On Commitment to Ecumenism
Ut Unum Sint
May 25, 1995
Pope John Paul II
(GO TO PART II) (GO TO PART III)
1. UT UNUM SINT! The call for
Christian unity made by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council with such impassioned commitment is finding an ever greater echo in the hearts of believers, especially as the Year 2000 approaches, a year which Christians
will celebrate as a sacred Jubilee, the commemoration of the Incarnation of the Son of God, who became man in order to save humanity.
The courageous witness of so many martyrs of our century, including members of
Churches and Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church, gives new vigor to the Council's call and reminds us of our duty to listen to and put into practice its exhortation. These brothers and
sisters of ours, united in the selfless offering of their lives for the Kingdom of God, are the most powerful proof that every factor of division can be transcended and overcome in the total gift of self for the sake of
Christ calls all his disciples to unity. My earnest desire is to renew this call today, to propose it once more with determination, repeating what I said at the Roman
Colosseum on Good Friday 1994, at the end of the meditation on the Via Crucis prepared by my Venerable Brother Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. There I stated that believers in Christ, united in
following in the footsteps of the martyrs, cannot remain divided. If they wish truly and effectively to oppose the world's tendency to reduce to powerlessness the mystery of Redemption, they must profess together the
same truth about the Cross.(1) The Cross! An anti-Christian outlook seeks to minimize the Cross, to empty it of its meaning, and to deny that in it man has the source of his new life. It claims that the Cross is unable
to provide either vision or hope. Man, it says, is nothing but an earthly being, who must live as if God did not exist.
2. No one is unaware of the challenge which all this poses to believers. They cannot fail to meet this challenge. Indeed, how could they refuse to do everything possible, with God's help,
to break down the walls of division and distrust, to overcome obstacles and prejudices which thwart the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation in the Cross of Jesus, the one Redeemer of man, of every individual?
I thank the Lord that he has led us to make progress along the path of unity and communion between Christians, a path difficult but so full of joy. Interconfessional dialogues at the
theological level have produced positive and tangible results: this encourages us to move forward.
Nevertheless, besides the doctrinal differences needing to be resolved, Christians
cannot underestimate the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this
situation worse. Consequently, the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy
Spirit, the Lord's disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to re- examine together their painful past and the hurt which that
past regrettably continues to provoke even today. All together, they are invited by the ever fresh power of the Gospel to acknowledge with sincere and total objectivity the mistakes made and the contingent factors at
work at the origins of their deplorable divisions. What is needed is a calm, clear-sighted and truthful vision of things, a vision enlivened by divine mercy and capable of freeing people's minds and of inspiring in
everyone a renewed willingness, precisely with a view to proclaiming the Gospel to the men and women of every people and nation.
3. 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." The experiences of these years have made the Church even more profoundly aware of her identity and her mission in history. The Catholic Church acknowledges and
confesses the weaknesses of her members, conscious that their sins are so many betrayals of and obstacles to the accomplishment of the Savior's plan. Because she feels herself constantly called to be renewed in the
spirit of the Gospel, she does not cease to do penance. At the same time, she acknowledges and exalts still more the power of the Lord, who fills her with the gift of holiness, leads her forward, and conforms her to his
Passion and Resurrection.
Taught by the events of her history, the Church is committed to freeing herself from every purely human support, in order to live in depth the Gospel law of the
Beatitudes. Conscious that the truth does not impose itself except "by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power,"(2) she seeks nothing for herself but the
freedom to proclaim the Gospel. Indeed, her authority is exercised in the service of truth and charity.
I myself intend to promote every suitable initiative aimed at making the witness
of the entire Catholic community understood in its full purity and consistency, especially considering the engagement which awaits the Church at the threshold of the new Millennium. That will be an exceptional occasion,
in view of which she asks the Lord to increase the unity of all Christians until they reach full communion.(3) The present Encyclical Letter is meant as a contribution to this most noble goal. Essentially pastoral in
character, it seeks to encourage the efforts of all who work for the cause of unity.
4. This is a specific
duty of the Bishop of Rome as the Successor of the Apostle Peter. I carry out this duty with the profound conviction that I am obeying the Lord, and with a clear sense of my own human frailty. Indeed, if Christ himself
gave Peter this special mission in the Church and exhorted him to strengthen his brethren, he also made clear to him his human weakness and his special need of conversion: "And when you have turned again,
strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22:32). It is precisely in Peter's human weakness that it becomes fully clear that the Pope, in order to carry out this special ministry in the Church, depends totally on the Lord's
grace and prayer: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail" (Lk 22:32). The conversion of Peter and that of his Successors is upheld by the very prayer of the Redeemer, and the Church constantly
makes this petition her own. In our ecumenical age, marked by the Second Vatican Council, the mission of the Bishop of Rome is particularly directed to recalling the need for full communion among Christ's disciples.
