Monday, October 1, 2012

Christian Unity: The Work of ALL Catholics

I was minding my own business last January when I received a phone call from a gentleman who identified himself as Brother Jeffrey Gros, FSC, scholar-in-residence at Lewis University (next door to our pastoral center), requesting a meeting. He told me he had come to the university to teach, but because of low demand for a new degree program, he had time available and wanted to offer his services to the diocese. Interested, but not realizing what I was getting into, I agreed to meet.

That's how my journey into the subject of what Catholics don't know, but should know about ecumenism began. Brother Jeff has a message for all Catholics and he has worked tirelessly for years to get the word out:  All Christians are ONE.  Despite our differences, essentially, we are still, and always have been, one church through baptism in Jesus Christ.  The work we have to do is about finding our essential unity amid the diversity - and sorting out what we do and do not share.  The work that parish and diocesan religious educators need to do is to raise awareness, to educate Catholics for unity, as well as for what makes us specifically Catholic.  We need both. In reality we are mostly only doing one of these, and for many Catholics, that has resulted in some degree of triumphalism about the Catholic Church and an obscuring of the true nature of our relationship to other Christians.

Pope John Paul II's Ut unum sint ("That All May Be One", 1995)  puts it simply and unequivocally:

The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God. For this reason he sent his Son, so that by dying and rising for us he might bestow on us the Spirit of love. On the eve of his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus himself prayed to the Father for his disciples and for all those who believe in him, that they might be one, a living communion. This is the basis not only of the duty, but also of the responsibility before God and his plan, which falls to those who through Baptism become members of the Body of Christ, a Body in which the fullness of reconciliation and communion must be made present. How is it possible to remain divided, if we have been "buried" through Baptism in the Lord's death, in the very act by which God, through the death of his Son, has broken down the walls of division? Division "openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature". The way of ecumenism: the way of the Church   (UUS, 6)
He goes even further:  "To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father's plan from all eternity." (UUS, 9)  He further explains that even though we have real differences with other Christians, there already exists a basis for our unity:  "Indeed, the elements of sanctification and truth present in the other Christian Communities, in a degree which varies from one to the other, constitute the objective basis of the communion, albeit imperfect, which exists between them and the Catholic Church." (UUS, 11)

The pope then quotes the Decree on Ecumenism (3):  "All those justified by faith through Baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honoured by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord by the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church".  

Notice the verb "ARE properly regarded".  Other Christians are already part of the family of the Church.  And yet, most Catholics chortle with glee when someone "swims the Tiber" or "comes home" to the Catholic Church.  A careful reading of Ut unum sint and other documents on ecumenism reveals how wrong this point of view is.  According to John Paul II, we need to recover our recognition of the essential unity and, through continual study and dialog, discern how we can become closer.  The Church, thankfully, has been working hard to do that.  A quick perusal of the ecumenical page on the USCCB website shows just how hard. We have agreements and standing dialogues with a number of  other Christian denominations. In fact, we have drawn closer, especially to our Lutheran and Anglican brother and sisters.

The biggest issue is that most ordinary Catholics know little or nothing about these ongoing activities. That is the heart of Brother Jeff's mission.  He has authored books for directors of religious education and school principals, and he continues to give workshops and presentations - some in our diocese.

He and I recently collaborated on a re-working of the 5-week University of Dayton online course for the Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation,  re-titling it "Ecumenism in Parish Life".  Its first offering will begin on October 14.  If you think you want to know more about why ecumenical awareness is necessary in Catholic parish ministry, sign up today.  Here is the course description.  Join us for a mind-expanding journey into the significance of unity and the practical implications for religious education of children, youth and adults, RCIA and celebration of the sacraments.


  1. For the sake of brevity (Ha!) case for ecumenism and recognition of fundamental unity is well taken. But the tension between that unity and the claims of the Catholic Church to hold the fullness of faith cannot be lost either. WElcome to the one who "swims the Tiber" is most appropriate - a tragic separation has been overcome. As in so many areas of our life as a church - the two aspects must be held in tension or an error occurs.

  2. Certainly, Kate. However, nothing prevents us from regarding non-Catholic Christians as already part of the family of Christ - and our expectation must not always simply be that they become Catholic or they are "not good enough". We can work toward and honor the unity and fellowship in Christ that already binds us more than it separates us. This is what our Popes have been doing ever since Vatican II... and we are much closer, through dialogues and agreements to reuniting with some denominations than most people may realize.

    A simple analogy would be if your father's brother has had a falling out with the family and no longer comes to Thanksgiving dinner. That makes him no less still a part of the family - and reaching out to speak to him may indeed bring him back. Even if it does not, it may heal some wounds. The reaching out is worth doing regardless of the end result.