Our Hearts are Restless...
On Wednesday, January 18, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins, an important time of prayer for Christians. One thing which came out of Saint Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council was the involvement of the Catholic Church in the ecumenical movement, or “ecumenism.” Saint Pope John Paul II, in his important encyclical letter entitled
“Ut Unum Sint”
“That They Might Be One”
), said that ecumenism is not something on the fringe of Catholic life, but rather part of the main mission of the Church. Certainly no thinking Catholic would accuse either Saint John XXIII or Saint John Paul II of being far-out liberals!
The words “ecumenism” and “ecumenical” are often misunderstood, and I have heard them misused on a number of occasions. Ecumenism and ecumenical refer to the search for unity among different Christian religious bodies. They do not refer to the Church’s relationship with nonChristian religious faiths; the correct word for those relationships is “interreligious.”
For much of my priestly life I was involved in ecumenical and interreligious work on behalf of the diocese, as well as on the local level in communities and parishes where I lived and worked. During that time I came to have many friends who were and are Protestant ministers. I discovered among them many men and women who have a great love of God and of Jesus, and who are dedicated to knowing, loving and spreading the teaching and work of Our Lord.
I grew up, as many of you reading this did, in the days when Catholics and Protestants were suspicious of one another’s faith, sometimes even in ways that were hostile and hateful. I remember when I was young and we Catholics were told that we should not belong to the YMCA (or YWCA for females) because they were Protestant organizations that would endanger our faith. I was never inside a non-Catholic Church until after I was ordained a priest.
Of course there were a lot of kids and families in the neighborhood who were not Catholic, and we usually got along with them. We kids played ball at the park with each other and did some other things, but we didn’t mix in matters of religion.
St. John XXIII startled both the Catholic and Protestant worlds when he called for an Ecumenical Council and invited Protestant churches and communities to send observers to the Council. Many Protestant communities responded by sending representatives, and the ice was broken. The Protestant observers had no official vote or part in the official discussions of Vatican II, but they and the Catholic bishops and priests who were at the Council were able to meet each other and discuss their views and experiences in their respective church communities.
Following the end of Vatican II, the Catholic Church and other religions, both Christian and non-Christian, have carried on dialogues to come to know one another’s beliefs and practices, and to search for the union which Jesus wills for us.
It is important to remember that ecumenism does not mean watering down our teachings in order to get along better. True ecumenism is a sharing of the truth we know and believe in. Ecumenism is not about forming some sort of common religion that everyone can agree with, but is a common searching for the will of God. It includes respect for what is good and holy in each other’s faith lives.
One problem in the past, and even today in many cases, is that Catholics and Protestants do not understand their own faiths enough to be able to recognize areas of common belief and real differences. Many Protestants and Catholics still have inaccurate ideas about the beliefs and practices of the other group.
In my first years as a priest the ecumenical movement burst forth with great hopes for a future unity between all Christian churches and denominations. I remember when we had an ecumenical service every night of the week in a different church from January 18 through January 25. I preached in Protestant churches on many occasions, and heard many Protestant pastors preach in Catholic churches. Things have tapered off quite a bit since that early enthusiasm, but it is still very important that we pray for Christianity unity, for that is the will of Christ.