The Bishop of Rome himself must fervently make his own Christ's prayer for that conversion which is indispensable for "Peter" to be able to serve his brethren. I earnestly invite
the faithful of the Catholic Church and all Christians to share in this prayer. May all join me in praying for this conversion!
We know that during her earthly pilgrimage the Church has
suffered and will continue to suffer opposition and persecution. But the hope which sustains her is unshakable, just as the joy which flows from this hope is indestructible. In effect, the firm and enduring rock upon
which she is founded is Jesus Christ, her Lord.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH'S
COMMITMENT TO ECUMENISM
God's plan and communion
5. Together with all Christ's disciples, the Catholic Church bases upon God's plan her ecumenical commitment to gather
all Christians into unity. Indeed, "the Church is not a reality closed in on herself. Rather, she is permanently open to missionary and ecumenical endeavor, for she is sent to the world to announce and witness, to
make present and spread the mystery of communion which is essential to her, and to gather all people and all things into Christ, so as to be for all an 'inseparable sacrament of unity.'"(4)
Already in the Old Testament, the Prophet Ezekiel, referring to the situation of God's People at that time, and using the simple sign of two broken sticks which are first divided and then
joined together, expressed the divine will to "gather from all sides" the members of his scattered people. "I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord
sanctify Israel" (cf. 37:16-28). The Gospel of John, for its part, considering the situation of the People of God at the time it was written, sees in Jesus' death the reason for the unity of God's children:
"Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" (11:51-52). Indeed, as the Letter to the Ephesians explains, Jesus "broke
down the dividing wall of hostility...through the Cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end"; in place of what was divided he brought about unity (cf. 2:14-16).
6. The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God. For this reason he sent his Son, so that by dying and rising for us he might bestow on
us the Spirit of love. On the eve of his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus himself prayed to the Father for his disciples and for all those who believe in him, that they might be one, a living communion. This is the basis
not only of the duty, but also of the responsibility before God and his plan, which falls to those who through Baptism become members of the Body of Christ, a Body in which the fullness of reconciliation and communion
must be made present. How is it possible to remain divided, if we have been "buried" through Baptism in the Lord's death, in the very act by which God, through the death of his Son, has broken down the walls
of division? Division "openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature."(5)
The way of ecumenism: the way of the Church
7. "The Lord of the Ages wisely and patiently follows out the plan of his grace on behalf of us sinners. In recent times he has begun to bestow more generously upon divided Christians
remorse over their divisions and a longing for unity. Everywhere, large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace, and among our separated brethren also there increases from day to day a movement, fostered by the
grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians. Taking part in this movement, which is called ecumenical, are those who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. They join
in not merely as individuals but also as members of the corporate groups in which they have heard the Gospel, and which each regards as his Church and, indeed, God's. And yet almost everyone, though in different ways,
longs that there may be one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and sent forth to the whole world that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God."(6)
8. This statement of the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio is to be read in the context of the complete teaching of the Second
Vatican Council. The Council expresses the Church's decision to take up the ecumenical task of working for Christian unity and to propose it with conviction and vigor: "This sacred Synod exhorts all the Catholic
faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to participate actively in the work of ecumenism."(7)
In indicating the Catholic principles of ecumenism, the Decree Unitatis
Redintegratio recalls above all the teaching on the Church set forth in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium in its chapter on the People of God.(8) At the same time, it takes into account everything affirmed in the
Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae.(9)
The Catholic Church embraces with hope the commitment to ecumenism as a duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by
faith and guided by love. Here too we can apply the words of Saint Paul to the first Christians of Rome: "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit"; thus our "hope does not
disappoint us" (Rom 5:5). This is the hope of Christian unity, which has its divine source in the Trinitarian unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
9. Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed "that they may all be one" (Jn 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed
on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ's mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it
belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape.
In effect, this unity bestowed by
the Holy Spirit does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals. It is a unity constituted by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion.(10) The
faithful are one because, in the Spirit, they are in communion with the Son and, in him, share in his communion with the Father: "Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:3).
For the Catholic Church, then, the communion of Christians is none other than the manifestation in them of the grace by which God makes them sharers in his own communion, which is his eternal life. Christ's words
"that they may be one" are thus his prayer to the Father that the Father's plan may be fully accomplished, in such a way that everyone may clearly see "what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in
God who created all things" (Eph 3:9). To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the
Father's plan from all eternity. Such is the meaning of Christ's prayer: "Ut unum sint."
10. In the
present situation of the lack of unity among Christians and of the confident quest for full communion, the Catholic faithful are conscious of being deeply challenged by the Lord of the Church. The Second Vatican Council
strengthened their commitment with a clear ecclesiological vision, open to all the ecclesial values present among other Christians. The Catholic faithful face the ecumenical question in a spirit of faith.
