The Challenges of Ecumenism

 — August 29, 201729 aoüt 2017

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in 2014
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in 2014
By Dr Jason West, Newman Theological College

When we think of Church teachings that are uncomfortable to discuss and difficult to live up to these days our minds tend to go to controversial issues like that of contraception, homosexuality, gender and so forth. Yet, in many ways, the Church’s views on ecumenism are for many even more uncomfortable. On this topic, however, it is all too easy to say yes, yes with one’s lips, while denying and undermining this teaching in practice.

Ecumenism is the attempt to strengthen unity between the diverse Christian Churches through dialogue about doctrine, prayer in common, cooperation in good works and other means that deepen mutual understanding and growth. In the case of the Catholic Church, these endeavours are also motivated by a desire that our Churches may unite in full communion, however remote that hope may seem to our eyes here and now.

A key to the possibility of any ecumenism lies in a few basic realizations. The first is that we are all genuinely Christians, baptized into the body of Christ. This entails that there is always more that unites us than what divides us. The important essentials of the faith: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the role that baptism plays in drawing us into the participation of the divine life are all unifying features of Christian life. In this respect, we should be grateful for the profound unity that already does exist among the majority of Christian communities (Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 3).

A second important requirement for ecumenism is the conviction that we can learn from one another. That in some respects our Christian sisters and brothers in other communions have achieved solutions to our shared problems that transcend our own, that paths of holiness have been nurtured there, in some instances, more effectively than in our own home. We have much to offer, but we also have many things to learn. It is undoubtedly this claim that can be so challenging for us as Catholics.

Here our language, which is true as far is it goes can also hold us back. We are accustomed to saying that the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church, while other Christian churches possess aspects of the truth. Likewise, the Catechism states:

“Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church” (Cathechism of the Catholic Church, no. 819).

These statements could be misread to mean that whatever truth has been discovered already exists within the Catholic Church as the earthly institution we witness here and now, or that whatever holiness is found in other Christian Churches is already present within the Catholic Church as a human institution and brought about by it in all the others. Such a reading would, however, make ecumenism irrelevant and unnecessary, a fact that likely accounts for a good deal of the discomfort some of the Catholic faithful feel with it. On such a view the Catholic Church has nothing to receive or learn from its sister Churches, and what we call ecumenism could be nothing other than a kinder and gentler proselytism.

The key to resolving this problem is to be found in two further facts. First, the Catechism’s recognition that the truth and grace of all Churches, Catholic or otherwise, flows from Christ. Whatever truth or goodness any of us possesses has been received through the life, death, and resurrection of our Saviour. Second, the Catholic Church that possesses the truth of revelation and the means of sanctification and salvation is the Church in her subsistent and supernatural personality which transcends that of her members (see Ut Unum Sint, no. 3, Maritain, Church of Christ, ch. 3).

Icon of Christ

Just as we can profess in the Creed that the Church is holy and one without denying the sins and division that exist among her members here on earth, so too we can assert the Church has the fullness of truth in its supernatural reality, while recognizing each of us as her members is lacking in many areas that our fellow Christians may understand better. Likewise we can recognize that the Church herself is holy, yet each of us as her members falls short of being “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”, and can find examples of holiness in our fellow Christians that outstrips our own, even while insisting that this holiness has its origins in Christ and is transmitted in mysterious and wonderful ways through the Catholic Church understood in her supernatural fullness.

These are, I take it, a few of the principles necessary to understand if ecumenism is to function well. They are considerations that I’ve had occasion to reflect upon often as I have co-chaired a local ecumenical dialogue between the Archdiocese of Edmonton and Edmonton members of the Lutheran Church of Canada, as well as through the process of developing a Certificate in Anglican Studies at Newman in collaboration with the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. Such encounters simply are not possible or fruitful if begun from the assumption that we have the fullness of truth and the means of salvation and that whatever small share our partners might have in these really comes from us.

Such misconceptions can be fostered by our tendency to point to the ecclesial institution. We are never, after all, claiming that it is ourselves personally who have the fullness of the truth and the means of salvation. But, then the Church as it is present in this world consists precisely of the individual members who make it up and the grace that animates them, and none of us however saintly is so filled with truth and holiness that we are the source of it in all others. It is only the Church as the body of Christ in her supernatural personality that can make this claim, and all of us are merely a part of this glorious reality.

