The year 2020 will long be remembered for the transformation of life, communal and personal, caused by the pandemic. The Ecumenical world, too, has suffered from the restriction imposed due to the health crisis. In relationships among Christians, divided but eager to overcome separations, personal contacts are essential. The mutual understanding and reciprocal trust necessary to deepen communion are born and grow only through encounter. Many meetings, many church gatherings and ecumenical dialogues have had to be cancelled or postponed to a future date. Certain meetings have been replaced by video conferences, but there is no doubt that a conversation mediated by technology does not produce the same effect as an exchange of ideas, beliefs, and motivations that takes place in person. Yet, even in this fateful year, the search for Christian unity has continued, and has made progress. Sixty years after its founding (June 1960), the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (pcpuc) carries onward with conviction its mandate: to promote ecumenism in the Catholic Church and the relationships of the Catholic Church with other Christians, in their Churches and communities. These two tasks have been clearly outlined and described in the Ecumenical Vademecum for Bishops, which the Dicastery recently published with Pope Francis’ blessing.
The document was drafted by Council officials with the advice of experts and the approval of the relevant Dicasteries of the Roman Curia. To illustrate the recent activity of the PCPUC we can use the framework of the Vademecum, which reflects the fundamental areas of ecumenical work, not only of the bishops but of the whole Church.
The first essential task is within the Catholic Church herself: to keep ecumenical responsibility alive. Information, formation, motivation. This includes participation in numerous meetings, publications, regular correspondence with particular Churches, ad limina visits, and so on. Moreover, in order to promote the ecumenical spirit in the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Council has recently equipped itself with new instruments. First of all, a website (www.christianunity.va) which, in addition to offering updates on the ecumenical activity of the Holy See, presents all the ecumenical documents published since the time of the Second Vatican Council in order to encourage the study and reception of these texts. It is a true ecumenical library in several languages, accessible to all. Adding to this is a new journal, “Acta Œcumenica”, a new format of the “Information Service/Service d’information” bulletin which, published by the Dicastery for over 50 years, constitutes an authentic archive of the Ecumenical commitment of the Catholic Church. We are confident that this journal, which can also be consulted online, will be a source of information and inspiration for all those who work in the field of unity. There is also a new series entitled “Ut unum sint”, created in collaboration with the Libreria Editrice Vaticana to disseminate ecumenical essays and documents in order to foster theological reflection and rapprochement among Christians. The first volume is dedicated to the Dicastery’s sixtieth anniversary; the second will publish the proceedings of a recent conference on the ecumenical mission of the Eastern Catholic Churches. In the field of formation, it is worth noting the “Corso Ut unum sint”, a programme for continuing education in ecumenism launched in 2019 in cooperation with the Angelicum’s institute for ecumenical studies, under the patronage of the Council, directly involving several officials. With regard to the second task, or the relations of the Catholic Church with other Churches and communities, here too we can follow the framework of the Vademecum: spiritual ecumenism, the dialogue of charity, dialogue of truth and dialogue of life.
In the realm of spiritual ecumenism, one of the main activities of the Pontifical Council is the preparation each year, in cooperation with the World Council of Churches, of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. There are also other activities related to spiritual ecumenism, such as the temporary transfer or exchange of relics. In this regard, among the events of recent years, we recall the temporary transfer of the relics of Saint Nicholas of Bari, an event that attracted over two million pilgrims in 2017. There have been similar transfers of relics in Greece and Bulgaria, again with a large participation of faithful. There is no shortage of requests: devotion to the relics of saints and martyrs is very much alive in orthodoxy. Another important event of the “ecumenism of saints” were the celebrations with the Armenian Church for the recognition of Saint Gregory of Narek as a Doctor of the Church.
In the field of the dialogue of charity, we can mention the many meetings organized by the Dicastery with various Christian leaders. In normal times, not a week passes that a delegation or representative of another Church does not come to the Vatican to meet the Holy Father or to have conversations with the Pontifical Council. Rare, then, are the Pope’s Apostolic Journeys that do not have an ecumenical dimension. Suffice it to think of Pope Francis’ recent visits to the Holy Land, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, Switzerland, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Romania, the Baltic States, as well as his pilgrimage to the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 2018. This visit had an enormous and fruitful echo in the ecumenical world, especially Protestant. To be remembered among the particularly significant encounters in these recent years is Pope Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill in 2016, an event held for the first time in history between the Bishop of Rome and the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are then the numerous declarations and positions taken by the Holy See or by the Pontiff himself in support of Christians (as well as other populations) who find themselves in difficult circumstances.