The Council states that the Church of Christ "subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him," and at the
same time acknowledges that "many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside her visible structure. These elements, however, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner
dynamism toward Catholic unity."(11)
"It follows that these separated Churches and Communities, though we believe that they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived
of significance and value in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to
the Catholic Church."(12)
11. The Catholic Church thus affirms that during the two thousand years of her
history she has been preserved in unity, with all the means with which God wishes to endow his Church, and this despite the often grave crises which have shaken her, the infidelity of some of her ministers, and the
faults into which her members daily fall. The Catholic Church knows that, by virtue of the strength which comes to her from the Spirit, the weaknesses, mediocrity, sins and at times the betrayals of some of her children
cannot destroy what God has bestowed on her as part of his plan of grace. Moreover, "the powers of death shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18). Even so, the Catholic Church does not forget that many among
her members cause God's plan to be discernible only with difficulty. Speaking of the lack of unity among Christians, the Decree on Ecumenism does not ignore the fact that "people of both sides were to
blame,"(13) and acknowledges that responsibility cannot be attributed only to the "other side." By God's grace, however, neither what belongs to the structure of the Church of Christ nor that communion
which still exists with the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities has been destroyed.
Indeed, the elements of sanctification and truth present in the other Christian Communities, in a
degree which varies from one to the other constitute the objective basis of the communion, albeit imperfect, which exists between them and the Catholic Church.
To the extent that these
elements are found in other Christian Communities, the one Church of Christ is effectively present in them. For this reason the Second Vatican Council speaks of a certain, though imperfect communion. The Dogmatic
Constitution Lumen Gentium stresses that the Catholic Church "recognizes that in many ways she is linked"(14) with these Communities by a true union in the Holy Spirit.
12. The same Dogmatic Constitution listed at length "the elements of sanctification and truth" which in various ways are present and
operative beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: "For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and of action, and who show a true religious zeal. They lovingly believe
in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, Son of God and Savior. They are consecrated by Baptism, through which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and receive other sacraments within their own Churches or
Ecclesial Communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist, and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God. They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits.
Likewise, we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them also he gives his gifts and graces, and is thereby operative among them with his sanctifying power. Some indeed he has
strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ's disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one
The Council's Decree on Ecumenism, referring to the Orthodox Churches, went so far as to declare that "through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in
each of these Churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature."(16) Truth demands that all this be recognized.
13. The same Document carefully draws out the doctrinal implications of this situation. Speaking of the members of these Communities, it declares: "All those justified by faith
through Baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord by the sons and daughters of the Catholic
With reference to the many positive elements present in the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, the Decree adds: "All of these, which come from Christ and
lead back to him, belong by right to the one Church of Christ. The separated brethren also carry out many of the sacred actions of the Christian religion. Undoubtedly, in many ways that vary according to the condition
of each Church or Community, these actions can truly engender a life of grace, and can be rightly described as capable of providing access to the community of salvation."(18)
are extremely important texts for ecumenism. It is not that beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community there is an ecclesial vacuum. Many elements of great value (eximia), which in the Catholic Church are part of
the fullness of the means of salvation and of the gifts of grace which make up the Church, are also found in the other Christian Communities.
14. All these elements bear within themselves a tendency toward unity, having their fullness in that unity. It is not a matter of adding together all the riches scattered throughout the
various Christian Communities in order to arrive at a Church which God has in mind for the future. In accordance with the great Tradition, attested to by the Fathers of the East and of the West, the Catholic Church
believes that in the Pentecost Event God has already manifested the Church in her eschatological reality, which he had prepared "from the time of Abel, the just one."(19) This reality is something already
given. Consequently we are even now in the last times. The elements of this already-given Church exist, found in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other Communities,(20) where
certain features of the Christian mystery have at times been more effectively emphasized. Ecumenism is directed precisely to making the partial communion existing between Christians grow toward full communion in truth
Renewal and conversion
15. Passing from principles, from the obligations of the Christian conscience, to the actual practice of the ecumenical journey toward unity, the Second Vatican Council emphasizes above
all the need for interior conversion. The messianic proclamation that "the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand," and the subsequent call to "repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk
1:15) with which Jesus begins his mission, indicate the essential element of every new beginning: the fundamental need for evangelization at every stage of the Church's journey of salvation. This is true in a special
way of the process begun by the Second Vatican Council, when it indicated as a dimension of renewal the ecumenical task of uniting divided Christians. "There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change
The Council calls for personal conversion as well as for communal conversion. The desire of every Christian Community for unity goes hand in hand with its fidelity to
the Gospel. In the case of individuals who live their Christian vocation, the Council speaks of interior conversion, of a renewal of mind.(22)
Each one therefore ought to be more
radically converted to the Gospel and, without ever losing sight of God's plan, change his or her way of looking at things. Thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of "the mighty works of God" (mirabilia Dei)
has been enriched by new horizons, for which the Triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian Communities, the discovery of examples of holiness, the experience of the
immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment. In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain
exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the "other side," of a disdain born of an unhealthy
presumption. Thus, the entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern.
