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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97 (Suppl.), April 2005 


Spiritual Ecumenism: 

the inescapable way forward


H.E. Msgr. Brian FARRELL, L.C., 

Secretary of the Pontifical Council 

for Promoting Christian Unity


I am truly pleased to be here on behalf of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. I like to say that the operative word in the title of our Council is "promoting": the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. And here this afternoon I am being given a unique opportunity to do precisely that: to share some ideas with you on the state of ecumenism today, on the ecumenical situation that forms the setting for the subject of this Conference. I bring warm greetings from Cardinal Kasper and the staff of the Council for Unity. We are delighted by the fact that the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People has organized this meeting on a topic that matches perfectly the priorities of our own Council, where we are fully convinced that further progress in the ecumenical movement greatly depends on revitalizing the spiritual impulse that inspired it at its beginning. The search for the restoration of unity among Christ's followers needs a new emphasis on "spiritual ecumenism", which the Second Vatican Council called "the soul of the whole ecumenical movement" (Unitatis Redintegratio, 7). Spiritual ecumenism, a name that might seem somewhat vague and general, has become a clear and eminently workable concept in the title of this Conference: "Ecumenism of Holiness – Pilgrimage at the beginning of the Third Millennium".

2004, A Year of Anniversaries

In the world of ecumenism, 2004 is a year of significant anniversaries which are golden opportunities for reflection, teaching and pastoral planning. Among the anniversaries that stand out and can be mentioned here, two belong to the history of our divisions, and two – more recent ones – belong to the "about-turn" which has occurred in our lifetime in relations
among Christians.

This year marks:

1.  950 years since mutual anathemas sealed the division between East and West, 1054

2.  800 years since the sack of Constantinople, 1204

3.  40 years since Pope Paul VI issued the Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (dialogue as the path of the Church)

4.  40 years since the Second Vatican Council promulgated the Decree on Ecumenism Unitiatis Redintegratio (the foundational document of Catholic ecumenical efforts).

I mention 1054 and 1204 only because these historical events raise an important question that stands at the heart of the quest for unity – forgiveness and the purification of memory, for our divisions are the burden of our history – and I would like to say a few words later about the role of pilgrimages in fostering the spiritual attitudes and the catechetical education needed to make this aspect of holiness and of ecumenism a reality in the lives of people.

40 years of Ecclesiam Suam

I mention Pope Paul VI's Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (6 August 1964) because it had a profound influence on the way the bishops of the Council struggled to clarify the Church's self-understanding, and that must be the backdrop for any reflection on the Catholic commitment to ecumenism. In this Encyclical Paul VI brings us back to the very core of what it means to be Christian and to belong to the Church: "To be a Christian . . . must be something that thrills the baptized to the very core of their being. They must look upon it with the eyes of the Christians of the early Church, as an 'illumination'". Then he poses a fundamental question which the Church in every age must ask: what relationship should we, the Church, establish and foster with the human race? And Paul VI responds: "The Church has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make" – therefore it must enter into dialogue with the world, in order "to inject the Christian message into the stream of modern thought".

This Encyclical forces us to become aware of ourselves, as Church, on the wide stage of universal history. There, the Church can say to all people: "'Here in my possession is what you are looking for, what you need'. The Church has the secret of truth, justice, peace and civilization. . . all things human are our concern". There is no room here for false timidity or for any self-centred exclusivity. In a future time, observers will surely say that Pope Paul VI (and undoubtedly too, Pope John Paul II), by advocating dialogue as the path of the Church, saved Catholicism, and maybe the whole of Christianity, from being reduced to a closed ghetto in a distracted, unbelieving world. Pope Paul VI did all he could to sustain and stimulate the Council in its drive to renew the Church in her own self-understanding and in her evangelising mission. That renewal could not but imply also a unequivocal commitment to the search for Christian unity: "that they may all be one, so that the world may believe" (Jn 17:21).

