Authentic Ecumenism Is a Grace of Truth

Author: Juan Usma Gomez


Fr Juan Usma Gómez
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity


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.

Catholic-Pentecostal relations

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 other Christians.

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.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 January 2004, page 4

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069