16. In the teaching of the Second Vatican Council there is a clear connection between renewal, conversion and reform. The Council states that
"Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. Therefore, if the influence of
events or of the times has led to deficiencies...these should be appropriately rectified at the proper moment."(23) No Christian Community can exempt itself from this call.
engaging in frank dialogue, Communities help one another to look at themselves together in the light of the Apostolic Tradition. This leads them to ask themselves whether they truly express in an adequate way all that
the Holy Spirit has transmitted through the Apostles.(24) With regard to the Catholic Church, I have frequently recalled these obligations and perspectives, as for example on the anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan
Rus'(25) or in commemorating the eleven hundred years since the evangelizing activity of Saints Cyril and Methodius.(26) More recently, the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, issued with
my approval by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has applied them to the pastoral sphere.(27)
17. With regard to other Christians, the principal documents of the Commission on Faith and Order(28) and the statements of numerous bilateral dialogues have already provided Christian
Communities with useful tools for discerning what is necessary to the ecumenical movement and to the conversion which it must inspire. These studies are important from two points of view: they demonstrate the remarkable
progress already made, and they are a source of hope inasmuch as they represent a sure foundation for further study.
The increase of fellowship in a reform which is continuous and
carried out in the light of the Apostolic Tradition is certainly, in the present circumstances of Christians, one of the distinctive and most important aspects of ecumenism. Moreover, it is an essential guarantee for
its future. The faithful of the Catholic Church cannot forget that the ecumenical thrust of the Second Vatican Council is one consequence of all that the Church at that time committed herself to doing in order to
re-examine herself in the light of the Gospel and the great Tradition. My Predecessor, Pope John XXIII, understood this clearly: in calling the Council, he refused to separate renewal from ecumenical openness.(29) At
the conclusion of the Council, Pope Paul VI solemnly sealed the Council's commitment to ecumenism, renewing the dialogue of charity with the Churches in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, and joining the
Patriarch in the concrete and profoundly significant gesture which "condemned to oblivion" and "removed from memory and from the midst of the Church" the excommunications of the past. It is worth
recalling that the establishment of a special body for ecumenical matters coincided with the launching of preparations for the Second Vatican Council(30) and that through this body the opinions and judgments of the
other Christian Communities played a part in the great debates about Revelation, the Church, the nature of ecumenism and religious freedom.
The fundamental importance of doctrine
18. Taking up an idea expressed by Pope John XXIII at the opening of
the Council,(31) the Decree on Ecumenism mentions the way of formulating doctrine as one of the elements of a continuing reform.(32) Here it is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of
dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age, or suppressing certain articles of the Creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today.
The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ,
"the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth? The Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae
attributes to human dignity the quest for truth, "especially in what concerns God and his Church,"(33) and adherence to truth's demands. A "being together" which betrayed the truth would thus be
opposed both to the nature of God who offers his communion and to the need for truth found in the depths of every human heart.
19. Even so, doctrine needs to be presented in a way that makes it understandable to those for whom God himself intends it. In my Encyclical Epistle Slavorum Apostoli, I recalled that this
was the very reason why Saints Cyril and Methodius labored to translate the ideas of the Bible and the concepts of Greek theology in the context of very different historical experiences and ways of thinking. They wanted
the one word of God to be made accessible in each civilization's own forms of expression."(34) They recognized that they could not therefore "impose on the peoples assigned to their preaching either the
undeniable superiority of the Greek language and Byzantine culture, or the customs and way of life of the more advanced society in which they had grown up."(35) Thus they put into practice that "perfect
communion in love which preserves the Church from all forms of particularism, ethnic exclusivism or racial prejudice, and from any nationalistic arrogance."(36) In the same spirit, I did not hesitate to say to the
aboriginal peoples of Australia: "You do not have to be divided into two parts...Jesus calls you to accept his words and his values into your own culture."(37) Because by its nature the content of faith is
meant for all humanity, it must be translated into all cultures. Indeed, the element which determines communion in truth is the meaning of truth. The expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these
forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning.(38)
"This renewal therefore has notable
ecumenical significance."(39) And not only renewal in which the faith is expressed, but also of the very life of faith. It might therefore be asked: who is responsible for doing this? To this question the Council
replies clearly: "Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone, according to the ability of each, whether it be exercised in daily Christian living or
in theological and historical studies."(40)
20. All this is extremely important and of fundamental
significance for ecumenical activity. Thus it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of "appendix" which is added to the Church's traditional
activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full
This is what Pope John XXIII believed about the unity of the Church and how he saw full Christian unity. With regard to other Christians, to the great Christian family, he
observed: "What unites us is much greater than what divides us." The Second Vatican Council for its part exhorts "all Christ's faithful to remember that the more purely they strive to live according to
the Gospel, the more they are fostering and even practicing Christian unity. For they can achieve depth and ease in strengthening mutual brotherhood to the degree that they enjoy profound communion with the Father, the
Word, and the Holy Spirit."(41)
