Christian Unity: History, Guidelines, Practice
Brief Historical Sketch. A glance at the two millennia of Christian history is helpful in appreciating our current reality. In the year 313 the Christian faith and the Church became legally recognized under the Roman Emperor, Constantine I. Then, in 380 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
In 1054, the first great division occurred and the Church separated into the Orthodox Church in the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West. Then in the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation brought the next great division. Protestantism emerged with several strands: Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Baptists and numerous other denominations.
In recent decades, several significant efforts have been made to mitigate and heal these divisions. In 1960 Saint Pope John XXIII established in Rome the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity. On January 6, 1964 Saint Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of the Orthodox Church met on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; they prayed together and exchanged the kiss of peace. On October 31, 2016, almost 500 years after Martin Luther’s protest, Pope Francis traveled to Sweden, met with prominent Lutherans, and urged atonement and Christian reconciliation. These are a few significant steps on the long road to Christian Unity.
Vatican II Guidelines. The Second Vatican Council carefully examined the many diverse challenges facing the restoration of Christian unity. In the document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio: UR (18), the Council offered clear directives to foster genuine unity. “This Sacred Council solemnly repeats the declaration of previous Councils and Roman Pontiffs, that for the restoration or the maintenance of unity and communion, it is necessary ‘to impose no burden beyond what is essential’ (Acts 15:28).”
“It is the Council’s urgent desire that, in the various organizations and living activities of the Church, every effort should be made toward the gradual realization of this unity, especially by prayer, and by fraternal dialogue on points of doctrine and the more pressing pastoral problems of our time.”
“Similarly, the Council commends the shepherds and faithful of the Catholic Church to develop closer relations with … [other Christians], so that friendly collaboration with them may increase, in the spirit of love, to the exclusion of all feeling of rivalry or strife.” All these initiatives will bear fruit, help remove the barriers that divide Christians, and focus believers on Christ Jesus, the true cornerstone of Christian faith.
Ecumenism in Daily Life. Near the conclusion of the Vatican II document on ecumenism (UR 23), the Council praises how our “separated brethren” authentically live their Christian faith. “The daily life of these brethren is nourished by their faith in Christ and strengthened by the grace of Baptism and hearing the Word of God. This shows itself in their private prayer, their meditation on the Bible, in their Christian family life, and in the worship of a community gathered together to praise God.”
“Their faith in Christ bears fruit in praise and thanksgiving for the blessings received from the hands of God. Among them, too, is a strong sense of justice and a true charity toward their neighbor. This active faith has been responsible for many organizations for the relief of spiritual and material distress, the furtherance of the education of youth, the improvement of the social conditions of life, and the promotion of peace throughout the world.”
Indeed, both genuine ecumenical discussion and concrete practice can profitably begin by observing these authentic Christian practices and virtues; then, all Christians can commit themselves to giving “common witness” to the Christian faith concretely lived in daily life.