The Luminous Mysteries: John Paul II’s Mini-Catechesis on Ecumenism

The five Luminous Mysteries are like a mini-catechism for ecumenical awareness

Carl Bloch (1834-1890), “The Transfiguration”
Carl Bloch (1834-1890), “The Transfiguration” (photo: Public Domain)

“If properly revitalized, the Rosary is an aid and certainly not a hindrance to ecumenism!”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

Remember Tertio millennio adveniente? No worries if you don’t. Not many lay Catholics would remember it, and few even paid attention to it when it was released in 1994. It was St. John Paul II’s manifesto for how Church would usher in the third millennium once the year 2000 rolled around – “Y2K” as we used to call it. No doubt, if you’re my age at least, you’ll definitely remember that, and you’ll remember secretly freaking out about the possibility of civilization’s collapse as you watched the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Did you buy a generator and lots of canned goods? Maybe stow away some cash and gasoline?

Anyway, now it’s 2018, and Y2K hubbub is a distant (and mildly embarrassing) memory. All that worry about computer breakdowns and rioting in the streets; all that anxiety about the “end of the world” – at least as we know it. *Pfft* – gone. All forgotten. Now we’re on to Wi-Fi, ubiquitous i-gizmos and driverless cars – yippee!

Pope John Paul, on the other hand, completely bypassed Y2K cataclysm angst. His was a more sanguine vision for the turn of the millennial calendar page, absent alarmism and, instead, optimistic and farsighted regarding what would follow Y2K – especially for the Church, for you and me. Let’s be clear, though, that the Pope was well aware that years ending in zeroes – even three zeroes – weren’t harbingers or omens in any way. Nonetheless, John Paul did see the year 2000 as a noteworthy demarcation between past and present, allowing for richer reflection and, possibly, renewal.

That’s what Tertio millennio was all about. John Paul II, as usual, was prescient, and he anticipated the new millennium as a singular opportunity to ramp up the implementation of the as yet (at that time) untapped riches of Vatican Council II. “The best preparation for the new millennium,” the Pontiff wrote, “can only be expressed in a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole Church” (TMA 20).

Those teachings, as articulated in the very first paragraph of the very first promulgated Conciliar document, comprise four interrelated emphases: Catechesis, evangelization, aggiornamento (or, openness to the modern world), and ecumenism. Through his writing and pastoral care, the Pope did much (to say the least) to unpack and actualize all four. He got us the Catechism, and now we have an authoritative resource to help know and understand what the Church actually teaches. He traveled the world and drew millions to hear him preach the Gospel, and he convinced us to go out and do the same no matter their state of life or circumstances. He certainly demonstrated an openness to modernity and embodied (again, especially by his global travels) the universal stretch of the Church’s arms, especially through her humanitarian works.

And then there were his efforts to heal division in the Body of Christ – a definitive, yet often overlooked, aim of Vatican II: “The sacred Council has set out…to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ” (SC 1). John Paul met with many leaders of Protestant, Orthodox and other Christian bodies, but also delighted in gathering with ordinary believers from all branches of the universal church (small “c”). The best example of this is the World Youth Day movement he launched in 1985. Sure, it was mainly a draw for Catholic young people, but WYDs from the start have always drawn folks from all necks of Christendom – not to mention those of other religious traditions and even no faith at all. Plus, despite the name, they’re not even so much about youth. If there’s any way to get to a World Youth Day, people go – young, old, and in between. They’re celebrations of love, and community, and goodwill, and peace. They’re events that bring out the best in people, regardless of religion or age or culture, and people are changed. If you’ve been to one, you know; if you haven’t, ask somebody who has.

But, outside WYD, what’s ecumenism look like? What does it even mean?

Like those other three areas singled out by the Council fathers for our attention, John Paul II gave us plenty of insight (and examples) for how to carry out ecumenism. In sum, it consists in recognizing that Christians from other churches and traditions are our brothers in Christ, and, to one degree or another, are in touch with the selfsame helps to salvation that the Catholic Church provides in one degree or another.

Take the Orthodox, for example, our ecclesial “cousins,” generally from the East. They have all the sacraments that we do (although they call them different names), including the Eucharist. What’s more, their spiritual and theological heritage is a vital part of the universal church’s legacy and self-understanding – so much so that John Paul II referred to the church catholic as breathing with two lungs, both east and west. In other words, there is no Christianity without the east. We may not agree with them about papal authority and some other matters, but otherwise we do well to acknowledge them as our spiritual kin whenever we encounter them.

With Protestants, however, it’s a bit more nuanced and delicate, for the Reformation wasn’t a family split (as we experienced with the Orthodox) so much as a revolt. The Reformers not only rejected the Pope, but they largely rejected the entire Catholic economy of grace – sacraments and sacramentals, the efficacy of good works and merit, the communion of saints and how we’re related to it. Generally speaking, and with significant exceptions, all that was tossed.

So, what’s left? How do we relate to our separated brethren, our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ?