The primacy of prayer
21. "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
can rightly be called 'spiritual ecumenism.'"(42)
We proceed along the road leading to the conversion of hearts guided by love which is directed to God and, at the same time, to all
our brothers and sisters, including those not in full communion with us. Love gives rise to the desire for unity, even in those who have never been aware of the need for it. Love builds communion between individuals and
between Communities. If we love one another, we strive to deepen our communion and make it perfect. Love is given to God as the perfect source of communion—the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—that we may draw from
that source the strength to build communion between individuals and Communities, or to re-establish it between Christians still divided. Love is the great undercurrent which gives life and adds vigor to the movement
This love finds its most complete expression in common prayer. When brothers and sisters who are not in perfect communion with one another come together to pray, the Second
Vatican Council defines their prayer as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement. This prayer is "a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity," "a genuine expression of the ties which
even now bind Catholics to their separated brethren.(43) Even when prayer is not specifically offered for Christian unity, but for other intentions such as peace, it actually becomes an expression and confirmation of
unity. The common prayer of Christians is an invitation to Christ himself to visit the community of those who call upon him: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt
22. When Christians pray together, the goal of unity seems closer. The long history of Christians
marked by many divisions seems to converge once more because it tends toward that Source of its unity which is Jesus Christ. He "is the same yesterday, today and forever!" (Heb 13:8). In the fellowship of
prayer Christ is truly present; he prays "in us," "with us" and "for us." It is he who leads our prayer in the Spirit-Consoler whom he promised and then bestowed on his Church in the Upper
Room in Jerusalem, when he established her in her original unity.
Along the ecumenical path to unity, pride of place certainly belongs to common prayer, the prayerful union of those who
gather together around Christ himself. If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what
unites them. If they meet more often and more regularly before Christ in prayer, they will be able to gain the courage to face all the painful human reality of their divisions, and they will find themselves together
once more in that community of the Church which Christ constantly builds up in the Holy Spirit, in spite of all weaknesses and human limitations.
23. Finally, fellowship in prayer leads people to look at the Church and Christianity in a new way. It must not be forgotten in fact that the
Lord prayed to the Father that his disciples might be one, so that their unity might bear witness to his mission and the world would believe that the Father had sent him (cf. Jn 17:21). It can be said that the
ecumenical movement in a certain sense was born out of the negative experience of each one of those who, in proclaiming the one Gospel, appealed to his own Church or Ecclesial Community. This was a contradiction which
could not escape those who listened to the message of salvation and found in this fact an obstacle to acceptance of the Gospel. Regrettably, this grave obstacle has not been overcome. It is true that we are not yet in
full communion. And yet, despite our divisions, we are on the way toward full unity, that unity which marked the Apostolic Church at its birth and which we sincerely seek. Our common prayer, inspired by faith, is proof
of this. In that prayer, we gather together in the name of Christ who is One. He is our unity.
"Ecumenical" prayer is at the service of the Christian mission and its
credibility. It must thus be especially present in the life of the Church and in every activity aimed at fostering Christian unity. It is as if we constantly need to go back and meet in the Upper Room of Holy Thursday,
even though our presence together in that place will not be perfect until the obstacles to full ecclesial communion are overcome and all Christians can gather together in the common celebration of the Eucharist.(44)
24. It is a source of joy to see that the many ecumenical meetings almost always include and indeed culminate
in prayer. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, celebrated in January or, in some countries, around Pentecost, has become a widespread and well established tradition. But there are also many other occasions during
the year when Christians are led to pray together. In this context, I wish to mention the special experience of the Pope's pilgrimages to the various Churches in the different continents and countries of the present-day
oikoumene. I am very conscious that it was the Second Vatican Council which led the Pope to exercise his apostolic ministry in this particular way. Even more can be said. The Council made these visits of the Pope a
specific responsibility in carrying out the role of the Bishop of Rome at the service of communion.(45) My visits have almost always included an ecumenical meeting and common prayer with our brothers and sisters who
seek unity in Christ and in his Church. With profound emotion I remember praying together with the Primate of the Anglican Communion at Canterbury Cathedral (May 29, 1982); in that magnificent edifice, I saw "an
eloquent witness both to our long years of common inheritance and to the sad years of division that followed."(46) Nor can I forget the meetings held in the Scandinavian and Nordic Countries (June 1-10, 1989), in
North and South America and in Africa, and at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches (June 12, 1984), the organization committed to calling its member Churches and Ecclesial Communities "to the goal of
visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ."(47) And how could I ever forget taking part in the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Church of Saint George
at the Ecumenical Patriarchate (November 30, 1979), and the service held in Saint Peter's Basilica during the visit to Rome of my Venerable Brother, Patriarch Dimitrios I (December 6, 1987)? On that occasion, at the
Altar of the Confession, we recited together the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed according to its original Greek text. It is hard to describe in a few words the unique nature of each of these occasions of prayer. Given
the differing ways in which each of these meetings was conditioned by past events, each had its own special eloquence. They have all become part of the Church's memory as she is guided by the Paraclete to seek the full
unity of all believers in Christ.
