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Keeping Vatican II’s ecumenical spirit alive

By  Rev. Damian MacPherson, Catholic Register Special
  • September 8, 2023

Fifty-eight years ago, the Second Vatican Council gave birth to the Decree on Ecumenism, in November 1965. Most have forgotten that the decree was passed by a vote of 2,137 to 11 of the bishops assembled at the Council.

The introductory words of that decree remind all that the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.  Some suggest the decree was the most significant teaching which came from that Council.

The document called all Roman Catholics to become aware that the Holy Spirit calls all Christians to be ecumenical. In the years to follow, Orthodox, Protestant and Anglicans quickly responded with positive enthusiasm to the renewed call for Christian unity. It became clear that the ecumenical task was not a choice one arbitrarily makes but is a responsibility one must necessarily assume. 

For those involved in Church-related issues at the time, it became an occasion with high expectation, accompanied by a spirit of great optimism and mutual co-operation. We must be grateful for the significant ecumenical achievements of past initiatives. In retrospect, who could deny that the Holy Spirit was truly at work?

Today, it might be fair to ask what happened to the remarkable ecumenical spirit of the past, as compared to the present, since we do remain called to the same Biblical mandate, “that all may be one” (Jn 1: 17).

Going forward, it might be  suggested that the climate of change being experienced today, with regards to religious issues, is influencing the ecumenical agenda. It is generally agreed that today there is an increased rejection of the very idea of God. Likewise rejected are spiritual concepts such as  Heaven, hell and the devil. In general Catholics, according to a Pew Research Poll, believe abortion should be legal, though that number decreases to one-third for those who attend Mass regularly.

A Real Clear Research Poll last year showed a third of Roman Catholics no longer go to confession. One has to agree such a decline will likely increase. More importantly is the growing increase among Roman Catholics who no longer believe that the bread and wine at the Eucharist does not become the true body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. 

Other unresolved issues, especially for Roman Catholics, include the question of more lay involvement in decision making on Church policy, priestly celibacy, homosexuality and female deacons/priests, to name just a few.  

Though these issues place real stress on the ecumenical agenda, hope must help motivate the continuing common responsibility to seek the unity of the Christian Church. For Roman Catholics, and for Christians at large, an important emerging hope is the impending World Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which this year functions much differently.

 For the first time this synod of bishops will be accompanied by laymen, women and religious who have full voting rights, including a vote on the final document eventually produced by the Synod.  More than one-quarter of voting members are not bishops and from among the lay participation a total of 54 women are active delegates. Other Christians have also been invited by Pope Francis, giving a genuine ecumenical awareness to the entire procedure.

The Synod on Synodality has already begun with the Oct. 9-10, 2021 opening meeting by Pope Francis in Rome. Every diocese from across the world was called to celebrate the opening. Moreover, each diocese throughout the world was invited and  expected to contribute themes which will help formulate a common agenda. The theme for this synod is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”  It has been divided into two sessions; one to be held Oct. 4-29, 2023 and the other  in October 2024.

Without question issues referred to above will make their way onto the agenda. To be sure, it is a mighty task! No one knows this better than Pope Francis, who feels the event has not sufficiently caught the attention of the general public, Catholics included. All the more reason Christians throughout the world are being called to a united effort in prayer, asking that the Holy Spirit will the power of truth, justice and peace to bear upon all the proceedings, bringing  success to  the World Synod on Synodality.

(Rev. Damian MacPherson, SA is former director for ecumenical and interfaith affairs In the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto)

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