Moving toward Christian unity and ecumenism

Pope Francis attends an ecumenical prayer service at the World Council of Churches’ ecumenical center in Geneva June 21. Also pictured is the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

At this time of year most news agencies highlight their top 10 news stories of 2018. For the Roman Catholic Church, unfortunately, the year was overshadowed by the distressing news surrounding the revelations of sexual misconduct by some bishops and priests. Yet in the movement toward Christian unity there was some progress.

I think the most important ecumenical story of 2018 was the historic trip to Geneva by Pope Francis on June 20. It is true that both Popes Paul VI and John Paul II visited the World Council of Churches (WCC) before but only as part of a wider framework of a pastoral journey. Pope Francis came solely to be with and celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the WCC.

During this one day visit to Geneva, Pope Francis met with 150 Christian leaders from around the world to promote what he called a “new ecumenical spring.” The WCC is a global conglomerate of churches dedicated to restoring unity to the divided Christian family.

Pope Francis said that the existence of the WCC begs the question, “How can Christians proclaim the Gospel if they are divided among themselves?” In his call for the “new ecumenical spring,” he changed the trajectory a bit in his view of working for Christian unity, when he called for a unity not modeled after “worldly ways of thinking,” but rather, one where Christians witness together to the joy of the Gospel.

While he came to celebrate the past 70 years of ecumenical work by the WCC, he spoke more about the future than the past. He called for a new forward looking agenda that calls on Christians of all confessions to embark on a “new evangelical outreach.” He held up the persecuted Christians suffering around the world as a catalyst to work more earnestly for the unity that Christ calls us to. “May we never forget that our ecumenical journey is preceded and accompanied by an ecumenism already realized, the ecumenism of blood, which urges us to go forward” in our efforts toward unity, said Pope Francis.

At the gathering, the Pope intentionally sat at a common table, rectangular in shape, with no head seat. He said that his trip to Geneva was not only to reaffirm the Roman Catholic Church’s commitment to unity but also to encourage continued work together. He put forth his agenda for the gathering described in the motto for his trip, “walking, praying and working together.”

In walking together Pope Francis said we need to have a direction in mind, followed by real movement. He said this movement of ecumenism must be “in and out”: an inward movement of finding our unity in Christ and then to take this message, this Gospel, to the whole world. Prayer for Francis “is the oxygen of ecumenism,” adding “without prayer, communion becomes stifling and makes no progress, because we prevent the wind of the Holy Spirit from driving us forward.” In working together, Pope Francis said it’s wonderful that the WCC and RCC have worked together in an “ecumenical team spirit,” but did not hesitate to add that we could be better at addressing the world’s many problems from a vantage of unity. He said, “The credibility of the Gospel is put to the test by the way Christians respond to the cry of those, in every part of the world, who suffer unjustly from the baleful spread of an exclusion that, by generating poverty, foments conflicts.”

This practical approach to ecumenism focuses more on action than our doctrinal differences. He wants us to stop all the theological navel gazing and focus on working together to change the world in light of the Gospel imperatives that call us all to action. He said, “For me, to be a peace church is the mandate of God. I believe that all the churches that have this spirit of peace must come together and work together.”

In response, the Rev. Olav Tveit, general secretary of the WCC said, “It is the beginning and the end of all we should say and do together. It is the motivation given by God for the one mission of God — pursued in the ecumenical movement. We should not let anything or anybody and particularly not our differences as churches deter us from aspiring to and doing what fulfills this mission imperative.”

May we all have a new year filled with happiness, joy, good health and greater human unity!

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.