WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY: 18-25 JANUARY 2004
Every year, in January or just before Pentecost, the various Churches and
Ecclesial Communities are invited to pray together for eight days, and
together to ask the Father for unity. Presented in this way, the
initiative does not pose problems: everyone recognizes its importance.
To pray for unity is not difficult, but to pray together for unity has
not always been easy.
The divisions between Christians are real. At times it seems that we
address the same prayer to the same Christ, but without thinking of other
Christians, brothers and sisters in the same Lord. The fact is that we
have all inherited this sad history of division and, in Latin America as
in the rest of the world, we still suffer the consequences at a personal
and community level.
Current ecumenical state
Consciously or unconsciously and to a greater or lesser degree, certain
prejudices and historical conditioning are still present among us which
nourish separation and reciprocal diffidence. It is no secret that
Catholics and other Christians still view ecumenism with suspicion, since
they are not disposed to "negotiate" on firm points of the faith and
ecclesial tradition to which they belong.
Yet nothing is further from authentic ecumenism, which in itself is a
grace of the truth. It is important to recall that ecumenism is not a
policy that tends to unify all Christian communities under a minimal
common denominator, ignoring real differences and/or reducing doctrinal
divergences to mere historical incidents.
Some maintain that dialogue was one of the causes of the loss of the
apostolic and missionary zeal of the Church. If this were true, it would
be necessary to re-examine our approach to the ecumenical imperative,
since the promotion of the unity of Christians cannot be separated from
the missionary mandate: "that they may all be one... so that the world may
believe" (Jn 17:21).
On the other hand, not a few Latin Americans accept ecumenism as a
relevant action in specific circumstances. For them ecumenism is
necessary, urgent, possible and desirable in a highly pluralistic society,
in areas in which the presence of other Christians is significant or in
those places where Catholics are in the minority. Although it is clear
that dialogue in the above circumstances arises spontaneously (the modern
ecumenical movement arose in this situation of division as a special
blessing), it nevertheless poses several questions and problems.
For example, is division among Christians a local problem which
undermines communion only locally and not in its entirety? Is the unity to
which the disciples of Jesus are called something that must be created by
Christians? Is ecumenism merely a strategy for co-existence, a
co-existence that in reality is subject to external historical
circumstances? And further, if the ecumenical responsibility of the
Catholic Church were restricted to determined geographical contexts, what
sense would there be in the participation of countries with a Catholic
majority, as is the case of Latin America, in the ecumenical movement?
Ecumenical work is irrevocable
To speak of ecumenism means to speak of the Church, of one Church. The
irrevocable decision of the Catholic Church to enter the ecumenical
movement is not subject to changing circumstances; it was not taken
locally but by the entire Catholic Church and is founded in its faith in
Jesus Christ; it is tied to the faithfulness of her Lord and is inspired
by the strength of the Holy Spirit: "To believe in Christ means to desire
unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church
means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father's
plan from all eternity" (Ut Unum Sint, n. 9). With these words Pope
John Paul II explained the meaning of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane: "they
may all be one... so that the world may believe" (Jn 17:21).
Let us return to the question of the meaning of ecumenism in areas with
a Catholic majority. We can begin by affirming that the unity which the
Lord has given to his Church is not accidental but is at the very centre
of her work; it is a unity which desires to embrace everyone, without
distinction. We Christians are divided and such division weighs in a real
way upon our communion. The participation of countries with a Catholic
majority is crucial for the credibility of the ecumenical option of the
Catholic Church (cf. Directory for the Application of the Principles
and Norms of Ecumenism, n. 32).
But that is not all: on this ecumenical journey, the identity and
mission of the Church in history is illumined more profoundly (cf. Ut
Unum Sint, n. 3); the ecumenical journey is the journey of the Church,
of the entire Church.
Precisely because there is a tragic history of disobedience to the
ecumenical imperative, it is urgent that we allow the vocation to unity to
grow within us, a vocation that can only be realized by attentively
listening to and constantly proclaiming the Gospel. It is a vocation
which, by overcoming misunderstandings, leads to mutual respect and the
growth of reciprocal love, in which we discover ourselves to be brothers
and sisters in Christ.
