The Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, founded by Pope John XXIII in 1960, recently marked its 50th anniversary. Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, and Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, a top ecumenical representative for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, were both in Rome to share in this celebration. The Pontifical Council—originally known as the Secretariat for Christian Unity—was, according to Pope Benedict, “a milestone on the ecumenical journey of the Catholic Church.” Benedict added that its work over the last fifty years has been vital to “overcoming the sediments of historical prejudice.” I agree and have written elsewhere (Your Church Is Too Small) that the outcome of Vatican II impacted ecumenism as much as any single event in the last century. It really did open the window and allow us to begin to undo a great deal of the harm of the past centuries. I believe that we are really just beginning to see the fruit of the council in this area. The surface has only been scratched thus we must go far deeper in the 21st century.
Pope Benedict said, at the November 18 gathering, that there is a widespread belief that progress has stalled, and thus there is an “urgent need to revive ecumenical interest and give a fresh incisiveness to dialogue.” The Pope underscored the need for the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church to work seriously toward unity. This will not proceed quickly, so it seems, but it is more likely to happen than other efforts for unity between church communions.
The Pope also added that ecumenism is not “a commitment that falls into what could be called political categories, in which negotiating ability or greater capacity to reach compromise come into play.” He noted that ecumenical talks should always seek for the truth and can never be satisfied with mediated solutions to controversial problems. Once again I concur wholeheartedly. This is both the challenge and the opportunity in the decades ahead. Each of us can only take a small step since we do not know what the Spirit will do in this development.
But what can we do in the interim since so few of us might live to see the full fruit of what is happening today? The Pope said unity in prayer is always appropriate, and prayer will be an indispensable part of every successful ecumenical endeavor. He reminded the members of the Pontifical Council that “we do not know the time that the unity of all Christ's disciples will be achieved, and we cannot know it, because we do not 'make' unity, God 'makes' it.” Therefore all Christians should join in asking God for that precious gift, the Pope concluded. I would add that we can also read God’s Word together. We may not agree on how we “hear” it but we can hear it together. We can read, study and conduct serious dialogue seeking for Christ in his written word.
Does unity mean re-union? I am not persuaded that it does. I argue that it might include this and thus we should always be open to this happening since we must always be open to the Holy Spirit. But John 17 is plainly talking about our relationship with one another as disciples of the same Lord Jesus, not with the historical reality of one visible, unified church (sacramental) communion. Such a dream might bring many Christians together but it is unlikely that it ever bring us all together into one unified ecclesial context.