Ecumenism — A Catholic Blind Spot

(photo: Elise Harris/CNA)

When Pope Francis stretches out his hand to minister to the sick, does he first ask, “Are you Catholic?”

Probably not, because to live the gospel is to extend Christ’s love universally and without qualification. His Holiness practices daily ecumenism because his focus is on people’s gifts and needs, not categories of acceptability.

Unfortunately, his emphasis on Christian unity has been met with boredom by Catholics and the general public. We forward our friends articles about the Pope’s affability towards children, his plucky barb at trickle-down economics, and his endless telephonic liberties. But when we come to the part where he builds bridges with other Christian leaders, we skip to the next quote.

In his most recent interview with La Stampa, the Pope pointed out that people and governments who persecute Christians don’t discriminate on the basis of “denomination.” They want to extinguish Christ whether he resides in an Anglican, a Lutheran or a Catholic.  

The enemies of Christ recognize Jesus in the person of these Christians. They aren’t concerned with liturgical and canonical delineations but with visible faith. Why can’t we Catholics see Christ as clearly in our brother and sister Christians?

Maybe it isn’t to the extreme of issuing identity cards, but an undeniable spirit of us-versus-them characterizes many active Catholics today. It’s understandable given the Church’s historically glum and testy relationship with Baptists, Reformed Presbyterians and Episcopalians, to name a few.

The narrowness sometimes shows in negative speech about fellow Christians with whom we don’t agree. It shows most conspicuously through the lack of conversation in Catholic circles about finding common ground and active ministry opportunities with other Christians. 

When Jesus walked this earth, he drew closest to the people who understood the Law least. While the hypocritical Pharisees delighted in pointing out the moral transgressions of other Jewish sects, God-incarnate invited them to dinner.

In modern terms, there seems to be a Catholic blind spot to the power and necessity for a witness of Christian unity.

This is in direct opposition to numerous papal letters, not to mention several key documents of Vatican II — the “ecumenical” council. The call to unity has been issued, shall we say, but the response rate in the last 50 years has been paltry.

Catholics are certainly on the defensive — but so are other Christians. A friend of mine was participating in an evangelization walk in the neighborhood surrounding our Catholic church in Washington, D.C. One man opened his townhouse door and my friend invited him to join our parish for community activities like an upcoming choir concert.

“I’m an Episcopal pastor. We have our own activities. Goodbye.” The door slammed in his face as my friend trailed off, “Thank you for your … service.”

There is insularity on both sides.

The Pope says that the way forward is through ecumenical friendship, common work, and prayer for unity. For most Catholics today, praying for unity happens about as often as praying for the guy who cut them off on the highway. That is — every so often during moments of grace, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

At Christmas time, these moments of grace are becoming more plentiful. Opportunities to participate in ecumenical worship, ecumenical collections for the needy, and simple ecumenical friendship with neighbors and coworkers abound too.

For many years, a virtual Berlin wall has stood between the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Pope. The wall thankfully has been breeched, under the radar of many Catholics, when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I attended the installation of Pope Francis this past March in a symbolic first. 

I pray we Catholic begin to take greater notice of the power of ecumenism and follow the examples of the Holy Father and his “brothers” by allying with other Christians this new year.

The late gospel music composer Walter Hawkins penned these words in the 1970s:

When I think about what God has done for me, I will open up my heart to everyone I see and say, “Jesus Christ is the Way.”

No one knows the day nor the hour. May be morn, night or noon. But just rest assured, time will be no more. He is coming soon.