40 years of Unitatis Redintegratio

How the Catholic Church "officially" embraced the ecumenical movement is what we are celebrating this year on the fortieth anniversary of Unitatis Redintegratio. The final vote on the text of the Decree, on 21 November 1964, saw 2,137 Bishops in favour and 11 against. The Council had overwhelmingly adopted a renewed ecclesiology, in which the Church is seen as a mystery of communion with God, as a divine-human reality constituted by the possession of certain objective elements, including visible elements, which together form the Church of Christ. This Church subsists, according to Lumen Gentium 8, in the Catholic Church, which has preserved all these elements. The absence of one or other of these ecclesial elements, while it hurts communion and makes it incomplete, does not altogether destroy it, thus leaving some Christians and their communities altogether "outside" communion, as was the general thinking in most of post-Reformation Catholic ecclesiology. UR's position is that some – even very many – of these elements are present in the churches and communities not in communion with Rome, giving rise to a real though imperfect communion between them and the Catholic Church.

The centrality of the Eucharist in the Council's understanding of the Church, according to the ancient doctrine that "Ecclesia facit Eucharistiam, Eucharistia facit Ecclesiam", became the salient factor in judging the ecclesial character of the separated Churches. The fact that the Eucharist is validly celebrated among the Orthodox leads to a recognition of a very high degree of communion between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. The Decree readily admits that the same degree of communion does not exist with the Anglican and Protestant communities, because of the lack of a valid Eucharist in these communities, but its intention is to give as much weight as is theologically possible to all that is held in common.

On the basis of this theological vision, UR put the Catholic Church irreversibly on the path of the quest for full visible communion among all Christians. Ecumenism can no longer be considered as something that the Church accepts and does merely out of goodwill and kindness towards other Christians, or as a form of Church strategy and politics. As Pope John Paul II explains in the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint: "The Dogmatic Constitution [Lumen Gentium] links its teaching on the Catholic Church to an acknowledgment of the saving elements found in other Churches and Ecclesial Communities [cf. UR 15] . . . Insofar as they are elements of the Church of Christ, these are by their nature a force for the re-establishment of unity. Consequently, the quest for Christian unity is not a matter of choice or expediency, but a duty which springs from the very nature of the Christian community" (49.2).

The Ecumenical Situation

Since the Council we have lived forty extraordinary years of ecumenical progress. Besides all the invaluable results of the theological dialogues, with their ups and downs, an unending series of events demonstrates that an essential historical shift has taken place and that we are in a new historical situation. As an example I mention only some of the events of the last few months that directly involved our Council: the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch to Rome for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul at the end of June; the return to the Russian Orthodox Church of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan; the visit to the Pope in August of the new President of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Dr Wolfgang Huber; the work done at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury by a mixed Anglican-Catholic commission of theologians on ecclesiological questions pertinent to the present difficulties in the Anglican Communion. The list could go on and on. Pope John Paul II has described the outcome of this decades-long and continuing process as "brotherhood rediscovered" (Ut Unum Sint, 41). Christians of the various churches and ecclesial communities are no longer enemies or indifferent neighbours; they meet as brothers and sisters and as friends; they are striving to travel on a common journey, on a pilgrimage together towards full communion.

For profound theological reasons, and simply because it is the will of Christ, we cannot go back from this commitment. We must continue to build on what has been achieved. Nevertheless, we would be naive if we did not take into account that there are some important weaknesses affecting the real progress of the last 40 years.

1) A basic problem that has always plagued the ecumenical dialogue is the simple fact that churches and communities have very different notions of what Christian unity means, and therefore have different views of the goal of ecumenical endeavours. Clearly, if the various confessions have dissimilar ideas about what it means to be "church" and about what form
unity in their own community should take, then they are going to disagree on what they should be working for in inter-church relations. Each communion has its own perspective on unity, and there is no generally accepted model for growth into unity. This means that multilateral relations, as for example in the World Council of Churches, tend to avoid the substantial questions and have to limit themselves to more "horizontal" forms of collaboration and involvement. Bilateral relations too suffer from this lack of a shared vision of the goal to be achieved: how will the Catholic emphasis on primacy be reconciled with the Orthodox insistence on conciliar and synodal structures, or with the emphasis on congregational forms of church order in the Protestant world? Such basic questions are still before us and it will not be easy to deal with them.

