The Duty of Ecumenism

In 1995, Pope John Paul II released a Church document entitled “Ut Unum Sint” (That They May Be One) to lay the groundwork for ecumenism and embolden each Catholic in their pursuit of unity in the Church.  He stated with firm conviction that “the Catholic Church embraces with hope the commitment to ecumenism as a duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love.”  Working towards unity with our separated brethren is not optional: it is a duty.  Completely arrested by the finality of JP2 mandate, I decided to dedicate Lent 2016 to pursing a deeper understanding of Church unity.  As one who did not grow up in a Catholic family, I have experienced first-hand the sting of disunity: going to Christmas Eve Mass by myself, not being able to share in the Eucharist with my parents, the clash of language.  However, my posture had always been one of evangelization, not ecumenism.  My impulse was to defend and convert, to wield my sword of truth.  The ache originated from my own pride which manifested itself as a desire to be right, not as a desire for unity.  It is a subtle but important difference.

In his genius, JP2 anticipated my reaction and general attitude towards non-Catholics and argued that ecumenism can in fact become a form of examination of conscience.  Our disposition towards others reveals our own poverty and inadequacy in carrying out truth in love.  Witnessing Christians living out their faith differently than ours arouses feelings of self-righteousness, when in reality, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (John 1:8-9).

I witnessed this quite vividly last Lent, when I decided to visit a Protestant church each Sunday after Mass until Easter.  I believed that worshipping with a different group of people might be a gesture of good measure in my pursuit of ecumenism.  What I found instead was my complete inability to worship: I was distracted by all that was different from my own parish, I silently criticized the music, the sermon, the prayers.  My own fractured heart was incapable of admitting that I could receive something from Protestants that I couldn’t receive from Catholics. Again crept in the lie that I was a better and more authentic Christian because of my Catholicity.  An examination of conscience indeed.  I returned to Ut Unum Sint and discovered that the Church suggested antidotes for this very issue: prayer, worship, and dialogue.

When we pray with non-Catholics, we turn to our common Lord Jesus Christ and orient our hearts towards unity, a fuller and more vivid icon of the Church, His Bride.  As one speaker said, Jesus is returning for a bride, not a harem. Jesus’ Bride is more beautiful to Him when she is united and seeking reconciliation.  Common worship accomplishes the same goal, by inviting others to sing with us to God, we are a prophetic witness of Heaven when all of God’s children will sing to Him with one voice.  Finally, sincere and open dialogue is a manifestation of an interior disposition; “the capacity for “dialogue” is rooted in the nature of the person and his dignity” (JP2). When we engage in dialogue, we uphold the dignity that God has instilled in each person.  Thus, withholding dialogue is a negation of that very same dignity.

A year later, as I prepare for another Lent, I am even more eager to continue the work of unity and convicted of my own limitations.  It is significant that in His High Priestly Prayer at the Last Supper, Jesus prays four times for unity (John 17). It is one of His last pleas.  I encourage each one of you to pray the same prayer this Lent, that we be one with our non-Catholic friends just as Christ and the Father are one.



Cardinal Bergoglio being prayed over by Pentecostal leaders in Argentina


Blog post written by Katherine H.


Additional resources:


Ut Unum Sint

Talk by Matt Maher on Ecumenism

Panel at an ecumenical Catholic-Protestant conference on Church unity.

Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian mission in the third millennium by First Things

Ecumenism Without Compromise by Peter Kreeft


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