Exploring the meaning of ecumenism

Exploring the meaning of ecumenism

Many Catholics have inadequate and often confused ideas about ecumenism. The term is derived biblically from two Greek terms: oikodome (the household of God) and oikomene (the whole inhabited world).  Thus, ecumenism is directed toward the achievement of unity among all Christian churches and ultimately among all religious communities.

Ecumenism envisions unceasing efforts to draw Christians together through the renewal of the churches, in order to manifest the unity that Christ wills for his followers as well as for his one and only Church. The Second Vatican Council discussed ecumenism at length and on November 21, 1964 issued an entire document on the topic: Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism).

Promoting Christian Unity was envisioned by Pope John XXIII (now a canonized saint) as one important goal of Vatican II.  In fact, he established in 1960 a new department in the Vatican entitled: Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Later, Pope John Paul II (also a canonized saint) issued an encyclical on ecumenism (May 25, 1995); it bears the title Ut Unum Sint (That All Would Be One). Note that this title echoes Christ’s prayer at the last supper: “Father, may they all be one in us” (John 17:21).

Aspects of Ecumenism. Catholics have traditionally used the concept to describe a general or universal council, one that includes participation of the bishops representing the Church of “the whole world” (oikomene). The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is counted as the twenty-first ecumenical council; over the four years, nearly 3,000 Catholic bishops participated in Vatican II.

Protestants and other Christians have adopted the word “ecumenism” to describe those movements toward Christian unity that took place throughout the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, the very meaning of the word itself has changed and grown. Now it has overtones of sympathy, openness, and dialogue associated with this movement. 

An interesting historical fact is to note that two days after the opening of Vatican II on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII met with the non-Catholic observers whom he had invited to attend the Council. Instead of sitting on the papal throne as was customary, Pope John used a chair similar to those used by the observers; he sat at their level. This small symbolic gesture of equality made a deep impression on all the participants.

Brief Historical Details. It is a historical fact that the twentieth century was the century of the ecumenical movement. This movement began first among Protestants who hoped to better coordinate their missionary work. It grew into a series of various international gatherings that discussed some questions of doctrine as well as missionary practice. An important milestone came in 1948, when representatives from 147 Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches established the World Council of Churches (WCC).

New attitudes toward ecumenical initiatives began to emerge in the Catholic Church in the 1950s. A significant breakthrough came with the 1958 election of Saint Pope John XXIII. His openness to other Christians, flowing from his experience as papal representative in various countries of Eastern Europe, alarmed some other people in the Vatican. They were fearful of his constant emphasis on the need for Christian unity.

From the very beginning, John XXIII saw the movement toward Christian unity as one of the principal objectives of the Second Vatican Council. He engaged the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity to help prepare for Vatican II. Most significantly, he brushed aside various precedents; he invited about sixty Protestants and Orthodox to come to Vatican II as official observers.  Indeed, we marvel at John XXIII’s openness to the Holy Spirit’s inspirations!