Last week the Roman Catholic Church celebrated ecumenism and Christian unity. I listened to a number of Catholics reflect on this vital theme on Catholic radio as I drove to speak last Sunday, January 25th. I then read a number of things on the Vatican Website as well. I reflected on how unlikely, or humanly impossible, this all would have been before Vatican II. There can never be too much emphasis placed upon how fundamentally Vatican II changed this whole context. In many ways it is now up to Protestants to respond in the right way. And that response is improving with every passing year.

One priest I heard last Sunday noted that we are in the same family. He served a small parish in Kentucky, in and among a predominantly Southern Baptist context for decades. He observed that you can't be the family of God and remain isolated from one another. But how can this happen, given our real and serious differences that still remain? He said: 1. We can worship together. (Much of what we do can be done except for the Mass he correctly observed.) 2. We can find and form deep relationships. This has proven to be the very best way that I have found that I can be a part of the whole family of God. I cannot change the big picture but I can make a small contribution to the family in small and faithful ways. I have many deep relationships with Catholics who love Christ as much or more than I do. This includes both priests and laity.

Ecumenism, said this same priest, is nothing more than "learning to connect the dots." What can I do, or not do, to advance Christian unity? The longer I am working at connecting the dots the more I am learning that surprises me. We have come a long way since my childhood in the 1950s. We still have a way to go but at least we are not trying to be the family and understand that we cannot afford the old animosity that once gripped almost all of us.

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  1. J. R. Miller January 31, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Hi John, I appreciate your heart for unity so maybe you are the perfect guy to help answer a couple questions.
    It is my understanding that even under Vatican II, protestants are not considered part of the true Church unless they submit to the authority of the Pope. Is this true? If yes, then how can we unite as “brothers” when non-RC are considered not true or full Christians who are unable to participate in the communion of Christ?
    Thanks in advance for your insight into this question.

  2. Joshua Nemecek February 3, 2009 at 12:41 am

    It would certainly depend on how “worship” and “forming relationships” is defined, but I would see joint-service as separate from the two. Coming together to accomplish the mission of Christ in showing his love to the world (where there is agreement in what that means) is a powerful demonstration of Christian unity.
    There is a lot of diversity in the church, and I think this is necessary, as God can’t be adequately portrayed from a single perspective. Finding common ground and coming together to accomplish The Great Commission through acts of service – this is the kind of love that bears witness.

  3. Nick Morgan February 3, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    J.R., in answer to your post; Protestants ARE considered members of the “True Church” (meaning Catholic) in Roman Catholic thinking since Vatican II. The “official” stance of the RCC is that Protestants are united to Christ through faith and baptism, and therefore are truly but imperfectly members of the Catholic Church as the Universal Body of Christ. We say “imperfect” meaning that since Protestants are not in full communion with the Pope, and don’t accept the sacramental teaching of the RCC, especially the nature of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist; then our union as true brothers and sisters in Christ is real but like a “distant relative” so to speak. The official term is “separated brethren”. I know it’s an ambiguous statement, and I don’t know any other way to express it. The RCC does believe that true salvation in Christ can be found among Protestant Christians.
    I am a Roman Catholic, and I accept what the Church teaches, but I often wonder if the depth of our union with Christ and each other is far more significant and mysterious than any of us realize. Because I know Protestants who truly love Jesus and have a very close walk with the Lord, like John Armstrong, so I won’t even try to comprehend what an imperfect union means. Any person who is truly united to Christ by faith and Trinitarian baptism IS my brother or sister in Christ. I hope this helps. God bless!

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