Bridge building is the one metaphor of true ecumenism that has stood out in my experience over the years. Having recently returned from Rome I call tell you that the “Eternal City” is a place of many bridges. Everywhere you walk there are bridges connecting this place and that, crossing the Tiber here and there and uniting people and churches.

Rome and Rivers Catholic Deacon Nathaniel Bacon, who convened the meeting I just returned from in Rome, wrote a few years ago:

In the modern age of instantaneous social networking, however,
this role can be obscured, and at times appear obsolete. Nonetheless, those people whose lives connect us to others in deep ways offer us an invaluable gift—they open us to the presence of the Holy Spirit in one another. The  entire ecumenical enterprise might be summed up as one of bridge-building.

Ecumenism presents the Christian with a myriad of frustrations and large disappointments. I know this personally as so many of those I know fear this idea and resist me for engaging it with all my heart. At the highest levels of church dialog the last ten years has seen a tremendous setback in global ecumenism. Yet unbelievable progress has been made in ecumenical bridge-building if you look over the past  50-100 years.

The formation of what became the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue made concrete a whole new Catholic bridge-building enterprise that invites all of us to consider our part in the prayer of John 17. I needed to see this firsthand in order to genuinely understand how truly powerful the impact of these councils are in the Roman context.

Vatican Before I left for Rome I did a lot of reading about the city and the numerous historic sites. I discovered, to my great delight, that the word “pontifical” (which brings to our mind the papacy) has an often forgotten etymology. The root of this word is “bridge.” As a sign of unity for the church, the successor of Peter is called, according to ancient Catholic faith, to be a bridge-builder. Yet the papacy has historically not been at the center of bridge building. This is what makes the pontificates of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI so magnificent in this regard.  In John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That they may all be one”), he powerfully called on all Catholics to engage in the pursuit of Christian unity; i.e. to be real bridge builders. He also recognized that the way papal primacy has been exercised in the last twelve centuries or more has presented a serious stumbling block to ecumenism. He invited the greater ecumenical community to engage in a “patient and fraternal dialogue” with him “to find a way of exercising the primacy, which while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

Our group of Christian leaders and missionaries gathered in Rome to pray and form deep friendships. We came to talk about a New Pentecost, a supernatural movement that would bring believers into unity, breaking down centuries old barriers of language, culture and practice. Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel, the place where humankind sought unity apart from God and found itself mired in confusion. The church seemed to turn toward Babel after the early centuries and today is waking up to the damage this has done to the mission of Christ.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the former head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said a few years ago: “Over the years, through the many ecumenical dialogues we have created an impressive stack of critical documents and agreements. Without diminishing their importance, we must remember that the Holy Spirit did not come as paper, but as fire. And fire burns up paper! What we need is a new Pentecost!”

Having spent time in Rome last week (March 7-15) praying and getting to know fellow ecumenists from many churches, and even many nations, I assure you this is truly our greatest need. What we sought in friendship and fellowship last week we enjoyed in the power of the Holy Spirit who indwelt each of us. Our prayer, small as it might have been with seven us, and no fanfare about our coming and going to speak about, is truly big. We prayed: “God send your blessed Spirit and refresh your people in this age. Grant us a new outpouring of divine mercy and unite us in the love of Christ.” I live for this. This is what my life and mission is truly all about: a New Pentecost that will bring God’s people together through the building of magnificent new bridges of grace and peace.