Enter the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. Like most Rosary devotees, the Luminous mysteries took some getting used to, but they grew on me quickly enough. Sooner than I thought, I actually started looking forward to praying them every Thursday – the day they’re typically incorporated in a weekly Rosary rotation. And, like the other 15 Mysteries, the Luminous are right out of the Bible, offering us a meditative entrée into the public ministry of Jesus – something that had been missing from the traditional Rosary. The Luminous Mysteries were in keeping with Pope John Paul’s program of urging us to get to know the whole person of Jesus – his teaching, his actions, his personality – not just what he did for us. It’s the Rosary equivalent of fostering a 24/7 Catholic mentality, as opposed to a Christmas, Lent, and Easter-only faith.

Recently, however, I came to appreciate another aspect of the Luminous mysteries that is especially appropriate following the recent commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation’s start, and particularly during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The five Luminous Mysteries are like a mini-catechism for ecumenical awareness – so much so, I believe, that I’m thinking it was likely intentional on the part of our ecumenically-minded pontiff. Here’s what I mean.

  1. Baptism in the Jordan: As you no doubt heard if you went to Mass on Jan. 8 – the transferred Feast of the Baptism of the Lord – Jesus wasn’t baptized like we were. He was sinless, so his baptism wasn’t a cleansing but rather an initiation, the beginning of his public ministry and a foreshadowing of his “baptism of death for the remission of our sins” (CCC 536). Nonetheless, it was a template or an example for the rest of us, and his baptism in the Jordan, by extension, made all baptismal waters efficacious. In ecumenical terms, baptism is a ritual act that the that all Christians – of all traditions – avail themselves of. In fact, it’s a sacramental action that the Church recognizes as valid, when properly administered, regardless of the church in which it’s received. This is true even if the baptizer isn’t even a Christian – or religious at all (CCL 861.2).
  2. Wedding at Cana: Here, too, we have a sacramental moment with ecumenical implications because marriages between baptized Christians of any tradition are assumed to be valid by the Catholic Church. The reason for this is that the ministers of this sacrament are the bride and groom themselves; the Church’s appointed representative (priest of pastor) merely witnesses that the couple made their vows freely and conscientiously. “A valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament” (CCL 1055.2). Jesus’ presence at Cana sanctifies all marriage, just as his presence in the River Jordan sanctifies all baptismal waters, and so the first two Luminous mysteries are foundational acknowledgements of the sacramental bonds that we already possess with our separated brethren and all Christians. Plus, the Cana miracle of water into wine anticipates Eucharistic communion that is itself a sacramental realization of the full communion with the Trinity that awaits everyone destined for heaven (CCC 1335).
  3. Proclamation of the Kingdom of God: This is the call to conversion that’s at the core of Christian experience, regardless of tradition. “Everyone is called to enter the kingdom,” the Catechism teaches. “To enter it, one must first accept Jesus’ word” (543). The word that Jesus proclaims is one of repentance that requires “a radical choice: to gain the kingdom, one must give everything” (546). Aside from receiving the true sacraments of baptism and marriage, our Protestant brothers and sisters derive the lion’s share of their spiritual sustenance from Sacred Scripture. Our Evangelical friends in particular immerse themselves in the Sacred text and then proclaim it in word and deed. This Luminous Mystery reminds us of our common biblical heritage with them, while prompting those of us who are less biblically literate to imitate their enthusiasm for the written Word.
  4. Transfiguration: Here we meditate on that preview of glory that Peter, James and John witnessed on Mount Tabor – when Jesus revealed to us the transformed celestial manner of resurrected glory that he’d soon realize after Easter and which we can all look forward to in hope. This is a hope shared in earnest by our Protestant friends, and we do well to remember that heaven is their eternal inheritance as much as ours – especially for those who’ve been marked with the baptismal sign surrender to Christ. “These Christians are indeed in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit for…his sanctifying power is also active in them and he has strengthened some of them even to the shedding of their blood” (LG 15). We should pray for their conversion to the fullness of the Catholic faith, true enough, but we can also rest in the knowledge that the gates of heaven can open to them just as they are.
  5. Institution of the Eucharist: Here’s the point of departure, the crux of division in the church, for it is only under rare conditions that we can share in the Body and Blood of the Lord with our non-Catholic friends. In ecumenical terms, this Luminous Mystery compels us to meditate on that sad reality, but it also spurs us on to pray fervently for its resolution. Moreover, it reminds us of what the gift of Eucharistic communion is all about – that we have the opportunity to begin experiencing now the heavenly transformation presaged in the Transfiguration – and that we ought to earnestly desire it for everyone, especially our Protestant neighbors. “In Baptism we have been called to form but one body,” the Catechism notes. “The Eucharist fulfills this call” (1396).

Pope John Paul, at the close of the Jubilee marking the millennium, recalled that he had previously entrusted this new epoch to Mary, and then went on to point to her “once again as the radiant dawn and sure guide for our steps” (NMI 58). The very next year he released his apostolic letter on the Rosary which introduced the Luminous Mysteries to the world. Surely this was very intentional on his part, and that he saw the revival of the Rosary not only as a key dimension of his third millennial vision for the Church, but the Luminous Mysteries as something particularly efficacious toward that end – especially in terms of reuniting the church. “We confidently continue our pilgrimage,” he wrote, “longing for the time when, together with each and every one of Christ’s followers, we shall be able to join wholeheartedly in singing: ‘How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers live in unity!’ (Ps 133:1)” (NMI 48).

Today is the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and, coincidentally, a Thursday. I’ll be praying my Luminous Mysteries for the restoration of unity in the Body of Christ. Won’t you join me?