Christian Unity: A Reflection

Christian Unity: A Reflection

When we look around, we see many Churches which call themselves ‘Christian’ but are not Catholic.

The restoration of visible unity among Christians is a superhuman task.

Our deviations might give the impression that ecumenism is a path strewn with so many obstacles that the hope of achieving visible unity constantly recedes before us.  In order to react against defeatism in all its forms – so as to avoid sinning against the Spirit – it is important to realize that the Christian’s ecumenical attitude is already, in itself, an immediate and most valuable grace.

The success of ecumenism does not solely depend on whether or not Christians will eventually be reunited in one body.  Ecumenism is already succeeding, day by day, when it leads us to open ourselves, together, to the gifts and riches of the Spirit which lie beyond all confessional barriers.  Its primary aim is to revitalize us and thus give us credibility in the eyes of the world.

Ecumenism is not primarily a matter of negotiations between the churches, but a movement of deep inner Christian renewal.  Ecumenical sensitivity, quite naturally, engenders an attitude of honesty and of sincere respect for others.  No one has the freehold or even a leasehold on the full light of truth: Jesus alone is God’s definitive revelation.  We carry our treasures in fragile vessels: our language will always remain inadequate before the richness of God’s mysteries.  The capacity to feel humble before truth – truth as we ourselves perceive it and, above all, as we live it – remains the royal road to the visible unity that must be restored.

Such humility is incompatible with disdain for others and aggressive polemics.  I have to respect my neighbour’s conscience, for it belongs to him alone: God gets through to it and this suffices.  I have to respect what my brother sees and to appreciate the measure of truth contained in his assertion.  Our most hardened controversies generally stem from our inability to reconcile two partial truths that are not mutually exclusive.  At all events, the path of ecumenism starts with love, which engenders hope and leads to an ever-increasing faith.

We know that the Lord is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name, and that He is doubly present among his disciples who are striving for unity.  We also know that not only does He preside over our discussions, but that it is He who holds the solution to our painful problems: He came to “reconcile the dispersed children of God” [John 11:32].

The logic of our faith should dictate to us a truly prayerful attitude.  All too often, in meetings of dialogue with Christians of other denominations, ordinary Catholics – even their pastors – will content themselves with “reciting” a few prayers as a matter of form, as if to salve their consciences.  On the other hand, the importance attached to prayer is often deeply impressive in similar ecumenical gatherings conducted by our separate brethren, and in Catholic circles influenced by renewal.  It seems that Catholics are very shy of speaking aloud, not of God but to God, and of listening to him together.

Strenuous efforts cannot achieve their goal unless the Christian people itself feels vitally involved in them.  A summit agreement on the union between Rome and the Orthodox Churches was proclaimed in the 15th century by the Council of Florence.  The official reconciliation was short-lived: it was not taken over and implemented by the Christian people, and hence was unable to survive the political hazards of the period.  We must never allow ourselves to forget this lesson.

The same holds true of today’s joint theological agreements, however essential and fruitful they may be.   The controversies they are endeavouring to clear up have their roots in a past that some of our contemporaries find too remote and complex.  Our young people grow impatient at what they mistakenly regard as fossilized quarrels, while the young churches of Africa and Asia understandably declare that they have nothing to do with that European or Byzantine past, which in no way affects their continent.

In order to succeed, the reconciliation of Christians must be carried, sustained, and lived by the whole church.  Ecumenism must be a tidal wave, lifting up the people of God.  A week of common prayer for unity, once a year, is not enough to sensitize the Christian community.

It is the duty of the religious authorities to recognize and welcome, then to promote and incarnate, the collective movements which the Spirit gives the church.  They have to authenticate these movements, to help them to ring true, to assimilate them into that great total gift of the church, so that they may be returned to the people of God adjusted, vivified, rooted in Christianity assimilable, and “anointed.”

The restoration of the church’s unity must itself be an ecclesial endeavour, otherwise it will not be achieved.  In order to become fully aware of this mission, the Christian people must feel the suffering and humiliation of our ecclesial divisions as a raw wound.  May they still feel challenged today by the cry of distress of the learned and illustrious Cardinal Bessarion who, after the failure of the Council of Florence in the 15th century asked: “What excuse can we give to justify our refusal to reunite?  What answer shall we give God to justify this division of brothers, when we know that the Word came down from heaven, took flesh, and was crucified precisely in order to reunite us and make us one flock?”  “What excuse shall we offer the future generations, not to mention our contemporaries?”

The people of God has to manifest its repentance for a scandal of division that has lasted all too long.  It has to appropriate the sentiments expressed by John XXIII when he received in audience the non-Catholic observers of Vatican Council II: “We do not intend to conduct a trial of the past, we do not want to prove who was right and who was wrong.  All we want to say is: Let us come together.  Let us make an end of our divisions.”  And Paul VI was but echoing these sentiments of humble contrition and regret when he received the Metropolitan of Chalcedon, he suddenly fell to his knees before him and embraced his feet.

No words can adequately express all that ecumenism in the Catholic Church owes to John XXIII, the Council, and Paul VI.  The obstacles to unity may at times seem insurmountable, but today some Christians are tempted to exaggerate in the opposite direction; like the ostrich burying his head in the sand, they believe that ecumenism involves no problems whatsoever, and refuse to envisage the doctrinal obstacles yet to be overcome.

The whole people of God will have to intensify its openness to the Spirit and renew its faith in His indefectible power.  The charismatic renewal can serve as a dynamic lever to raise the Christian people in ecumenical hope.

Ecumenism is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Let us humbly and ardently open ourselves to His action, and believe in His active presence in us and in each of our brethren.

As Vladimir Solovieff, that genial forerunner of ecumenism, wrote: “In order to come closer to one another, we have to do two things: the first is to ensure and intensify our own intimate union with Christ; the second is to venerate, in the soul of our brother, the active life of the Holy Spirit who dwells in him.”

We must dare to believe in the creative virtue of the Spirit.

 For this article I used notes of the book “Ecumenism and Charismatic Renewal: Theological and Pastoral Considerations,” by Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens.

Huub Welters mhm


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