2) Secondly, the very success of the ecumenical endeavour gives rise to new tensions. In a sense, the Trinitarian and Christological questions have proven relatively easy to deal with. The pneumatological, and especially the ecclesiological, questions provoke new unease and strains. The closer we come to the questions of authority and ministry, the more painful is the perception that we are not yet in a position fully to understand each other. As a result, people are impatient with "official" ecumenism, dissatisfied with the pace of progress and the lack of more spectacular results. A certain frustration creeps in, and the principles that should guide ecumenical action are jettisoned in favour of easy but flawed gestures of unity.

3) Moreover, we now have a new generation of Catholics – priests and lay people – who have little real awareness of the achievements of the Second Vatican Council, so they do not really understand what, how and why things have changed. They have less interest in the theological issues that fascinated the previous generation, and they are not concerned with them.
Because of the lack of catechetical and homiletic instruction, many do not know what Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant doctrine is all about, and what the differences are. So ecumenical questions have lost their fascination.

In addition, we can see a new emphasis on confessional identity. In the face of powerful and impersonal globalizing forces, there is a new search for cultural, ethnic, national and confessional identity. The question is often: How can we avoid being absorbed in a faceless, bigger whole? In this perspective, ecumenism is sometimes misunderstood as an attempt to abolish confessional identity through the acceptance of an arbitrary pluralism, and doctrinal relativism. In some places ecumenism has become a bad word. Of course, the question of identity is a legitimate and necessary one, and is in no way opposed to genuine ecumenism, since dialogue can only take place between people who are clear about their own identity. It must be clear that serious ecumenism is different from the relativism that tends to meet at the level of the lowest common denominator.

4) A further concern about the value of ecumenical efforts, particularly at the institutional level, is related to the fragmentation that is occurring within churches and communities. Besides the usual theological and institutional questions, there are now new tensions regarding ethical questions, such as abortion, homosexuality, bio-ethics. We were accustomed to think that most Christians agreed on basic ethical and moral issues. Now we know they do not! And the confessional bodies tend to split into groups and coalitions, polarized around opposing positions. Do we continue to dialogue with each world communion through its official representatives, as we have done up to now, or do we dialogue with the sectors within these bodies that may be closer to us on traditional morality? If an ecclesial community decides to approve of, say, homosexuality and ministers living in same-sex unions, do we continue the dialogue with the official institutions, or do we turn to the parts of that community which reject those decisions? We must realistically expect new difficulties and new disappointments.

So now the question arises of how to face the changing ecumenical horizon before us.

Spiritual Ecumenism

If we know where we want to go, then we may find the way. "Ut Unum sint": this is the prayer of Jesus before he died on the cross for our salvation. This therefore is his last will and testament, constituting a solemn obligation for all his disciples: not merely as a pious ideal, but as a constitutive task of the community which he founded. As Lumen Gentium tells us: "By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind" (no. 1).

The unity of the Church therefore cannot be measured only in sociological and organizational terms. It is – at its heart – a state of being in intimate union with Christ, the total Christ: the Head and his members. To be in communion means to be part of a relationship engendered by sharing in the elements or endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church: the written word of God, the life of grace, the exercise of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and so on (cf. UR, 3).

The quest for Christian unity therefore cannot be separated from authentic living of the Christian message, from the holiness present and visible in the lives of the very Christians who seek that unity. The Council has warned us: "The faithful should remember that they promote union among Christians better, that indeed they live it better, when they try to live holier lives according to the Gospel" (UR, 7). In an often quoted phrase, UR goes on to say: "This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism’” (no. 8).

