The Search for Christian Unity and Interreligious Understanding

The Catholic Church committed itself to the search for Christian unity with Unitatis Redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, published in 1964. Pope St. John Paul II developed the Church teaching on ecumenism further in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“On Commitment to Ecumenism”). In that document, he wrote, “At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed herself irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture, thus heeding the Spirit of the Lord, who teaches people to interpret carefully the ‘signs of the times’” (No. 3).

The 50th anniversary of the Decree on Ecumenism in 2014 and the recent 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation have provided ample opportunities for reflection on the progress made thus far and the questions remaining.

Pope Francis attended the prayer service sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Lund, Sweden, on Oct. 31, 2016, which began the year of commemorations of the Reformation. His very presence symbolized ecumenical progress.

A second meeting later that day symbolized the pastoral turn being emphasized even more as the search for Christian unity moves forward. Before 10,000 church leaders/ecumenists gathered in the Malmo Arena with Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Younan, president of the LWF, representatives of the Catholic Caritas Internationalis and Lutheran World Relief signed a document affirming increased collaboration in aiding the needy.

Interreligious Understanding

The Catholic Church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue also flows from the Second Vatican Council. The document Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), adopted in 1965, gives direction to our work with other faiths. While many of the basic attitudes that make for ecumenical understanding are critical also to interreligious understanding, the goals differ. In ecumenism, we are working so “that they all may be one” as Jesus prayed at the Last Supper (Jn 17:21). In interreligious dialogue, we are working toward mutual understanding and enhancing the common good. There is overlap but distinction in purpose.

I will begin with some reflections on ecumenism and then turn to interreligious relations.

Theological Synopses

As the international and national dialogues between the Catholic Church and representatives of the Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist and Reformed churches mature, there is much agreement to summarize and remaining issues to consider. The national and international dialogues often have stopped to summarize their results. These summaries and information on a host of more recent dialogues, such as those with the rapidly growing Pentecostal communities, can be found on the websites of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Vatican and the partner churches.

A succinct summary of the results of four major international dialogues can be found in Cardinal Walter Kasper’s “Harvesting the Fruits” (Bloomsbury Academic, $18.95). A concise, internationally oriented summary of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue over the last 50 years, with 32 “statements of agreement” and 15 points needing further dialogue, can be found in “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.” Two major Orthodox-Catholic agreements adopted at Ravenna, Italy (2007), and Chieti, Italy (2016), can be found on the Vatican website. These summaries point to the great progress that has been made in ecumenical dialogues over the last 50 years. This progress is scarcely known among priests, deacons and laity. Good news does not travel fast.

Dialogues Rooted in Prayer

Dialogue is not just an exercise in theological explanation and reflection. The dialogue partners pray together. They seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They bring together their deep knowledge of Christian traditions and their openness to the divine will for the churches.

Spiritual ecumenism is at the heart of ecumenical dialogue, whether among scholars or among pastors who bring their members together to perform works of charity. We always seek divine guidance. Bishop Mitchell Rozanski, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, discusses the virtues of ecumenical dialogue in his recent article for Our Sunday Visitor’s The Catholic Answer magazine entitled, “How do we foster Christian Unity?”

Building Personal Relationships

Bishop Rozanski mentions some of the obstacles we might encounter as we enter dialogue. He writes: “When we consider relationships, we also need a bit of humility. Here we may have to acknowledge:

◗ “Our reluctance to grow spiritually.

◗ “Our past hurts, some self-inflicted, that may be separating us from others.

◗ “Our fears of Christian unity itself.”

At root, ecumenism is nourished in prayer and relationships. We may need to work our way through our resistance to God’s will prayerfully. Some of our Christian colleagues may need to do the same.

Ecumenical relationships flourish when pastors and pastoral ministers get to know one another. This can begin simply by accepting or making an invitation.

Years before I directed the ecumenical office at USCCB, I was invited by a Lutheran pastor to join a regional group of Lutheran and Catholic clergy. The bimonthly meetings discuss recent Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical documents and the writings of some prominent theologians. Occasionally we diverge into pastoral issues that we have encountered. The meetings have been very enriching.

Most frequently, such groups of pastors, deacons and pastoral ministers share about the Sunday Scriptures and/or pastoral concerns. It is no surprise when pastoral issues are similar across church lines.

Sometimes pastors will decide to work together. I’ve met some who have establish community food banks. I know of an ecumenical group of pastors in Virginia who established a house to care for poor people who need short-term assistance after leaving the hospital.

Forty-five years ago, I was a seminarian sitting at a summer lunch in the dining room of our community. Father Edward Carney sat down with us. He was a man of few words who had been rector of the seminary through the 1950s.

