Unity stills beckons

  • January 29, 2007

When Pope Benedict XVI was elected to replace the inimitable Pope John Paul II, he promised to carry on his beloved successor's work, particularly that related to ecumenism. As is often the case, the press of events can overtake the best laid plans and so ecumenism has often appeared to play second fiddle to other issues.

Yet it remains deeply and ineradicably imbedded in the church's teaching, thanks to the Second Vatican Council and the post-council popes.

As we celebrate the 2007 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 21-28), we would do well to recall some initiatives of the last year that did not produce the kind of documents we usually associate with ecumenical dialogue, but represent progress in a way that cannot be summed up in precise theological language.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said in a speech Nov. 14 published in Origins: "Anyone who speaks indiscriminately of retrogression, of standstill or even of an ecumenical 'ice age' and the like betrays profound ignorance of the situation."

This "situation" includes the resurrection in September of the dialogue between Catholics and the Orthodox churches that had been dormant for six years. In this discussion on the theme of communio (koinonia), there will no doubt be some critical talk on the nature of the papacy itself as a source of both leadership and division, and on the thorny issue of the so-called uniate churches, Kasper said.

Those talks received a boost in late November when Pope Benedict visited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, Turkey. This ecumenical foray was overshadowed by the volatile relationship with Islam and the potential for violence, but it nevertheless represented a key attempt by the Pope and the Patriarch to rekindle the dialogue.

Also almost invisible in all the public debate over Christianity and Islam was the Nov. 23 meeting in Rome between Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury. While not ignoring the controversy over Anglican female clergy and bishops and that church's headlong dive into homosexual clergy, both men saw areas for fruitful common effort:

"There are many areas of witness and service in which we can stand together and which indeed call for closer co-operation between us: the pursuit of peace in the Holy Land and in other parts of the world marred by conflict and the threat of terrorism; promoting respect for life from conception until natural death; protecting the sanctity of marriage and the well-being of children in the context of healthy family life; outreach to the poor, oppressed and the most vulnerable, especially those who are persecuted for their faith; addressing the negative effects of materialism; and care for creation and for our environment," they said in their joint declaration.

It may be under the radar, but ecumenical dialogue continues apace. During this special week, let us pray for its continued progress.

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