More than 50 years have passed since those landmark documents were issued by the Second Vatican Council: Unitatis Redintegratio (The Decree on Ecumenism) and Nostra Aetate (The Decree on Relationships with Non-Christian Religions). The Catholic Church in the United States was fertile ground for reaching out to other Christian religions as well as to our brothers and sisters of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Much progress has been made, particularly in ecumenical relationships, even if it has happened one small step at a time. The pioneers of those early days have left us a legacy of dialogue, cooperation and patience in making progress on the road to understanding one another and acknowledging the hurts of the past centuries.
In October 2017, Lutherans, Catholics and members of other Christian faiths commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Francis traveled to Lund, Sweden, in October 2016 to pray together with Bishop Munib Younan, head of the Lutheran World Federation, and to issue a joint statement for that occasion. Pope Francis and Bishop Younan wrote: “We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We long for this wound in the Body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavors, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”
But ecumenism and interfaith dialogue is not limited to the world of theologians. Pope Francis himself has acknowledged that fact. A few years ago, I had the privilege to meet with a group of dedicated men and women who shared the journey of their interfaith marriages. Their stories were greatly encouraging, witnessing to the mutual respect husbands and wives have for one another in seeking to understand and celebrate the way in which faith has been such an important part of their married lives. They told of both their triumphs as well as their sorrows in an honest way that belied how solid their marriages were and continue to be despite being of two different faiths. As priests, we encounter those interfaith couples in our parishes. Our encouragement for them means that the Church also understands the importance of the witness of their lives; showing both the pain and yet the joys of living faith to its fullest. Those wonderful couples gave me great hope in the practical way that they live their commitment to the Lord Jesus and to one another.
In our communities, ministers and priests of various faiths can work together for the common good, witnessing to the power of uniting for the care of all God’s people. Sharing responsibilities for soup kitchens, food banks, community issues and joining together in prayer for Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and Labor Day services are concrete ways of uniting despite our differences.
Working together in ecumenical and interfaith relationships is a much needed witness to a society that is constantly subjected to hostile rhetoric. The memory of the most recent national election campaigns is still fresh in our minds as a poisonous time of our recent past. Unfortunately, many have come to accept that this is the way things are to be; that opposing sides cannot have civil dialogue with one another, and angry words are a part of our landscape. As Christians, we can reach out to one another, acknowledging our differences yet engaging in respectful dialogue. Jesus urges us to be “salt for the earth and light for the world.” Our cooperation with one another is a powerful sign that the status quo of spouting hurtful words that divide us does not have to be.
Finally, I wish to encourage our clergy to persist in fostering ecumenical and interfaith relations. Many resources are available through the bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs website at usccb.org. While 50 years have passed since Vatican II opened up our relationships with other faiths, we still have much work to do. Let us continue to be about the work of the Lord Jesus who prayed that “all may be one!”
BISHOP MITCHELL T. ROZANSKI is bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts.