National Catholic Register


Benedict’s Keys to Unity

Truth, prayer and the Holy Spirit’s leadership


Register Correspondent

July 23 - August 5, 2006 Issue | Posted 7/23/06 at 9:00 AM


The Russians are suddenly accepting Vatican delegations that were cold-shouldered in the past. Greek patriarchs approvingly cite Pope Benedict XVI. And evangelical Christian leaders applaud his writings, from Introduction to Christianity to Dominus Iesus.

What’s going on here?

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.


Register Correspondent

ROME — In a development that few observers would have predicted before his election, Pope Benedict XVI is winning recognition as a champion of Christian unity.

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 Russia.

During the July 3-5 World Summit of Religious Leaders in Moscow, Patriarch Alexei expressed his gratitude to Benedict for his attention to the meeting. The Catholic delegation was led by five cardinals, including Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The Vatican delegation reflected the “positive development of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church,” Patriarch Alexei said.

“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 Cologne, Germany. “Among Christians, fraternity is not just a vague sentiment, nor is it a sign of indifference to truth.”

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 Birmingham, Ala., is another admirer of the Pope’s approach. The influential Southern Baptist historian, theologian and executive editor at Christianity Today, particularly praised Dominus Iesus, the 2000 declaration on the salvific universality of Jesus and the Church that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published while then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was serving as the congregation’s prefect.

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.”

‘Spiritual Ecumenism’

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 Poland this May. Making the words of Pope John Paul II his own, Benedict added, “We will be available to receive this gift to the extent that we open our minds and hearts to him through the Christian life and above all through prayer.”

“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

San Francisco.