Russians are suddenly accepting
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Pope John Paul II was urgent about Christian unity and effective in his efforts to seek it. Benedict is reaping what John Paul sowed — but he’s also expanding his work and honing its focus.
This week, as a series of Register articles begins to look at the ecumenical drive of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, we discuss the foundation upon which he is building bridges to other Christians.
by JACK SMITH
Earlier this month, for example,
an olive branch was extended by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II, who
rebuffed all of Pope John Paul II’s efforts to visit
During the July 3-5 World Summit
of Religious Leaders in
“Our collaboration as a whole is especially necessary today because the common positions we hold on many current questions unite our Churches and are an excellent opportunity to be united witnesses of Christian values to the world,” the patriarch added.
Sense of Urgency
Every pope “has his own style and brings to ecumenism his own personal conviction and experience,” Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told the Register. But Benedict “truly feels the pain of a weakened witness by Christians before a world urgently in need of divine Truth and love,” he added.
Benedict’s sense of urgency was demonstrated when he announced in his first public message as Pope that he would “work without sparing energies for the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ.”
Benedict said working toward unity would be “a primary commitment” of his papacy, and said he “is prepared to do all that is in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism.”
Three core themes have been presented as central to the Holy Father’s program.
The first is a focus on stating
clearly what the Church believes during ecumenical discussions. Christian
commitment to seeking unity “is grounded in the supernatural reality of the one
baptism that makes us all members of the one body of Christ,” the Holy Father
said last August at World Youth Day in
Benedict’s commitment to seeking unity through a dialogue in truth is one that has met with particular approval from Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals. “When we are in dialogue, we are not there to compromise,” said Orthodox Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos. The ecumenical officer for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America said, “We are there to share the truth as we know it. … Dialogue should be open and you state who you are and what you believe.”
Timothy George, dean of Beeson
Divinity School of Samford University in
While Dominus Iesus was “very controversial” in many quarters, George noted, “it represents the kind of ecumenism we need to shoot for,” he said. “[Benedict] is basically saying that the Catholic Church has a certain understanding of itself and these are the other traditions.”
George said Benedict is very honest “about where the differences are as well as the points of commonality. … We need to have an ecumenism based on truth and not on simply accommodation.”
Benedict spoke at World Youth Day last August of the importance of a “spiritual ecumenism” in which “each individual commits himself to prayer, to the examination of his own life, to the purification of memory, to the openness of charity.” The Pope said he is “convinced that if more and more people unite themselves interiorly to the Lord’s prayer ‘that all may be one,’ then this prayer, made in the name of Jesus, will not go unheard.”
According to Bishop Farrell, the Holy Father “constantly calls for prayer, conversion of our hearts to Christ, and great love and humility in our dealings with our brothers and sisters of other Churches and communities.” The bishop added that the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity is “greatly encouraged by the way this ‘spiritual’ ecumenism is gaining ground at every level of the Church.”
The council is encouraging spiritual ecumenism by releasing a vademecum (guidebook), “offering suggestions for practical cooperation in spiritual activities,” Bishop Farrell said. The text, which has been finalized and will be released in the next few months, includes “ideas for common prayer and other ways in which Christians can work together for unity,” the bishop said.
“There are lots of things we can do at the local level where most ecumenism that’s meaningful takes place,” George said. “I’m thinking joint prayers together, joint Scripture distribution and translation, and bible studies together.”
George also pointed to an “ecumenism in the trenches” that has developed between Catholics, evangelicals and other Protestants in their common work on behalf of protecting human life and promoting the family.
“We have met in the trenches as co-combatants against a common foe,” he said. “That has drawn us into deeper discussions on issues related to salvation and justification and holiness of life.”
The Holy Spirit
Emphasis on the preeminent role of the Holy Spirit is the third prong of Benedict’s ecumenical approach.
“In fact, it is impossible for us
to ‘make’ unity through our own powers alone,” the Holy Father told an
ecumenical gathering in
“Pope Benedict never fails to remind us that unity is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Farrell said.
Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things and a leader in ecumenical dialogue, told the Register, “What Benedict has been saying over the years is that the quest for greater Christian unity is not a program under our control or a goal obedient to our plans and schedules.” The Catholic Church persists in dialogue, Father Neuhaus said, “in the hope that — in a way we can neither anticipate nor control — the Holy Spirit will crown with success our irrevocable union with Christ in praying that ‘they may all be one.’”
Bishop Dimitrios, the Orthodox ecumenical officer, agreed. “No matter what we say and how much we disagree or agree, the day will come when the Holy Spirit guides us to this unity,” he said.
Baptist theologian George compared the task of marriage to the openness that allows the Holy Spirit to create unity among Christians.
“The way forward in a marriage is not two people gazing into one another’s eyes lost in wonder and love for each other, George said “It’s the fact that when together, they walk toward a common goal.”
This also applies to ecumenism, George added.
“It’s not so much exploring the wonders of each other in dialogue,” he said, “as it is being jointly focused on the One we serve.”
Jack Smith writes from