25. It is not just the Pope who has become a pilgrim. In recent years, many
distinguished leaders of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities have visited me in Rome, and I have been able to join them in prayer, both in public and in private. I have already mentioned the visit of the Ecumenical
Patriarch Dimitrios I. I would now like to recall the prayer meeting, also held in Saint Peter's Basilica, at which I joined the Lutheran Archbishops, the Primates of Sweden and Finland, for the celebration of vespers
on the occasion of the Sixth Centenary of the canonization of Saint Birgitta (October 5, 1991). This is just one example, because awareness of the duty to pray for unity has become an integral part of the Church's life.
There is no important or significant event which does not benefit from Christians coming together and praying. It is impossible for me to give a complete list of such meetings, even though each one deserves to be
mentioned. Truly the Lord has taken us by the hand and is guiding us. These exchanges and these prayers have already written pages and pages of our "Book of unity," a "Book" which we must constantly
return to and re-read so as to draw from it new inspiration and hope.
26. Prayer, the community at prayer,
enables us always to discover anew the evangelical truth of the words: "You have one Father" (Mt 23:9), the Father—Abba—invoked by Christ himself, the Only-begotten and Consubstantial Son. And again: "You
have one teacher, and you are all brethren" (Mt 23:8). "Ecumenical" prayer discloses this fundamental dimension of brotherhood in Christ, who died to gather together the children of God who were
scattered, so that in becoming "sons and daughters in the Son" (cf. Eph 1:5) we might show forth more fully both the mysterious reality of God's fatherhood and the truth about the human nature shared by each
and every individual.
"Ecumenical" prayer, as the prayer of brothers and sisters, expresses all this. Precisely because they are separated from one another, they meet in Christ
with all the more hope, entrusting to him the future of their unity and their communion. Here too we can appropriately apply the teaching of the Council: "The Lord Jesus, when he prayed to the Father 'that all may
be one...as we are one' (Jn 17:21-22), opened up vistas closed to human reason. For he implied a certain likeness between the union of the Divine Persons, and the union of God's children in truth and charity."(48)
The change of heart which is the essential condition for every authentic search for unity flows from prayer and its realization is guided by prayer: "For it is from newness of
attitudes, from self-denial and unstinted love, that yearnings for unity take their rise and grow toward maturity. We should therefore pray to the divine Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle
in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity toward them."(49)
for unity is not a matter reserved only to those who actually experience the lack of unity among Christians. In the deep personal dialogue which each of us must carry on with the Lord in prayer, concern for unity cannot
be absent. Only in this way, in fact, will that concern fully become part of the reality of our life and of the commitments we have taken on in the Church. It was in order to reaffirm this duty that I set before the
faithful of the Catholic Church a model which I consider exemplary, the model of a Trappistine Sister, Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity, whom I beatified on January 25, 1983.(50) Sister Maria Gabriella, called by her
vocation to be apart from the world, devoted her life to meditation and prayer centered on chapter seventeen of Saint John's Gospel, and offered her life for Christian unity. This is truly the cornerstone of all prayer:
the total and unconditional offering of one's life to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The example of Sister Maria Gabriella is instructive; it helps us to understand that there are no special times,
situations or places of prayer for unity. Christ's prayer to the Father is offered as a model for everyone, always and everywhere.
28. If prayer is the "soul" of ecumenical renewal and of the yearning for unity,
it is the basis and support for everything the Council defines as "dialogue." This definition is certainly not unrelated to today's personalist way of thinking. The capacity for "dialogue" is rooted
in the nature of the person and his dignity. As seen by philosophy, this approach is linked to the Christian truth concerning man as expressed by the Council: man is in fact "the only creature on earth which God
willed for itself"; thus he cannot "fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself."(51) Dialogue is an indispensable step along the path toward human self-realization, the self-realization
both of each individual and of every human community. Although the concept of "dialogue" might appear to give priority to the cognitive dimension (dia-logos), all dialogue implies a global, existential
dimension. It involves the human subject in his or her entirety; dialogue between communities involves in a particular way the subjectivity of each.
