each other and with the risen Lord, dialogue - including ecumenical dialogue as well - remains for Christians «an indispensable step along the path towards human self-realisation, the self-realisation both of each individual and of every human community» (UUS, 28). It is superfluous to highlight the importance of dialogue in the reconciliation of Christians. However, it may be useful to draw attention to the work of the Holy Spirit, both in giving testimony and in listening, the two prerequisites for any dialogue. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us ready to respond to anyone who asks for an explanation of the hope in us (cf. 1 Pet 3,15). The Holy Spirit also creates an openness to receive this explanation from someone who offers us the reason for his or her own hope. The humble openness of each to the other allows for the possibility that the Spirit may speak to one Church through the understandings of another (cf. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, of the Commission on Faith and Order). It is the Holy Spirit who instils the courage to undertake the patient process of discernment which takes place through dialogue, in the knowledge that the truth is never a possession, but is to be shared in giving and receiving. In this context the perspective has ultimately to be that of trusting prayer:

"Veni, creator Spiritus - Come, creator Spirit" and grant us the consolation of reconciliation, peace and refound communion.

"Veni, Sancte Spiritus - Come, Holy Spirit" and grant us a ray of your light:

"Heal our wounds, our strength renew;

On our dryness pour thy dew;

Wash the stains of guilt away;

Bend the stubborn heart and will;

Melt the frozen, warm the chill;

Guide the steps that go astray".

5. Practical suggestions

5.1 Prayer

a) The theme of the 1998 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is: «The Spirit helps us in our weakness» (Rm 8,26). The chapter from which this verse is taken opens a magnificent vision of the work of the Trinity in creation and in humanity. At the same time it offers an invitation to prayer in the Holy Spirit , who cries out in us «Abba, Father» and calls us to pray and reflect upon the Our Father. This perspective invites us to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian unity this year in a special way. The following themes have been selected for meditation and prayer over the eight days:

  1. «All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God» (Rom 8,14)
  2. «You have received a spirit of adoption» (Rom 8,15).
  3. «Heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ» (Rom 8,17).
  4. «The glory about to be revealed to us» (Rom 8,18).
  5. «The creation has been groaning; we ourselves groan inwardly» (Rom 8,22-23).
  6. «For in hope we were saved» (Rom 8,24).
  7. «The Spirit helps us in our weakness» (Rom 8,26).
  8. «The Spirit intercedes for the saints» (Rom 8,27)

It should be borne in mind that the International Joint Committee which prepares the texts of the prayers for unity each year is comprised of representatives of the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. The Committee agreed to use the same themes in the years 1997-1998 as those proposed in the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente for the preparation of the Jubilee. For the Week of Prayer to be celebrated in many different places there needs to be real ecumenical cooperation and adaptation of the texts locally.

b) The period of time around the feast of Pentecost is dedicated to prayer for unity in many parts of the world. Indeed, Pentecost is a feast of witness and communion in the Spirit, of unity and of diversity. It would be meaningful if there were some way of celebrating the time of preparation and waiting for the coming of the Spirit, and the feast itself, «all together in one place» (Acts 2,1) by means of initiatives of testimony and prayer expressing the will for communion.

c) A pilgrimage to a destination which holds significance in the Christian memory of a particular country - for example, places where the founders of a local Church before the division of Christians are remembered - could be a meaningful undertaking. It could become a symbol of the ecumenical movement: communion, moving together in penance and prayer towards a common destination.

5.2 Sacraments of Christian Initiation

The celebration of the sacraments - and in particular the three sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and eucharist - are important moments in the action of the Holy Spirit, who brings about the presence of Christ in the Church in order to build up the communion of saints. These sacraments and their relationship with the Holy Spirit and the Church are a suitable theme for exploration and study in catechesis and ecumenical groups.

5.3 Communion of Saints

All Christians agree that the Holy Spirit is the sanctifying spirit.

  1. In many places Christians have acknowledged in their midst martyrs and exemplary confessors of faith, hope and charity - both men and women. Some of these, such as Francis of Assisi, Roublev, Johann Sebastian Bach, Monsignor Romero, Elizabeth Seton, the martyr Anuarite of Zaire, and Martin Luther King, have been for various reasons recognised beyond confessional boundaries. Ecumenical groups could look at the example of some of these witnesses with a view to identifying how the work of the Holy Spirit can be distinguished in them and what their role might be in the promotion of full communion.
  2. Other figures remain controversial, or indeed are considered symbols of division and rupture. In a polemical context of memory, an examination of these figures could be undertaken in a particular place in order to arrive at a reconciliation of memories, respecting historical reality while at the same time straining to gain a new perspective and to understand the underlying motives of the people involved, in this way writing together a new chapter in a history which is now shared.

5.4 Living Communion in Community

All Christian traditions have forms of community life, some more developed or structured than others (monasticism, religious orders, groups of committed and integrated Christian life, basic groups, movements, etc.). As communities they strive to be more attentive to the call of the Holy Spirit and to their response of conversion, faith and charity. In the Church they constitute hearths of spirituality. It would be desirable in view of the Jubilee to nurture concrete ecumenical opportunities for exchange, reflection and prayer in order to share charisms and to investigate how this type of testimony can bear fruit for the growth of communion between Churches and ecclesial Communities.

5.5 Prayer to the Holy Spirit

In the prayers of the faithful in the Catholic Church and, if possible, in other Churches and ecclesial Communities, there should be an attempt throughout 1998 to include an invocation to the Holy Spirit for the unity of all Christians which reflects local circumstances.

5.6 An Offer to the National Committees and a Request

The Ecumenical Commission of the Central Committee for the Jubilee of the Year 2000 is ready to give any further information or help to the National Committees and the Ecumenical Commissions of the Synods of Eastern Catholic Churches and Bishops' Conferences.

The Commission is aware that in some countries solid relationships have been established with other Churches and ecclesial Communities. These developments are a source of great pleasure, and the Commission would be grateful to receive detailed information about them in order to respond to inquiries made by other countries about what form of collaboration might be feasible. The Commission expresses its appreciation for this in anticipation.

+ Paul-Werner Scheele

Bishop of Würzburg

President of the Ecumenical Commission of the Central Committee of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000

Eleuterio F. Fortino

Under-Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Vice-President of the Ecumenical Commission of the Central Committee of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000