There can be no ecumenism without spirituality, without holiness. The Ecumenical Directory is clear on this point: "Because ecumenism with all its human and moral requirements is rooted so profoundly in the mysterious working of the providence of the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, it reaches into the depths of Christian spirituality . . . Those who identify deeply with Christ must identify with his prayer, and especially with his prayer for unity; those who live in the Spirit must let themselves be transformed by the love that, for the sake of unity, 'bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things'; those whose lives are marked by repentance will be especially sensitive to the sinfulness of divisions and will pray for forgiveness and conversion. Those who seek holiness will be able to recognize its fruits also outside the visible boundaries of their own Church. They will be led truly to know God as the one who alone is able to gather all into unity because he is the Father of all" (no. 25).

If we look at what is happening in the local churches around the world, we see a differentiated practice of "spiritual ecumenism". There are places where all kinds of ecumenical activities flourish: common public celebrations and prayers, retreats, bible studies, even pilgrimages. And there are places where the idea that divided Christians should seek to do together what they need not do separately has not yet entered the prevailing thinking, even at the level of those who guide and direct the pastoral care of the faithful.

Our Pontifical Council is more than ever committed to promoting this fundamental form of ecumenism, both in our efforts ad extra, in dialogue with the churches and ecclesial communities not in full communion with us, and in the very important area of our efforts ad intra, that is, the promotion of the ecumenical spirit within the Catholic Church as such. Cardinal Kasper has put it this way: "From now on our Pontifical Council wishes to place emphasis precisely on the subject of spiritual ecumenism. Without this ‘soul’, ecumenism becomes either a sterile activism or a merely academic matter in which the majority of the faithful cannot take part: not being in a position to grasp what is at stake in the ecumenical dialogue, they drift away and become disinterested or even reject it outright. The result is that there is no effective reception of the results of the dialogue in the body of the Church".

Last November, our Council dedicated its plenary assembly to the theme of "spiritual ecumenism". In preparation we collected a series of testimonies of practical and lived spiritual ecumenism, with a view to providing inspiring models and encouraging examples. We were much impressed at how many such instances of a shared ecumenical spirituality already exist.
They represent a sometimes overlooked dimension of ecumenism that must be made more widely known. This is all the more urgent given that, while there is widespread disaffection with religious institutions, there is in contrast a profound desire and longing for spirituality. This too of course is part of the reason behind the popularity of pilgrimages and visits to shrines. It is this increased interest in spiritual matters that we hope will inspire and define the next phase of the ecumenical movement.

In recognition of the fortieth anniversary of Unitatis Redintegratio, we are also organizing, in November next, a meeting of the presidents of the ecumenical commissions of the Episcopal conferences and synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, in order to reflect on the current situation and future direction of the ecumenical movement, and on how to give new impetus to the Catholic commitment to the ecumenical movement.

"Spiritual ecumenism" will be a central theme of that meeting too.


Let me briefly approach the subject of pilgrimages, leaving the specifics to all of you who are much more experienced than I in this field. I may start by saying that while the Ecumenical Directory mentions and encourages "spiritual sharing between the members of different confessions in the form of days of recollection, spiritual exercises, groups for the study and sharing of traditions of spirituality, and more stable associations for a deeper exploration of a common spiritual life", it does not mention pilgrimages. This is surely a lacuna that has to be set right. Ecumenism, in fact, is itself a pilgrimage, an expression of the pilgrim Church, of all the people of God which, on its journey, is guided, inspired and supported by the Spirit, who guides us into the whole truth (cf. Jn 16:13).

Pilgrimages can be ecumenical in many ways. They can be made up of people from different traditions, thus offering an opportunity for meeting and learning about one another's history, piety, liturgical life and church order; they can be visits to holy places of a church not one's own. If they are anything, pilgrimages are occasions for prayer, and common prayer for unity. Conversion and the search for holiness of life are an essential part of the pilgrim experience. They are also essential elements of the quest for unity.

