‘The mission of the church, the vision of its unity’

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Last column I shared with you that the Roman Catholic Church officially responded to the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) document “The Church: Towards a Common Vision.” Some of the salient points of the document are: Missio Dei — God’s plan for the world and the Church’s role in that plan, Communion in the triune God, the theology of the Church as communion (koinonia), the importance of prayer and work for unity, the Church as sign and servant of unity, essential elements of communion/koinonia, and the Church in the world and society — the kingdom of God.

One of the enduring obstacles to Christian unity is our divergent understandings of the nature and purpose of the church. This study initiated and published by the WCC in 2012 is just now being addressed by Catholic experts in ecclesiology and ecumenism. Looking through the lens of the theology of the church as enunciated in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (especially Gaudium et Spes — The Church in the Modern World), a response was given.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued its official response to the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission (FOC) stating, “This process has involved consultations with episcopal conferences around the world, as well as consideration of responses prepared by individual theologians, including both lay and ordained, academic study groups, and ecclesial movements. After due study of these contributions by the members of the drafting team, several working sessions were organized in Rome and a draft of the response was prepared.”

After much consultation with various experts and editors, the official Catholic response was ultimately approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “The response shows that ‘The Church: Towards a Common Vision’ synthesizes well the growing consensus in the field of ecclesiology in the current ecumenical dialogue. At the same time it points out various aspects which need further reflection on the nature and the mission of the church, as well as on the vision of its unity.”

The Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC, is said to have received with joy the response that the Catholic Church made. He said, “’The Church: Towards a Common Vision’ is a landmark in the ecumenical movement and the dialogues towards visible unity. Significant common ground has been established and many common features in our traditions have been identified. Many churches have contributed to the reception process,” he said, adding that the response from the Catholic Church is another landmark in this process. “The response builds on a very comprehensive and wide process in the Roman Catholic Church,” noted Tveit. “The response is a sign of how we are walking, working and praying together. We have more to do, and more need to pray for the unity of the church. But we are committed to make it a unity that can be sustainable in its diversity and mutual accountability. The WCC receives this text and all responses with gratitude and hope, as we take our role as convening agent in the one ecumenical movement, building the viable road to visible unity, together with the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Rev. Dr. Susan Durber, moderator of the WCC’s FOC, said that the response from the Roman Catholic Church has been received with great joy. “It is encouraging to read a response that affirms how far we have come in common understanding and that exhibits such strong commitment to continuing on the journey towards visible unity, promising to ‘spare no effort.’” She added, “There are some notes that might surprise some readers; a call for more on ‘a personal encounter with Jesus Christ’, and encouragement that a theology of priesthood needs to be related to a theology of baptism, an emphasis on the local church, and affirmation of the essential missionary nature of the church.” She also said that this dialogue between the WCC and Roman Catholic Church is an opportunity “to explore more together the meaning of sacramentality, to reflect on ecumenical spirituality, and to see more fully how we have often been looking in different ways at the same reality. The Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, on which the Roman Catholics serve as full members, is deeply grateful for the gift of this response, a gift to the ecumenical movement.”

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