Saskatoon Bishop Don Bolen, left, presides with Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls at a Nov. 9 ecumenical celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Decree on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council. Photo by Michael Swan.

Time to take commitment to ecumenism seriously

  • November 12, 2014

TORONTO - When Saskatoon’s Bishop Don Bolen worked for Cardinal Walter Kasper in the Vatican, the boss would tell him that all those documents produced at the Second Vatican Council weren’t supposed to sit on shelves gathering dust. 

“We’re supposed to act on them,” said Bolen, recollecting his time with Kasper at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. 

Bolen had just finished co-presiding with Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls at a Nov. 9 ecumenical celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Decree on Ecumenism, one of the most significant documents of Vatican II. The evening event was held at St. James Anglican Cathedral in Toronto. 

Bolen used the occasion to officially launch “A Church In Dialogue,” a first-of-its-kind publication of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops intended to help Canadian Catholic dioceses act on the Decree on Ecumenism. 

Catholics have studied and praised the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council in seminaries and universities for half a century, but have seldom found a way to take up the challenge in each of them. 

“Our beautiful documents have not had the transformative effect they were meant to have,” said Bolen. 

In the case of the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), there’s little doubt council fathers intended to shake things up. Just 36 years before it was published, Pope Pius XI condemned ecumenism as heresy and forbade Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement in 1928. Under Pope Paul VI at Vatican II, 2,137 Catholic bishops from every part of the world voted for a document which declared ecumenism an essential element of what it means to be Catholic. 

While this magisterial teaching has been present at the highest level for half a century, the average Catholic parish rarely thinks or acts as though ecumenism has anything to do with them. They may not regard praying with Protestants as heresy, but it’s just none of their business. 

“The fundamental challenge we have is the problem of reception,” said Bolen. 

The 28-page “A Church in Dialogue” (which can be downloaded at gives pastors and parishes a framework for understanding the mandate to work for Church unity. 

It all starts with dialogue — with each other, with the world, with the surrounding culture and even with those who disagree with Church teaching and traditions. 

“From a faith perspective, the source and inspiration of all this dialogue comes from our understanding of who God is and how God has entered into relationship with the human race and the Church through history,” reads the CCCB document. “God’s word brings the world and all created things into being (Gen. 1; John 1:1-3). God speaks to the people of Israel through the prophets; then, in the fullness of time, the Father speaks to us through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 1:1-2; Dei Verbum 2). From the fullness of His love, God ‘addresses men and women as His friends and lives among them, in order to invite and receive them into His own company’ (Dei Verbum 2). The Church comes into being as a result of the incarnation and paschal mystery, and the unity it is called to is a unity in God, exemplified in the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Unitatis Redintegratio 2).” 

However, it’s not as though nothing has happened over the last half-century, said Saint Paul University theologian and ecumenist Catherine Clifford. Within two years of the Decree on Ecumenism, talks began to create the Toronto School of Theology, where Catholic, Anglican and Protestant seminarians and lay academics have studied Scripture, liturgy, doctrine and Church history side-by-side for more than 45 years. Ottawa’s Saint Paul University, a pontifical institution, has housed an Anglican Studies department for more than 40 years. 

More fundamentally, the world and Catholic attitudes have changed, said Clifford. More than 40 per cent of married Catholics in Canada are married to a non- Catholic. Those inter-church families are a living experiment in how to preserve and live a Christian faith across denominational lines, Clifford said. 

Clifford was among the theologians who contributed to “A Church in Dialogue.” In part, the document tries to address the evolution of ecumenism over the years. 

“We have generations of people who didn’t live through the Vatican II experience — who don’t know it as a change,” she said. 

At weddings, funerals and baptisms, Canadian Catholics have become adept at accommodating an ecumenical reality. 

“We take these things for granted,” said Clifford. 

The new CCCB document is intended to help people actively engage their ecumenical reality, going beyond acceptance. 

“Try to do (ecumenism) intentionally,” said Clifford. 

“We have lived together like a separated marital couple for 500 years,” preached Nicholls, with Cardinal Thomas Collins and Anglican Archbishop Colin Johnson in attendance. “We cannot just move in together without dialogue.” 

As a member of the Anglican- Roman Catholic International Commission, Nicholls has been praying, talking and thinking with her Catholic counterparts. She spoke of her pain at not being able to receive communion at Masses at which she had prayed in deep communion with the Catholics around her. To be suddenly excluded when the body and blood of Christ are offered is a “gut pain,” she said. 

“I am at home in Christ until the moment of communion. That moment is the most profoundly painful I can recall,” said Nicholls. “It is also the renewing catalyst for staying at the table.” 

Comments (3)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

What hogwash. We should be helping protestants by converting them, not being converted BY them. It is hard to tell some days whether it is a Catholic mass or a heretical protestant service. They don't even use a real bible.

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Come on Kevin,wake up ,are you living under a rock somewhere.

Jean Balcaen
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Definetly agree with Kevin

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