Icon of the Holy Spirit

This can also be confirmed if we look at instances of ecumenism closer to home. It is all too easy to think that ecumenism is a matter for professional theologians and leaders in the Vatican or Archdiocese. But, a moment’s thought makes it clear that ecumenism is a daily task we are all engaged in a variety of ways. Who among us doesn’t have a family member with a spouse from another denomination? Which of us doesn’t have friends and neighbours who belong to other Churches? When we relate to these people we know as fellow Christians we are engaging in ecumenical acts in which any personal claim to have the fullness of the truth and holiness would be unimaginable for us. We have no trouble learning from a Baptist mother-in-law or an Evangelical colleague at work who we know to be more learned and earnest than ourselves. In a similar way, our ecclesial community as an earthly body learns from and can grow through the example of other Christian Churches. They have lessons to teach us and gives to provide that genuinely come from Christ (Cathechism of the Catholic Church, no. 819), and which we could not learn from our fellow Catholics.

This, of course, has nothing to do with watering down the faith or seeking to find a lowest common denominator to which everyone can agree. That would be a cop-out and defeat the very purpose of authentic ecumenism, for it would undermine the possibility of the genuine learning and unity that can come from dialogue with our fellow Christians. Genuine ecumenical engagement should lead us to become more fully immersed in our own faith, not less; for only if each is fully committed to their faith, and genuinely interested in learning and living the truth come what may, can true dialogue occur. Only then can we hope to realize Jesus’ wish that “they may all be one”.

Posted: August 29, 2017 • Permanent link:
Categories: OpinionIn this article: Catholic, ecumenism
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Catégorie : OpinionDans cet article : Catholic, ecumenism

Lebanese pastor elected as WCRC president

 — July 7, 20177 juillet 2017

The World Communion of Reformed Churches elected anew executive at their General Council meeting in Leipzig, Germany. From left to right: Rev. Sylvana Maria Apituley (Indonesia), Raissa Vieira Brasil (Brazil), Rev. Dr. Lisa Vander Wal (United States), Rev. Najla Kassab (Lebanon), Rev. Dr. Samuel Ayete-Nyampong (Ghana), and Dr. Johann Weusmann (Germany). Photo: WCRCThe Rev. Najla Kassab, a minister in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), has been elected president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), which groups more than 225 churches in over 110 countries.

“With her experience and many gifts, Najla’s vision, insight, spiritual strength and grace make her the right person to lead us forward as president,” said Alison McDonald, the moderator of a Nominating Committee that brought a slate of nominees for the WCRC Executive Committee to its General Council.

The elections took place on 7 July, the final day of the Council, which has been meeting in the eastern German city of Leipzig since 29 June. Of the 22 members of the new Executive Committee, 10 are men and 12 women; 15 are ordained and 7 are lay people. Five of the members of the Executive Committee are young adults under 30 years of age, including one of the vice-presidents.
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Canadian Churches’ Forum becomes a CCC Reference Group

 — May 31, 201731 mai 2017

Canadian Council of ChurchesLast week, the Canadian Churches Forum and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) came together at the CCC Governing Board meetings to make some important decisions about the future of their relationship and work. A motion was adopted that the CCF become the “Forum for Intercultural Leadership and Learning (FILL): A Reference Group of the Canadian Council of Churches.”

Moving more fully into the Council in this way opens the potential of working more closely with the CCC‘s 26 member denominations and their diversity and experience. The Canadian Council of Churches is the broadest and most inclusive ecumenical body in the world, representing denominations of Anglican; Evangelical; Free Church; Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox; Protestant; and Catholic traditions. Together, the CCC churches represent more than 85% of Christians in Canada.

Also being considered are some shifts that will make Forum program alumni and others more creatively part of the work with a larger portion of this reference group’s resources going to supporting and networking people across Canada with a calling to intercultural ministry.
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Anglicans and Roman Catholics agree statement on ecclesiology

 — May 30, 201730 mai 2017

Members of the third-phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) met in the central German city of Erfurt early this month for their seventh meeting. They chose to meet in the city to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – it is here that Martin Luther was ordained and lived as a monk. Photo: ARCICAnglicans and Roman Catholics should see in each other “a community in which the Holy Spirit is alive and active,” the latest communiqué from the official ecumenical dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church says.