Ecumenism in Latin America
In the case of Latin America, it is interesting to note that in those
countries in which co-existence with other Christians has not been
dramatic, openness to ecumenism on the part of the Catholic Church has
been a natural force and a consistent impulse in the ecclesial apostolate.
In other contexts, economic aspects and grave stereotypes have made its
approach impossible or have impeded it.
The challenge is great, because ecumenism must overcome antagonism and
seek ways to resolve conflicts. A desire for reciprocal reconciliation
cannot always be assumed; in many cases it must be won.
In this sense the results obtained up to now are significant.
Reciprocal awareness and the establishment of trusting relations have been
indispensable elements in this task.
Thus, little by little the unconscious resistance which impeded
recognition of the other Christians on the Continent is diminishing. In
turn, other Christians are progressively changing their aggressive
attitude and are recognizing Catholics as true Christians. Faith,
belonging and behaviour are three criteria which frequently and daily
serve to define other Christians and ourselves.
It is clear that the subjective awareness of belonging to a particular
confession brings with it the acceptance of the professed convictions of
that confession, convictions which should translate into concrete living.
In a world in which confessional boundaries seem to lose significance,
we must recognize that the practising minorities, either Catholics in a
diverse Christian context or other Christians in a Catholic milieu,
constitute a critically important occasion and are in themselves occasions
of dialogue. In the ecumenical realm, the majority/minority dynamic
therefore plays a significant role. But the quantitative aspect alone must
not be the determining factor.
The life of the Catholic Church in Latin America and its pastoral
programmes are based upon the conviction of the importance of the concept
of communion and of strengthening ties of communion. Although positive and
important developments have occurred in relations with other Christians,
particularly with the historical churches, there is still much to do in
order to obtain an effective recognition of the real, although incomplete,
communion which exists between the Catholic Church and the other Churches
and Ecclesial Communities present on the Continent.
We recall that Pentecostals constitute about 75 percent of the other
Latin American Christians. This reality, which influences the ecumenical
commitment, generates controversies and difficulties due to the fact that
doubt still persists on the part of Catholics about the ecclesial nature
of these groups and, on the part of Pentecostal groups, the Christian
reality of Catholics has not yet been accepted.
Recently, various initiatives have been undertaken which offer
opportunities for reciprocal awareness and the establishment of stable
relations between Catholics and Pentecostals. These projects, still in
initial stages, can be important instruments for the growth of communion
on the Continent. In fact, this involves establishing a permanent
opportunity for exchange, reflection and cooperation.
In a certain sense, a process of maturation of relations is taking
place. It is a process which can hopefully move from the interpersonal
level to an interecclesial dimension. Supporters of these proposals
know the serious difficulties which exist between Catholics and
Pentecostals in the mission field.
It is therefore clear that co-existence with Christians of other
Churches and Ecclesial Communities is becoming an increasingly common
experience for Latin American Catholics. This reality, which cannot be
ignored, is at times either rejected or feared. In itself, it is a sign of
our times which requires suitable pastoral attention.
Today it is more necessary than ever to inform and guide Catholics so
that, without losing their own tradition but actually by deepening their
Catholic-Christian roots, they can establish fraternal relations with
For the Catholics of the Continent, the strengthening of their own
Catholic-Christian identity is particularly urgent in a moment in which
continual exchange between people of different confessions is inevitable
and must not become an occasion of confusion, relativism and, precisely,
loss of their own identity.
"It is of great importance that the Church throughout America be a
living sign of a reconciled communion". This affirmation of the Apostolic
Exhortation Ecclesia in America, which must be constantly realized
within the Catholic Church, cannot be applied exclusively to it, since
there is no ecclesial void beyond the Catholic community.
If we acknowledge that the situation and behaviour of all other
Christians in Latin America have their own characteristics, and if we
accept the distinctness of Latin American Catholics, we must consequently
conclude that the way to promote ecumenism on this Continent must be
creative and innovative, remaining faithful to the Gospel and the Church:
an encounter with the living Jesus Christ on a journey of conversion,
communion and solidarity.