Ecumenical Legacy of Pope John Paul II

Ecumenical Legacy of Pope John Paul II

Bishop Brian Farrell, L.C.
Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

'Ut unum sint': revelation and invocation

After the Funeral of Pope John Paul II and the feeling of bewilderment at our loss, it is important in a calmer atmosphere to recall one of the indispensable commitments that was deeply rooted in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome. Let us borrow his words to define it: "Christian unity has been a constant concern of my Pontificate and continues to be a demanding priority of my ministry".

The constant concern for Christian unity impelled John Paul II to make himself a pilgrim of communion to the See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople a few weeks after the solemn inauguration of his Pontificate.

It dictated many of the Bishop of Rome's prophetic gestures; it nourished his prayer; it encouraged him to welcome to Rome with sincere friendship the Authorities and Spokespersons of all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities of East and West, to meet other Christians on his Journeys and to preach harmony, peace and collaboration, since, "before the world, united action in society on the part of Christians has the clear value of a joint witness to the name of the Lord. It is also a form of proclamation, since it reveals the face of Christ" (Ut Unum Sint, n. 75).

The demanding priority of Christian unity inspired John Paul II to give all possible support to a theological research which, without straying from the truth, would shed light on the desire of Christians to understand one another more deeply, over and above what divides them.

Aware of the gap created by the divisions between Christians, he appealed to the power of dialogue: "Ecumenical dialogue, which prompts the parties involved to question each other, to understand each other and to explain their positions to each other, makes surprising discoveries possible. Intolerant polemics and controversies have made incompatible assertions out of what was really the result of two different ways of looking at the same reality. Nowadays, we need to find the formula which, by capturing the reality in its entirety, will enable us to move beyond partial readings and eliminate false interpretations" (ibid., n. 38).

The demanding priority of unity induced John Paul to insist that history be reread, for he had at heart that all the parties be purified from sin and forgive one another; this enabled the Bishop of Rome to introduce a style of brotherly relations with which to confront serenely the recurring difficulties, thorny problems and misunderstandings that arise on the ecumenical journey: "What is needed is a calm, clear-sighted and truthful vision of things, a vision enlivened by divine mercy and capable of freeing people's minds and of inspiring in everyone a renewed willingness, precisely with a view to proclaiming the Gospel to the men and women of every people and nation" (ibid., n. 2).

This "demanding priority" convinced him that: "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. Such is the meaning of Christ's prayer: Ut unum sint" (ibid., n. 9).

Thus, in the as yet fragmented and imperfect context of the ut unum sint, John Paul II, ill but profoundly peaceful, weak but stronger than ever in his determination to exercise to his very last day the ministry entrusted to him, pointed out a path illumined by hope, a sort of testament: unity, a gift of the spirit, should be sought above all in prayer.

The Bishop of Rome prayed before the sacred Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, with whom he had built up a trusting conversation over the years, "asking that the day may come when we will all be united and able to proclaim to the world, with one voice and
in visible communion, the salvation of our one Lord Jesus Christ and his triumph over the evil and impious forces which seek to damage our faith and our witness of unity" (Message to Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, for the Return to Russia of the Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, 25 August 2004; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 1 September 2004, p. 3).

He also entrusted to that famous image of the Theotokos the task of making present in Russia, without misunderstandings, his concern for unity as Bishop of Rome. In presenting to the Ecumenical Patriarch some relics of the Patriarchs and Doctors of the Church of Constantinople, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian, deeply revered witnesses of the faith for all Orthodoxy, he saw in these two Saints the most eloquent way to raise a harmonious supplication to the Lord.

Concern for Christian unity

It would be impossible to outline in this reflection all that Pope John Paul II did in the 26 years of his Pontificate to weave into the fabric of the Catholic Church the need for ecumenical commitment and to open Catholic hearts to other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, in line with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council that he attentively and faithfully put into practice. Nor would it be possible to mention the Papal Documents, texts implementing the Council, Common Declarations and fundamental writings that have guided theological research, the voluminous correspondence he exchanged with the Patriarchs and Ecclesial Authorities of East and West, or the Bishop of Rome's participation in the joyful and sad events of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities.

Yet his Funeral Rite in St Peter's Square on Friday, 8 April, only six days after his death, thoroughly demonstrated that his constant concern for Christian unity, a demanding priority of his ministry, had not only been understood, but deeply accepted and shared.

