This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Joint Working Group (JWG) between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches in 1965. The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, through which many of the JWG initiatives are organized from the Catholic side, recently collaborated with the Centro Pro Unione to host an event commemorating the milestone half-century of dialogue, cooperation, and fraternal affection between the various branches of Christian disciples. The event brought together a number of important officials here in Rome including Cardinals Walter Kasper (Germany) and Kurt Koch (Switzerland), WCC Secretary General Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit (Norway), and Anglican Representative to the Holy See Archbishop David Moxon (New Zealand). The event was moderated by the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin (Ireland) and Orthodox Archbishop Nifon of Targoviste (Romania).
A number of scholars gave reflections on the history, texts, achievements and future plans of the JWG. The Vatican II document Unitatis Redintegratio paved the way for the attempts at conversation and healing surrounding the scandalous divisions that separate various communities who are composed of members fully committing their lives to following Christ.
The JWG was founded almost immediately in UR’s wake and has since worked tirelessly to face the real and painful challenges which prove roadblocks to the unity which Christ prayed for to the Father in the closing hours of his earthly life (Jn 17).
The event honestly assessed the ongoing problems in our contemporary situation of fracture and brokenness, but even more so celebrated the work accomplished so far in bringing us closer together on the journey towards wholeness.
Pope Francis sent a lengthy address to be read to the intimate gathering. In it, he thanked God for the work of the JWG and encouraged their efforts not only in the ecumenical movement, but “in the areas of interreligious dialogue, peace and social justice, and works of charity and humanitarian aid.”
Recurrent themes of his pontificate were evident in his message: to avoid being “inward looking” and rather to open outward to accompany the world’s suffering and to imbue society and culture with the truth and joy of the Gospel. Thus, the intellectual work of theological dialogues is to be matched, in the pope’s mind, with “effective diakonia (service) suited to people’s needs.” The JWG should then continue to foster respect and reconciliation among all the baptized in the hope of offering the human family common witness to Christ and encouraging the zeal of an authentic evangelizing mission.
The Faith and Order Commission of the WCC often draws upon the work of the JWG in its “convergence” texts like Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry or the more recent “The Church: Toward a Common Vision.” Practical ways in which Christians can better live together more amicably, cultivate formation, share anthropological, ethical, and social understandings of the world, and receive doctrine are often explored in their discussions.
Because Catholicism represents over a billion Christians worldwide, its relationship to the WCC is particularly important and complex. The bodies’ mutual need to trust and embrace one another is largely the responsibility and result of the steady hand of the members of the JWG. Thus, they hold a central role in modern ecumenical initiatives and deserve the appreciation expressed in the pope’s message and among their friends, colleagues and fellow believers.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, PhD, Loyola University Chicago.