Unity Furthered by Continual Renewal

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

Message given August 2, 1995

1. In our previous catechesis, we stressed how the Second Vatican Council recommended prayer as the essential and principal task of Christians who truly intend to dedicate themselves to the full achievement of the unity Christ desired. The Council added that the ecumenical movement "involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike", according to each one's ability, whether it be exercised in daily Christian living or in theological and historical studies (cf. Unitatis redintegratio, n. 5). This means that responsibility in this area can and must be examined at various levels. It involves all Christians, but understandably obliges some, theologians and historians for example, in a quite particular way. Ten years ago I remarked that "we must take every care to meet the legitimate desires and expectations of our Christian brethren, coming to know their way of thinking and their sensibilities. The talents of each person must be developed for the utility and advantage of all" (Address to the Roman Curia, 28 June 1985, AAS 77, pp. 1151-1152; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 15 July 1985, p. 3).

2. We can list the main paths which the Council proposed for ecumenical activity. First of all, it recalled the need for continuous renewal. "Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of men here on earth" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 6). The reform concerns behaviour as well as Church discipline. It can be added that this need comes from above, that is to say, it is ordained by God himself, who puts the Church in a permanent state of development. This involves adjusting to historical circumstances, but also and above all, advancing in the fulfillment of her vocation as an ever more satisfactory response to the demands of God's plan of salvation.

Another basic point is the Church's commitment to becoming aware of the deficiencies and defects which, due to human frailty, have afflicted her pilgrim members throughout history. This is especially true with regard to sins against unity, even by Catholics. We must not forget St. John's warning: "If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (1 Jn 1:10). Referring precisely to this warning, the Council exhorts: "Thus, in humble prayer we beg pardon of God and of our separated bretrhen, just as we forgive those who offend us" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 7).

In this journey the purification of our historical memory has proved highly important, since "each one therefore ought to be more radically converted to the Gospel, and without ever losing sight of God's plan, change his or her way of looking at things" (Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, n. 15).

3. It should also be remembered that harmony with our brethren in the other Churches and ecclesial communities, as well as with others in general, is rooted in the determination to lead a life that more closely conforms with Christ. Thus holiness of life, guaranteed by union with God through the grace of the Spirit, makes possible the union of all Christ's followers and causes it to advance, since unity is a gift which comes from on high.

Together with "conversion of heart" and "holiness of life", ecumenical activity also includes "private and public prayer for Christian unity". These are encouraged in various circumstances and especially at ecumenical gatherings. They are all the more necessary the more one perceives the obstacles on the way to full, visible unity. Thus it is understood that real progress towards the unity desired by Christ can only come from divine grace and that any occasion when Christ's disciples meet to ask God for the gift of unity deserves praise.

The Council stated that not only is this permitted but it is also desirable (cf. Unitatis redintegratio, n. 8). Concrete action in various circumstances—of place, time and individuals—must be agreed to in harmony with the local Bishop, in the context of the norms established by the Episcopal Conferences and the Holy See (cf. ibid.; Ecumenical Directory, nn. 28-34).

4. A special effort should be made to become more familiar with the state of mind and the doctrinal, spiritual and liturgical position of our separated brethren in the other Churches or Ecclesial Communities. To this end, study conferences with the participation of both sides are a help, "especially for discussion of theological problems, where each can treat with the other on an equal footing, provided that those who take part in them under the guidance of the authorities are truly competent" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 9).

These study meetings must be motivated by the desire to share the blessings of the Spirit and knowledge through an effective exchange of gifts in the light of Christ's truth and with a spirit of goodwill (cf. ibid.). A methodology enlivened by passion for the truth in love requires from all participants the threefold commitment to explain their position clearly, to strive to understand others and to seek points of agreement.

The Council also recommended that, in view of this form of ecumenical activity, the teaching of theology and the other subjects, especially the historical disciplines, should also be carried out "from the ecumnical standpoint" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 10).

This will prevent a polemical attitude and will instead strive to show the convergences and divergences existing between the various parties in their way of receiving and presenting the truths of the faith. Obviously, firmness in the defined faith will not be shaken if sincere adherence to the Church is the basis of the ecumenical methodology followed in the work of formation.

5. Dialogue procedures should have the same basis. In this dialogue Catholic doctrine must be clearly explained in its integrity:

"Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 11).

The task of theologians must therefore be to explain the Catholic faith more profoundly and precisely. They must proceed "with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility". Furthermore, when comparing doctrines with one another, as the Council recommends, they should remember "that in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or 'hierarchy' of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith" (ibid.). With regard to this important point, theologians should be well trained and able to discern the relationship which the various positions and the articles of the Creed themselves have with the two fundamental truths of Christianity: the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word, the Son of God "propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem". Catholic theologians cannot set out on ways which oppose the apostolic faith as it has been taught by the Fathers and confirmed by the Councils.

They must always start with humble and sincere acceptance of the exhortation repeated by the Council itself on the subject of ecumenical dialogue: "Let all Christians confess their faith in God, one and three, in the incarnate Son of God, our Redeemer and Lord" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 12).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9-16 August 1995, p. 7.

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