In the sphere of the dialogue of truth, or the theological dialogue among the Churches, there are currently underway 15 bilateral dialogues and diverse discussions of a multilateral nature. Naturally not all dialogues have the same doctrinal consistency, nor do all promise equal results. Each one of them requires the appointment of several experts in a particular theological/ecclesial field. The number per party varies: from 28 (in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue) to six or seven in other dialogues. Generally these commissions meet once a year, for a week, in different countries, hosted in alternating years by the Catholic and the other party. A dialogue commission works for five or six years, or until the completion of a document of convergence or consensus. In recent years, particularly significant documents have been produced: in 2015 with Pentecostals (Do Not Quench the Spirit); in 2016 with the Orthodox Church (Synodality and Primacy during the First Millenium); with Evangelicals (‘Scripture and Tradition’ and ‘The Church in Salvation’); with Methodists (The Call to Holiness: From Glory to Glory); in 2017 with the Assyrian Church of the East (Common Statement on ‘Sacramental Life’); in 2018 with the new Charismatic Churches (The Characteristics of the New Charismatic Churches), not a bilateral document, but drafted by our partners in dialogue with us; and with the Anglican Communion (Walking Together on the Way); in 2020 regarding the trilateral Lutheran-Mennonite-Catholic dialogue (Baptism and Incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church), with publications also relative to the Catholic response to the document of the Faith and Order Commission, The Church: Towards a Common Vision, drafted after having consulted with episcopal conferences, theological faculties and individual theologians, without reservations on the part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Published also in 2020 was the communiqué for the 20th anniversary of the Joint Declaration on the doctrine of Justification and the document of the dialogue with the Disciples of Christ, Do This in Memory of Me: Christians Formed and Transformed by the Eucharist. The Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches has completed two texts of a pastoral nature, regarding the promotion of peace in conflict situations and with regard to the ecumenical challenges and opportunities in aiding migrants and refugees.
Obviously the challenges vary according to the dialogues. I will mention only a few. The dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, which focus mainly on the ecclesiological question of the relationship between primacy and synodality, requires in-depth studies and is also marked by a complicated historical legacy, as well as by intra-orthodox tensions. With the historical Churches of the East the fundamental issue is the different interpretation of the concept of Church, and therefore of sacramentality and ordained ministry; another nine challenges have emerged related to ethical and moral issues, and difficulty in the very process of dialogue due to a weakening of theological traditions. With the free Churches (Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite, for example) we sense the sincere desire for dialogue with the Catholic Church, but here, beyond the differences commonly experienced with historical Protestantism, there is the question of the missionary nature, or of proselytism which in some parts of the world also aims at the conversion of other Christians, including Catholics. This issue is particularly felt in relations with Pentecostals and Evangelicals, and with all those movements that are considered “restorationist”, or that believe, under God’s guidance, that they must take the place of the historical Churches, which supposedly have drifted away from the pure Gospel. However, a new, more relaxed and cordial climate of dialogue is developing with some representatives of these communities. Significantly contributing to this is the Global Christian Forum, instituted some 20 years ago by what are called “the four pillars”: the Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the Pentecostal World Fellowship. It is a “space of encounter” in which the historical Churches and all the new forms of community can participate simply on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, avoiding doctrinal controversies, to become better acquainted with the respective identities in a spirit of mutual trust. The good fruits and progress achieved have not always been highly visible; some were not noticed at all. Let us think, for example of the rapprochement between Catholic and Pentecostal leaders that is slowly growing in Brazil and South America, on the basis of a letter of intent signed in 2019, in which the partners committed themselves to work together, avoiding all forms of proselytism; and let us recall the interest reawakened in the charismatic Churches from the new office, Charis, instituted by Pope Francis as a service for charismatic renewal. Also in the framework of the dialogue of truth the Dicastery has two internal projects: a working document on the Petrine ministry which offers a summary of national and international dialogues — official and unofficial — on this theme, and the preparation of the 1700th anniversary of Nicea, the first ecumenical council, which will take place in 2025 and can be a fruitful occasion for a decisive reaffirmation of the Christian faith shared by all the Churches.
With regard to the dialogue of life, the Pontifical Council is active in the field of cultural ecumenism through its Catholic Committee for cultural cooperation which provides scholarships to students of Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches. This year the Committee is supporting some 40 students, who are taking courses in the Pontifical Universities and are living in Catholic Colleges. The opportunity to get to know the Catholic Church from up close and in depth contributes to the spread of a more positive idea about her in Orthodox environments. Also of note in this context is the annual student exchange involving young priests, which began several years ago with the Church of Greece, then launched in 2016 with the Russian Church and organized this year also with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Thus there is a vast and dynamic network of ecumenical relationships among Christians and among the Churches, which should become better known and appreciated. At times public opinion only becomes aware of big events, including, for example, Pope Francis’ visit to Lesbos in 2016 with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and with Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, and the meeting with Church leaders in Bari in 2018 for the day of prayer and reflection on the Middle East. If on the one hand the current pandemic has naturally put ecumenical work to an arduous test, as already mentioned, it favours in-person meetings, meetings which we hope will resume as soon as possible, on the other hand it has inspired among Christians a spirit of greater solidarity and sharing, as evidenced by the significant acceptance of the invitation launched by Pope Francis last May to simultaneously pray the Our Father for the end of the suffering that affects everyone. Another reason for encouragement is the awareness of the growing involvement of the Roman Curia in the cause of unity, as demonstrated by the numerous projects advanced in these recent years by various Dicasteries. Lastly, the warm and creative support given by Pope Francis, not only in favour of ecumenical events but, much more deeply, for a reform of the Curia and of the Church and without a doubt an effective stimulus that inspires and enlivens the daily work of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. In spite of everything, 2020 did not halt the journey toward the restoration of unity for which the Lord Jesus prayed at the Last Supper.
Bishop Brian Farrell
Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity