St. Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople embrace following three days of private meetings at the Vatican in 1995. CNS photo/Arturo Mari, L’Osservatore Romano

Christian unity still a work in progress

  • June 7, 2020

Ray Temmerman’s been a committed Catholic all his life. He’s a former president of the National Council of Development and Peace. He’s taken time out from his career in automotive technology and human resources to study theology at the University of Winnipeg, earning a Masters in Sacred Theology.

However, Temmerman thinks of himself as someone who inhabits the margins of the Church.

Temmerman’s wife Fenella is Anglican. From their home in Morden, Man., the Temmermans attend both Catholic and Anglican churches.

“Such couples often find themselves on the margins of their churches,” said Temmerman. 

Temmerman’s theological studies concentrated on the experience of inter-church couples. His studies and his experience have made him deeply committed to ecumenism.

“It will be people on the margins of the Church, in this and other ways, who will point the way for the churches on the path to unity,” Temmerman said. “Not by writing learned theological treatises, but by living the unity which is forming in their lives.”

May 25 marked the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s landmark encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (Let Them Be One). In a tribute to John Paul’s charter for “irrevocable” ecumenism, Pope Francis urged Christians to become aware of the unity that already exists across historical fault lines of schism by walking side-by-side.

“Steps have been taken in these decades (since the Second Vatican Council) to heal the wounds of centuries and millennia,” Francis wrote in a May 24 letter to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Regina Archbishop Don Bolen urged Catholics to make Pentecost a feast of Church unity. “Among the principal gifts that the Spirit brings is the gift of unity,” Bolen said in his weekly COVID-19 YouTube address for the week of May 25.

Bolen, who worked at the Vatican for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 2001 to 2008, proposes ecumenism and the spirit of Church unity as a kind of countercultural stance.

“Conflicting visions of what a society, a healthy society, looks like (and) conflicting visions of the truth set up camps and battle away,” he said. “The Holy Spirit calls us in a different direction.”

Fr. Pishoy Salama, Coptic Orthodox theologian and pastor at St. Maurice and St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Markham, Ont., says now is the moment for unity of all kinds.

“The pandemic has forced all of humanity to be united in defeating COVID-19. All of a sudden, we discovered that we are all vulnerable and need each other,” Salama said. “This is a great opportunity for the Church to shine and expand its wings.”

In 1995, Ut Unum Sint was the first official Vatican document to acknowledge that the papacy had evolved in a way that turned it into a stumbling block for non-Catholic Christians. John Paul II invited theologians and bishops to contribute ideas for a different kind of papacy.

Salama said Pope Francis is already showing the world a different way of being pope. “I believe the overarching majority of Catholics and non-Catholics across the globe really admire Pope Francis and his legacy,” said Salama. “He is a real example of a godly man who is caring and humble.”

The idea that Pentecost and Church unity go together seems to have taken off at the Canadian Council of Churches. The association of churches representing more than 80 per cent of all Canadian Christians launched a modest plan for an ecumenical Zoom prayer service on May 30, the day before Pentecost Sunday. To the shock of CCC general secretary Rev. Peter Noteboom, by Friday the list of participants had exceeded the 500 limit on the Zoom call, forcing organizers to buy extra capacity to allow for up to 1,000 participants.

The idea that Church unity need not obliterate the traditions or identity of any one church is central to genuine ecumenism, said Regis College academic dean and ecumenist Sr. Susan Wood.

“One position is the position that Catholics are right and everybody else is wrong — and everybody should come home to Rome. That’s called ‘return ecumenism’ and it’s not ecumenism at all,” Wood said.

Rather than a retreat from tradition, ecumenism calls Catholics deeper into tradition, said Wood.

“Some Catholics equate their Catholicism with something that’s only 500 years old as a Church. So they’re not deeply Catholic in its full, historical dimension, but only in the counter-Reformation era. It really requires the breadth and depth of all of Catholicism, not just the most recent period,” she said.

“What has built up, layer by layer, over centuries should not be lightly tossed aside,” said Temmerman. “But perhaps something of real value there (in the tradition) may inspire us here in some way.”

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