This truth about dialogue, so
profoundly expressed by Pope Paul VI in his Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam,(52) was also taken up by the Council in its teaching and ecumenical activity. Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always
an "exchange of gifts."(53)
29. For this reason, the Council's Decree on Ecumenism also emphasizes
the importance of "every effort to eliminate words, judgments, and actions which do not respond to the condition of separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations between them more
difficult."(54) The Decree approaches the question from the standpoint of the Catholic Church and refers to the criteria which she must apply in relation to other Christians. In all this, however, reciprocity is
required. To follow these criteria is a commitment of each of the parties which desire to enter into dialogue and it is a precondition for starting such dialogue. It is necessary to pass from antagonism and conflict to
a situation where each party recognizes the other as a partner. When undertaking dialogue, each side must presuppose in the other a desire for reconciliation, for unity in truth. For this to happen, any display of
mutual opposition must disappear. Only thus will dialogue help to overcome division and lead us closer to unity.
30. It can be said, with a sense of lively gratitude to the Spirit of Truth, that the Second Vatican Council was a blessed time, during which the bases for the Catholic Church's
participation in ecumenical dialogue were laid. At the same time, the presence of many observers from various Churches and Ecclesial Communities, their deep involvement in the events of the Council, the many meetings
and the common prayer which the Council made possible, also helped bring about the conditions for dialogue with one another. During the Council, the representatives of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities
experienced the readiness of the worldwide Catholic Episcopate, and in particular of the Apostolic See, to engage in dialogue.
Local structures of dialogue
31. The Church's commitment to ecumenical dialogue, as it has clearly appeared
since the Council, far from being the responsibility of the Apostolic See alone, is also the duty of individual local or particular Churches. Special commissions for fostering the ecumenical spirit and ecumenical
activity have been set up by the Bishops' Conferences and the Synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Suitable structures similar to these are operating in individual Dioceses. These initiatives are a sign of the
widespread practical commitment of the Catholic Church to apply the Council's guidelines on ecumenism: this is an essential aspect of the ecumenical movement.(55) Dialogue has not only been undertaken; it has become an
outright necessity, one of the Church's priorities. As a result, the "methods" of dialogue have been improved, which in turn has helped the spirit of dialogue to grow. In this context mention has to be made in
the first place of "dialogue between competent experts from different Churches and Communities. In their meetings, which are organized in a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his Communion in greater
depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features."(56) Moreover, it is useful for all the faithful to be familiar with the method which makes dialogue possible.
32. As the Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom affirms: "Truth is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human
person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication, and dialogue. In the course of these, people explain to one another the truth they have
discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that individuals are to adhere to it."(57)
Ecumenical dialogue is of essential importance. "Through such dialogue everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both
Communions. In addition, these Communions cooperate more closely in whatever projects a Christian conscience demands for the common good. They also come together for common prayer, where that is permitted. Finally, all
are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church and wherever necessary, undertake with vigor the tasks of renewal and reform."(58)
Dialogue as an examination of conscience
33. In the Council's
thinking, ecumenical dialogue is marked by a common quest for truth, particularly concerning the Church. In effect, truth forms consciences and directs efforts to promote unity. At the same time, it demands that the
consciences and actions of Christians, as brethren divided from one another, should be inspired by and submissive to Christ's prayer for unity. There is a close relationship between prayer and dialogue. Deeper and more
conscious prayer makes dialogue more fruitful. If on the one hand, dialogue depends on prayer, so, in another sense, prayer also becomes the ever more mature fruit of dialogue.
34. Thanks to ecumenical dialogue we can speak of a greater maturity in our common prayer for one another. This is possible inasmuch as
dialogue also serves as an examination of conscience. In this context, how can we fail to recall the words of the First Letter of John? "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1:8-9). John even goes so far as to state: "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him
a liar, and his word is not in us" (1:10). Such a radical exhortation to acknowledge our condition as sinners ought also to mark the spirit which we bring to ecumenical dialogue. If such dialogue does not become an
examination of conscience, a kind of "dialogue of consciences," can we count on the assurance which the First Letter of John gives us? "My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not
sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (2:1-2). All the
sins of the world were gathered up in the saving sacrifice of Christ, including the sins committed against the Church's unity: the sins of Christians, those of the pastors no less than those of the lay faithful. Even
after the many sins which have contributed to our historical divisions, Christian unity is possible, provided that we are humbly conscious of having sinned against unity and are convinced of our need for conversion. Not
only personal sins must be forgiven and left behind, but also social sins, which is to say the sinful "structures" themselves which have contributed and can still contribute to division and to the reinforcing
35. Here once again the Council proves helpful. It can be said that the entire Decree on
Ecumenism is permeated by the spirit of conversion.(59) In the Document, ecumenical dialogue takes on a specific characteristic; it becomes a "dialogue of conversion," and thus, in the words of Pope Paul VI,
an authentic "dialogue of salvation."(60) Dialogue cannot take place merely on a horizontal level, being restricted to meetings, exchanges of points of view or even the sharing of gifts proper to each
Community. It has also a primarily vertical thrust, directed toward the One who, as the Redeemer of the world and the Lord of history, is himself our Reconciliation. This vertical aspect of dialogue lies in our
acknowledgment, jointly and to each other, that we are men and women who have sinned. It is precisely this acknowledgment which creates in brothers and sisters living in Communities not in full communion with one
another that interior space where Christ, the source of the Church's unity, can effectively act, with all the power of his Spirit, the Paraclete.
