Last week, the Holy See published a new handbook on the Catholic Church’s relationship with our Christian brothers and sisters, which has particular significance for all of Christianity, and particularly a nation such as Britain. After all, Christ prayed for unity: “May they become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (Jn 17:23).
The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum largely recapitulates previous Church teaching on ecumenism and offers recommendations to bishops for putting ecumenism into practice locally. It is a short and worthwhile read. Three points stand out as worthy of remark.
First, the document explores well the many ways in which the episcopal office serves the unity of the Church. The bishop visibly links the local church to the Universal Church. We hear this expressed liturgically in every Eucharistic prayer, when the priest prays for “our pope” and “our bishop.”
Furthermore, as successor to the apostles, as one sent by Christ to us in each local church, the bishop is called, on the one hand, to proclaim the Gospel to all the people in the place to which he is sent and, on the other, to care especially for the Catholics entrusted to his jurisdiction.
In between these tasks, and – as the document argues – inseparable from them, the bishop is called also to engage with those with whom we share a real yet incomplete communion – to listen and to converse with clarity, humility, charity, and friendship. Thus, in addition to linking the local church to the Universal Church, the bishop serves the unity of the local church in evangelism – pastorally and ecumenically.
Second, near its end, the document makes an especially helpful observation on the nature of ecumenism: ‘Very often theological disagreements stemmed from difficulties of mutual understanding arising from cultural differences. Once communities have separated and live in isolation from one another, cultural differences tend to widen and reinforce theological disagreements’.
This insight illuminates both many of the challenges and much of the work of ecumenical dialogue. So often it is an exercise of translation, of tracking down the cultural differences that underlay divergences in terminology and doctrine, and bringing to light their compatibility. The document encourages us to attend to the cultures of other Christian communities, to get to know them holistically, so that with deeper understanding we may discern, through the cultural differences, the faith that we share.
Third, and perhaps most excitingly, the document introduces what we might call a third phase to the arc of the Church’s bilateral ecumenical dialogues. This claim requires a moment of explanation.
In addition to ‘spiritual ecumenism’ – praying for and preparing ourselves for Eucharistic communion – the Church has spoken of a ‘dialogue of love,’ that being, concrete actions and gestures through which we encounter Christians of other communions as brothers and sisters in Christ. It also calls for a ‘dialogue of truth’; a theological conversation by which we correct misunderstandings and overcome the disagreements which have divided us.
Spiritual ecumenism is the necessary foundation for ecumenical rapprochement. It renders possible the dialogue of love. Once the dialogue of love reaches a degree of maturity, it is possible to begin the dialogue of truth.
To these phases, the document adds a ‘dialogue of life’ – the ‘practical and concrete expression of the truths expressed jointly in theological dialogue’. While all the Church’s dialogical relationships likely exhibit such a dialogue in some form, the phrase promises to take on special prominence in the Church’s most mature bilateral dialogue, with the Eastern Orthodox.
The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church may soon find that no disagreements remain that are necessarily Church-dividing. This will not result in an immediate restoration of Eucharistic communion, which would be pastorally imprudent and risk new schisms. Instead, it will likely initiate a new phase at all levels of the Church of re-examining history together, healing memories, growing together with greater confidence that we are united in faith. In time, this could lead to prudential decisions by individual bishops and local churches to concelebrate the sacraments across the previously divided communions.
One might rightly hope then, that we are in the last phase before the Great Schism is healed, a major step towards Christ’s will: “May they become perfectly one.”
Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo has served in various capacities at the Vatican and as a Spiritual Director for over 20 years.
He is a regular guest analyst of Church affairs for media networks throughout the world.
Picture: Orthodox Christians pray in the Church of Christ the Saviour, Moscow. The new Vatican handbook, The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum suggests there is hope that theological dialogue may soon find no disagreements that are Church-dividing.