Ecumenical sensitivity

All those involved in the pastoral care of pilgrims need a highly developed ecumenical sensitivity, in two directions.

First, genuine ecumenism has nothing to do with facile solutions to the painful consequences of division. Our ecumenism must be theologically founded on the principles enunciated in the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, on the indications of the Ecumenical Directory, and in the spirit of the Holy Father's magna-charta on ecumenism, the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint. Priests and others working with mixed groups of pilgrims need to know the principles governing communicatio in sacris or intercommunion, and need to know how to explain them properly. The norms proposed in the Ecumenical Directory seem to go as far as it is theologically possible to go in the situation of real though imperfect communion between the churches. We must generously and joyfully celebrate the real communion in the Spirit which already exists among Christians, but the incomplete character of this communion is incompatible with an unrestricted sacramental sharing (cf. ED, 104). The spirit in which things are done is important. I would draw attention to the Holy Father's positive attitude to the possibility of intercommunion. In Ut Unum Sint he says: "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" (no. 46).

This leads to a second point. Ecumenical sensitivity demands sincere respect for the liturgical and sacramental discipline of other churches and ecclesial communities, and these in their turn are asked to reciprocate with the same respect for Catholic discipline. The ED calls for consultation at different levels between the Churches in order to agree on how to manage a situation in which the discipline of one Church calls into question or conflicts with the discipline of another (no. 105). If we sincerely wish to work for Christian unity we must be as open as possible and be ready to do together with other Christians all those things which our theological convictions do not require us to do separately.

The purification of memory and the commemoration of "witnesses to the faith"

In relations with other confessions there are two vital elements of the ecumenism of holiness to which the example of John Paul II has accustomed us, and which pilgrimages seem able to promote in an especially effective way. First, there can be no real advance towards greater spiritual communion without the purification of memory. And secondly, the sharing across confessional lines of the "witnesses to the faith" would be a very real way of fostering the ecumenism of holiness.

The memory of sad events of our history, of sins against unity, of the reality of acts of violence committed by Christians against their brothers and sisters of other denominations lives on and hinders our growing into closer communion. The memory of 1054 has not altogether faded. When the papal legate, Umberto di Silva Candida, laid on the altar of Haghia Sophia the document that excommunicated the Patriarch Michael Cerularius, the already wide doctrinal and disciplinary gap that had gradually crept into the thousand-year life of the one Church became, not just a legitimate diversity of development, but a source of increasingly intractable mutual distrust and rivalry. Silva Candida's words on that dramatic occasion were: "Deus videat et iudicet!" May God see and judge! In the Catholic perspective, the Second Vatican Council, nine centuries later, seems like God's judgement on the events of 1054: God didn't like them! And through the Council He seems to tell us to hurry to eradicate their negative effects from the life of our communities. Isn't this what was intended by the actions of Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI when in 1965 they "consigned to oblivion" the memory of those anathemas?

For most of us in the West, the events of 1204 have little meaning, and even less emotional resonance. But for some of our Orthodox brothers and sisters the memory of the sack of Constantinople by a Christian army from the West still causes profound misgivings and pain, and needs to be healed.

 On a number of occasions the Holy Father has appealed for God's forgiveness for the crimes committed during the fourth crusade. During his memorable visit to Greece in May 2001, he assured the Archbishop of Athens and of All Greece, Christodoulus: "Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East . . . To God alone belongs judgement, and therefore we entrust the heavy burden of the past to his endless mercy, imploring him to heal the wounds which still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people.

Together we must work for this healing if the Europe now emerging is to be true to its identity, which is inseparable from the Christian humanism shared by East and West".

This kind of purification of memory is happening not just in the Catholic Church. A recent example in another community has to do with Q. and A. 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which calls the Catholic Mass a "condemnable idolatry".