Members of the third-phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) met in the central German city of Erfurt early this month for their seventh meeting. They chose to meet in the city to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – it is here that Martin Luther was ordained and lived as a monk.

During their meeting, the members of ARCIC agreed the text of a new statement looking at Anglican and Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be Church – Local, Regional, Universal, to be known as The Erfurt Document, will be published next year.
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WCRC’s Ferguson calls for joint LWF-WCRC assemblies

 — May 15, 201715 mai 2017

Chris Ferguson, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), addressed the Lutheran World Federation's Assembly on May 13, 2017 in Windhoek, Namibia. Photo: LWF/Albin HillertIn his greetings to the Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Chris Ferguson, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), called for consideration of a joint meeting between the organizations.

“There are many things that we can and should do together,” Ferguson said. “I give thanks that God has given us the gift of partnership in mission, witness and diakonia with LWF. I hope that in six or seven years we will be able to celebrate our general assemblies in the same time and place. Separate meetings, yes, but joined for common worship, reflection and witness together. Can you imagine that! Let’s think about it!”

Ferguson noted that the two organizations continue to grow closer together, despite the WCRC‘s move from Geneva to Hannover. In particular he raised the WCRC‘s upcoming association with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), which will be signed at a special worship service in Wittenberg during the WCRC‘s General Council.
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Subject Matters: interview with Nicholas Jesson about ‘Towards Unity’

 — April 15, 201715 avril 2017

In 2017, we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This Festschrift in honour of Monsignor John Radano, who served as head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity‘s Western section for nearly 25 years, offers a window on what has been achieved through ecumenical dialogue over the past 50 years. It also reminds us of the importance of ecumenical friendship in advancing the cause of Christian unity.

Since the Reformation, Christian unity has suffered many failures. Yet, especially in more recent times, it has also celebrated encouraging successes. Disparate Christian traditions are beginning to trust each other. Will Christians eventually find one shared identity? What are the theological and ecclesial challenges ahead? This timely collection of essays by prominent Catholic and Protestant ecumenists witnesses a hope for a future Christian unity born out of 50 years of honest and genuine dialogue.

Towards Unity – a collection of papers by major ecumenical contributors – reflects with passion and hope on bilateral dialogues, the ecumenical movement, and organizations that promote multilateral relationships. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, the scandal of division is giving birth to renewed relationships, dialogue, and awareness.
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Towards Unity: Ecumenical Dialogue 500 Years after the Reformation

 — April 1, 20171 avril 2017

Towards Unity: Ecumenical Dialogue 500 Years after the Reformation is edited by Archbishop Donald Bolen, Nicholas Jesson, and Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC. It is available from, or in the USA from Paulist Press. ISBN: 978-2-8968-8422-3 (Novalis) and 978-0-8091-5349-7 (Paulist Press)Those who work in the field of Christian unity for any length of time are quick to point out that ecumenism is the work of the Holy Spirit. We say that not to sound pious but because we know firsthand two things: from our failed efforts, that we cannot bring about unity by ourselves no matter how hard we try; and from our successes, that something else is operative in this work of dialogue and reconciliation. God’s grace shapes our efforts in countless ways, experienced in a deep yearning for unity, in the insights which come forth from dialogue, in the moments of breakthrough when new understandings are reached, in the relationships and bonds of communion that are formed when we work with other Christians at the service of unity.

Ecumenism is a work of the Holy Spirit in the churches as they put themselves at the service of Jesus’ desire that his disciples be reconciled, and it is a work of the Spirit in people’s lives. This volume, which reflects on ecumenical achievements and hopes as we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, is a celebration of the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches and ecclesial communities of the West as they have sought to address conflicts and heal divisions. It is also a celebration of the work of the Holy Spirit in the ecumenical ministry of Monsignor John Radano, and in a secondary but very real way, of each of the contributors to this volume. John Radano, generally known by his dialogue partners and colleagues as Jack, served as head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity‘s (PCPCU) Western section for nearly a quarter century, from 1984 to 2008. In this capacity, he participated in dialogues with Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Mennonite, Classical Pentecostal, and Evangelical traditions, and served as liaison with the World Council of Churches‘ Commission on Faith and Order. Jack was also involved in relations with the Anglican Communion, the World Methodist Council, and the Global Christian Forum, so had a truly comprehensive involvement in relations with the Catholic Church’s dialogue and consultation partners in the West.
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