Dialogue as a means of resolving disagreements
36. Dialogue is
also a natural instrument for comparing differing points of view and, above all, for examining those disagreements which hinder full communion between Christians. The Decree on Ecumenism dwells in the first place on a
description of the attitudes under which doctrinal discussions should take place: "Catholic theologians engaged in ecumenical dialogue, while standing fast by the teaching of the Church and searching together with
separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries, should act with love for truth, with charity, and with humility."(61)
Love for the truth is the deepest dimension of any
authentic quest for full communion between Christians. Without this love it would be impossible to face the objective theological, cultural, psychological and social difficulties which appear when disagreements are
examined. This dimension, which is interior and personal, must be inseparably accompanied by a spirit of charity and humility. There must be charity toward one's partner in dialogue, and humility with regard to the
truth which comes to light and which might require a review of assertions and attitudes.
With regard to the study of areas of disagreement, the Council requires that the whole body of
doctrine be clearly presented. At the same time, it asks that the manner and method of expounding the Catholic faith should not be a hindrance to dialogue with our brothers and sisters.(62) Certainly it is possible to
profess one's faith and to explain its teaching in a way that is correct, fair and understandable, and which at the same time takes into account both the way of thinking and the actual historical experiences of the
Full communion of course will have to come about through the acceptance of the whole truth into which the Holy Spirit guides Christ's disciples. Hence all forms of
reductionism or facile "agreement" must be absolutely avoided. Serious questions must be resolved, for if not, they will reappear at another time, either in the same terms or in a different guise.
37. The Decree Unitatis Redintegratio also indicates a criterion to be followed when Catholics are presenting or
comparing doctrines: "They should remember that in Catholic teaching there exists an order or 'hierarchy' of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith. Thus the way will
be opened for this kind of fraternal rivalry to incite all to a deeper realization and a clearer expression of the unfathomable riches of Christ."(63)
38. In dialogue, one inevitably comes up against the problem of the different formulations whereby doctrine is expressed in the various
Churches and Ecclesial Communities. This has more than one consequence for the work of ecumenism.
In the first place, with regard to doctrinal formulations which differ from those
normally in use in the community to which one belongs, it is certainly right to determine whether the words involved say the same thing. This has been ascertained in the case for example of the recent common
declarations signed by my Predecessors or by myself with the Patriarchs of Churches with which for centuries there have been disputes about Christology. As far as the formulation of revealed truths is concerned, the
Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae states: "Even though the truths which the Church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch and can be expressed
without them, nevertheless it can sometimes happen that these truths may be enunciated by the Sacred Magisterium in terms that bear traces of such conceptions. In view of this, it must be stated that the dogmatic
formulas of the Church's Magisterium were from the very beginning suitable for communicating revealed truth, and that as they are they remain forever suitable for communicating this truth to those who interpret them
correctly."(64) In this regard, ecumenical dialogue, which prompts the parties involved to question each other, to understand each other and to explain their positions to each other, makes surprising discoveries
possible. Intolerant polemics and controversies have made incompatible assertions out of what was really the result of two different ways of looking at the same reality. Nowadays we need to find the formula which, by
capturing the reality in its entirety, will enable us to move beyond partial readings and eliminate false interpretations.
One of the advantages of ecumenism is that it helps Christian
Communities to discover the unfathomable riches of the truth. Here too, everything that the Spirit brings about in "others" can serve for the building up of all Communities(65) and in a certain sense instruct
them in the mystery of Christ. Authentic ecumenism is a gift at the service of truth.
39. Finally, dialogue
puts before the participants real and genuine disagreements in matters of faith. Above all, these disagreements should be faced in a sincere spirit of fraternal charity, of respect for the demands of one's own
conscience and of the conscience of the other party, with profound humility and love for the truth. The examination of such disagreements has two essential points of reference: Sacred Scripture and the great Tradition
of the Church. Catholics have the help of the Church's living Magisterium.
40. Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialogue. They presuppose and from now on call for
every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message.(66)
"Cooperation among all Christians
vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant."(67) This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion,
but is a manifestation of Christ himself.
Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith:
"Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made
In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved.
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