As a man who always followed Church teaching, he had become engaged after the Second Vatican Council in ecumenical dialogue with faculty members of neighboring seminaries. That day he mentioned one Anglican professor friend. He said that “while we have our differences in systematic theology, he is a real Christian.” This was the first public witness I heard to the holiness of one of our colleagues. It came from an unexpected source.

As we get to know one another, we sometimes share parts of our spiritual journey. Our Christian colleagues can be quite edifying in their commitment to live the Gospel. Catholics hope that we are, too. Many of our Protestant and Anglican colleagues have personal spiritual directors, sometimes drawn from local Catholic retreat houses or religious communities.

Some Pastoral Considerations

A prime pastoral consideration is that Catholics in churches on Sunday often have members of their immediate families who belong to other Christian traditions with them. The fact that Christians who are friends or family members may be attending Sunday Mass is usually overlooked by Catholic clergy.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that 90 percent of Catholic young people attend public high school. Young people often presume interchurch understanding. Their friends come from a variety of religious backgrounds. This situation implies that interchurch marriages will increase. Ecumenism will become increasingly important.

These realities raise the question of interchurch sensitivity. Recently I attended Mass with some family members in a distant state. I noticed that the pastor of the church was welcoming all the people as they came in. He was making them feel at home.

Preaching should reflect the Catholic Church’s commitment to mutual respect and to ecumenical and interreligious partnerships. We should not use negative terms for other churches and faiths. If we speak of them, we should make sure we get our facts right. Thus we need to consult reliable sources and avoid quick internet searches. Church documents provide guidance (see sidebar above).

A further element calling for sensitivity is Communion. At this point in the ecumenical journey, we do not share Communion with our Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox friends. There are some exceptional cases, but this is the general rule. I have had people come to me, often Catholics, to complain about insensitive language found in parish announcements about Communion. Perhaps these announcements could indicate that while the Catholic Church is praying and working for Christian unity, we cannot share Communion at this stage.

Conversations with the Jewish Community

In 2015, numerous events and conferences celebrated Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. For example, detailed presentations were given at a three-day conference at The Catholic University of America, which was titled, Nostra Aetate: Celebrating 50 years of the Catholic Churches Dialogue with Jews and Muslims. The presentations can be reviewed in a book published after the conference by The Catholic University of America Press ($34.95).

Many Catholics have Jewish friends from school or work. Nostra Aetate effected a major change in our relations. There has been robust Jewish-Catholic dialogue in the United States and internationally since the close of the Second Vatican Council. Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, an important American facilitator/contributor to this dialogue, has pulled together essays from many prominent Christian and Jewish dialogue participants in his book “A Jubilee for All Time: The Copernican Revolution in Jewish Christian Relations” (Pickwick Publications, $42).

Nowadays almost all pastoral ministers realize that we cannot understand Jesus without understanding Judaism. We realize that the Jewish people have a special relationship with Christians. We are still seeking to capture our relationship theologically given that the Catholic Church has disavowed/asked forgiveness for our previous ways of thinking about and treating the Jewish people. The Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews recently sought to articulate our relationship as we move into the future. Its document is entitled “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable.”

Practically speaking, we here in the United States seek greater collaboration at all levels with our Jewish friends. We condemn the recent rise of anti-Semitism in our country and in Europe.

Interreligious Conversations

Our conversations with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and members of other religions are like our ecumenical conversations. We seek to:

◗ Build respectful relationships.

◗ Get to know one another in depth.

◗ Build up the local community.

◗ Pursue the common good of all.

A major difference compared to our relationships with other Christians and with the Jews is that most Catholics do not have any personal experience with members of these religions. For example, a recent study at Georgetown University pointed out that very few Catholics know a Muslim personally.

I often have been asked why Muslim groups in this country do not condemn “terrorist acts” here and abroad. My answer is that American Muslim groups have condemned these acts for years. But these disavowals usually are not considered newsworthy. Our Catholic community, which currently forms its impressions of other religions based on media, gets a distorted impression of Muslims and other groups.

In interreligious conversation, the first step is getting to know one another as people and not caricatures. As young people go to school together, they will get to know one another more deeply. Interreligious friendships are increasing. Marriages are gradually rising.

As we move into the future, ecumenical and interreligious knowledge and sensitivity will become ever more important. Realistically, the population has become quite diverse, and it will continue to be so. The movement toward Christian unity will continue to progress. Population data show that other religious groups will grow in numbers.

We pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide us on our spiritual journey together toward Christian unity and world peace.

FATHER JOHN W. CROSSIN, OSFS, is director of spiritual formation at the Saint Luke Institute.