In front of the Basilica, recollected in prayer beside his coffin were: H.H. Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch; the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Finland; the Metropolitan of Paphos, Acting Archbishop Primate of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus; H.B. Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece; H.B. Anastas, Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania; H.H. Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians [Armenian Apostolic Church]; H.H. Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia for Armenians; H.H. Abba Paulus, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia; H.H.Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East.

H.B. Patriarch Teoctist, who had wanted to come to Rome but could not make the journey for reasons of health and age, delegated important Dignitaries of his Church to represent him, giving them a message that went far beyond mere ecclesial courtesy.

In addition to those mentioned above, all other Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Ancient Churches of the East) sent important representatives: the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Patriarchate of Moscow, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow, the Orthodox Church of Georgia, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Serbia, the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church of the Czech Republic and of Slovakia, the Orthodox Church of Poland, the Orthodox Church in America, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Egypt, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (India).

Since the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, H.B. Ignace IV Hazim, was ill, he sent a handwritten message in Arabic that fully expresses the feeling of such unanimous participation in John Paul II's funeral: "The Supreme Pontiff, the Pope has departed from his body, bequeathing his spirit to our world.... May God's mercy be poured out on John Paul II, the one who filled the whole earth with his love, and even more so, by his death".

The Archbishop of Canterbury came to Rome with a large delegation of the Anglican Communion, which included his closest collaborators for relations with the Catholic Church. In addition, all the Christian Communions with which the Catholic Church has an official dialogue were present at the funeral and broadly represented: the Lutheran World Federation, the Methodist World Council, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Baptist Alliance, the Mennonite World Conference, the Disciples of Christ, the Salvation Army and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht.

Paying their respects

Present in St Peter's Square was the new General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, whom the Holy Father had been expecting in Rome this May on the occasion of the official visit that he had asked to make after the beginning of his mandate. Rev. Kobia was accompanied by the Lutheran Bishop Jonas Jonson, Co-President of the Joint Working Group of the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, and Ms Teny Pirri-Simonian of the General Administration of the World Council of Churches.

The Conference of European Churches was represented by its General Secretary.

Representatives of the Church of Scotland were also present, with the Moderator of the Church's General Assembly; Bishop Wolfgang Huber, President of the German Evangelical Churches (Evangelische Kirche Deutschlands, EKD), the Archbishop Presidents of the Lutheran Church of Sweden and Finland, the Lutheran Bishop of Trondheim, Norway, the Bishop Primate of the Polish National Church of the United States, the YMCA, represented by its General Secretary, the Billy Graham Evangelical Organization and the Universal Biblical Alliance. Nor can we fail to mention the representatives of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities of Rome.

After they had arrived in Rome on Thursday, 7 April, the majority of these Representatives immediately asked to pay homage to the Holy Father's mortal remains, still lying in state in St Peter's Basilica. The Ecumenical Patriarch brought a floral tribute from Istanbul which he lay close to the body with a card that he himself had written.

It is now necessary to reflect fully on the deep significance of the unanimous support of the Churches and Ecclesial Communities in the "absence", as Patriarch Ignace IV Hazim said, of Pope John Paul II. There are surprising events, for the Spirit always astonishes, and these must be slowly assimilated in order to be fully understood. We believe that the brotherly and heartfelt participation experienced by the Catholic Church, the spiritual and physical closeness that the Churches and Ecclesial Communities have generously assured us without hesitation, can be defined with Pope John Paul II's words: "The reality of division among the Church's children appears at the level of history as the result of human weakness in the way we accept the gift which flows endlessly from Christ the Head to his Mystical Body. The prayer of Jesus in the Upper Room — 'as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be one in us' (Jn 17:21) — is both revelation and invocation" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 48).

Because of this significant and deeply-felt presence of the Churches and Ecclesial Communities, the funeral of the Bishop of Rome was both a revelation and an invocation. The power of dialogue, reciprocal encounter and the brotherhood that has been so often rediscovered in the past 26 years, certainly permit us to say together: Duc in altum, let us put out into the deep with hope.

The reality of this hope and its viability for the future are a very rich legacy of the ministry of unity left to us by our beloved Pope John: Paul II.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 June 2005, page 9

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