The 2004 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America has asked the Reformed Ecumenical Council that is scheduled to take place in July 2005 to declare that "The Mass, when celebrated in accordance with official Roman Catholic teaching, neither denies the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ nor constitutes idolatry". The positive dialogue now being carried on between our Council and the Mennonite World Council began with a discussion of our respective perceptions of past wrongs.

The purification of memory does not mean to forget history. That leads to the atomisation and disintegration of culture and society, as well as to dismissing a fundamental category of salvation history revealed through God's action in human events. As Cardinal Kasper has pointed out in a recent conference on this theme, the memoria passionis Christi offers the Church the possibility and the task of re-assessing historical memory in the light of Christ. The Gospel message of forgiveness and new life purifies bad memories, which entail feelings of bitterness, hatred and revenge. It allows us to see a painful history with reconciled eyes and with a reconciled heart, not to forget but to forgive and be forgiven, and to start a common journey into the future together with the enemy of the past. Clearly, such a spiritual disposition is needed everywhere, but most especially in Christian Europe, through the length and breath of its eastern frontier where Catholicism and Orthodoxy meet, and in so many parts of western Europe where the religious turmoil of the sixteenth century lives on even today in various forms of prejudice and discrimination. It seems to me that shrines and pilgrimages offer a unique opportunity for teaching and fostering a lively grass-roots movement of conversion and purification of memory, essentials of the ecumenism of holiness.

Sharing the witnesses to the faith

It is difficult to speak about "the ecumenism of holiness" without referring to a theme which is gaining strength in contacts between divided Christians, and to which Pope Paul II has given impetus, especially in the context of the Jubilee Year: the shared celebration of the "witnesses to the faith". In his Apostolic Letter Tertio millennio adveniente the Pope says that the communion Sanctorum speaks more effectively to people than the factors that divide (cf. no. 37). While we remain divided on earth, the saints and martyrs are already in full communion in heaven. There is a growing awareness that the witness of holiness and martyrdom goes beyond confessional boundaries, precisely because it leads us to the very centre of our faith: Christ living in his members, and their fidelity to him at the cost of great sacrifice. Some churches and communities have already introduced "witnesses" from other confessions into their calendars. One of the most interesting meetings I have been at this year, in March, was at the invitation of the community of Bose, when representatives of six different confessional families met together to discuss the possibility of an ecumenical commemoration of outstanding witnesses to the Christian faith. Likewise, the Centro Pro Unione in Rome has also been doing much good work along these lines.

I am not sure that any particular witnesses can speak universally, to all the churches. But I could see that, in reference to a specific historical background, certain shrines and places of pilgrimage might become excellent schools of this particular kind of purification of memory. Where Christians have been the victims of persecution by other Christians – and this is often a mutual violence –, there is ample reason for the common confession of sin before God and before each other. Shrines and pilgrimages and ecumenical prayer groups can do much to foster this needed sense of reconciliation and peace. In the Memorandum prepared at Bose in the meeting I already mentioned, it says: "We must always be open to the possibility that the death of a witness can become a 'gift' to his or her persecutors; that the group he or she represents can become a 'gift' to its enemies. This becomes a reality only if one church celebrates the other in such a way that the witness becomes a source of common grace and hope, and an occasion of both penitence and thanksgiving". When Christians together recognize and celebrate the "cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1), the ecumenism of holiness will provide surprising new energy for the ecumenical task.

While official contacts and theological dialogues retain all their value for the restoration of unity among Christians, they are not sufficient in themselves. They do not reach the hearts of people. The ecumenism of holiness – prayer and conversion of life and acts of reconciliation – this is the obligatory way forward. By becoming intense experiences of ecumenical encounter, formation and celebration, pilgrimages can play a unique role in shaping and spreading the spirituality of communion that is the best antidote to all our divisions. In one of his letters Saint Augustine reminds us that "not by journeying but by loving we draw near to God. To Him who is everywhere present and everywhere entire we approach not by our feet but by our hearts" (Ep. clv, 672, in P. L. XXXII).