Ecumenism means recognizing our mutual gifts
The Second Vatican Council in its ecumenism document, Unitatis Redintegratio, clearly affirms the value of other Christian churches and ecclesial communities. Indeed, there are authentic elements of what constitutes a “church” in various Christian communities outside the Catholic Church; all should value and respect these genuine “ecclesial elements.”
Some examples of our mutual gifts are: Sacred Scripture, various sacraments, the life of grace, the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and even certain church institutions. These mutual gifts can be put at the service of a variety of people; they can also enhance the effectiveness of mission and evangelization in today’s world.
Other Christian communities may lack some of the structures that Catholics view as essential to being a church (e.g. the apostolic succession of bishops or a valid Eucharist). However, “the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation” (UR 3). Indeed, God uses these communities to save their members. Briefly stated, non-Catholic Christians are brought to salvation not despite their churches, but because and through them. Thus, we rejoice in God’s magnanimous, merciful love and compassion!
Practicing Ecumenism. The Vatican Council invited Catholics to begin actual ecumenical practices, not waiting until full communion is restored. Concrete ecumenical endeavors actually serve to move forward the progress toward Christian unity.
One may cite various concrete steps that can foster the ecumenical movement: (1) we avoid all negative stereotypes or false assumptions about other Christians; (2) dialogues between experts and leaders of various churches are encouraged; (3) members of various churches join mutual projects or initiatives that serve the poor and needy; (4) Christians may join in common prayer when appropriate; and, (5) each church commits itself to its own personal reform, self-renewal, conversion and transformation.
These various practices are encouraged in Unitatis Redintegratio in its second chapter (UR 5-12), entitled: “The Practice of Ecumenism.” There are opportunities to pray together (UR 5-8), learn together (UR 9-11), and work together (UR 12). All these common initiatives can pave the road toward Christian unity.
A Change of Heart is Needed. In promoting ecumenical practice, the Second Vatican Council noted that there can be no authentic ecumenism without sincere conversion and a change of heart. This is true because Christians often fail to live by the truths of their faith. Thus, the Church gives us the season of Lent each year as a time of purification, renewal, and conversion. Recall that at each Mass we begin by asking pardon for our sins and offenses.
Vatican II noted: “All the faithful should remember that the more effort they make to live holier lives according to the Gospel, the better they will further Christian unity and put it into practice. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love” (UR 7). Only with “renewed hearts” will all Christians make progress toward genuine fraternity and unity!
Knowing Our Christian Neighbors. Practical ecumenism begins with knowing and appreciating our “separated brethren,” our Christian neighbors. Since in our times cooperation in social matters (peace, justice, ecology, human rights) is widely valued and promoted, all Christians without exception are exhorted to engage in united social efforts. This imperative is laid upon all Christians, since they have been baptized in the name of Christ the Servant. Indeed, genuine ecumenism enhances our knowledge, appreciation, and service of our neighbors!