Dominus Iesus and Ecumenical Dialogue

Author: Cardinal Cahal B. Daly


Cardinal Cahal B. Daly
Archbishop Emeritus of Armagh, Ireland

I begin with some comments on the media presentation of Dominus Iesus,for I believe that this illustrates the difficulties of having calm and serious dialogue in an age of high-speed communication and instant response.

Speed of communications

The speed of communications in our age is a great achievement of modern information technology and can be an immense factor for good. At the same time it places great problems on the shoulders of conscientious journalists; and it also creates difficulties for serious discussion about issues of profound religious importance. A declaration about Church doctrine which, of its nature, uses theological language and requires careful reading and even study, is released to the public at a press conference in Rome and then transmitted through the networks of the world press. Journalists, often without any theological formation, scan the document quickly—for speed along the information highway is a priority in modern communications. In journalistic terms, a feature of religious news is that the interest in the general public is assumed to be a minority one, and the attention span is assumed to be short. Consequently, it is felt that religious news must be given special "angles" to make it interesting. In other words, it must be presented as new, confrontational, and related to contemporary stereotypes in such terms as "hard line" or "moderate", "conservative" or "liberal", "reactionary" or "progressive", "fundamentalist" or "forward looking", etc. In the case of papal statements, further stereotypes come into play: is the statement a case of "Pope versus Vatican Council", or "Pope versus Curia", or an indication of a "power struggle in the Vatican"? The terms are by now entirely standardized.

As soon as the document is released, a précis, which is already a selective interpretation of the text, is flashed with maximum speed around the media outlets and news desks of the world. What arrives on news desks is a short summary, "angled" by the sending syndicate or agency along such lines as I have suggested. The resultant headlines are predictable, and it is these which create the first impressions the general public receive about the text in question. It is very difficult later for either Church spokespersons or for responsible journalists to modify these first impressions. The original text has also been put out on the Internet, but the imperative of speed leaves no time to read this. At this stage, the national media begin to trawl, often by telephone, for immediate reactions. The person telephoned has, in most cases, not even seen, much less read, the document. The journalist will almost certainly have read only the agency précis. When the respondent replies that he or she has not read the document, the journalist may well oblige by quoting from the agency report. The respondent, also anxious to oblige, may comment on what he or she hears; but this may be a serious misrepresentation of the text, or be a sentence quoted out of context and unrepresentative of the document as a whole. It might be thought prudent, in such circumstances, to refrain from comment until one has read the entire document. This admittedly, is made difficult by the speed and urgency of modern communications.

I am not suggesting that there is any malice in this process at any level; but clearly theological dialogue is extremely difficult in this kind of context. First reports and early headlines, followed by first reactions, can give the document a label which is very hard to remove and may give the debate a direction which it is nearly impossible later to change. Dominus Iesus suffered even more than most documents of its kind in this process. More thought needs to be given in Rome and also at the level of Episcopal Conferences and Dioceses to the method of publication and distribution and explanation of Roman documents. Such documents are a service to Bishops and theologians and they too have a responsibility in respect of their diffusion and correct understanding. Perhaps an official summary could be issued along with the document, outlining its main points in simpler language, so as to avert misunderstandings. I believe, however, that it is now possible and timely to pause and read the document more calmly and make a more balanced appraisal of it.

Interreligious dialogue

By far the greater part of the Declaration is not concerned at all with relations between divided Christians, but with relations between Christianity and non-Christian religions. In this regard, the main purpose of the document is stated in its opening pages. Firstly, it sought to challenge, in the light of God's revealed word, relativistic theories, currently in vogue, which tend to suggest that all religions are equal, and that JesusChrist is only one among many manifestations of God in human history, and that Christianity is one of many expressionsof divine truth. Secondly, the document aimed at giving reasons for and giving impetus to the evangelizing mission of the Church, especially as this encounters the other religious traditions of the world.

Relativism, particularly in respect of religious or moral truth, is characteristic of the present so-called "postmodern" age. It is in part a response to the increasing ethnic and racial, ideological and religious, pluralism which is now thesituation in most countries, particularly in the Western hemisphere. Christian missionaries and theologians are now better informed than formerly about the content of the great world religionsand more conscious of the truth and value present in them. It consequently becomes more difficult to accept any position which might be interpreted as claiming that Christianity has a monopoly of truth, or even a privileged grasp of truth, compared to other religious traditions. The question is also inescapable, as to the source of the truth and value of other religious traditions, many of whose members may never even have heard of Christ. These are real questions, and theologians have in recent times had to grapple with them. New "theologies of religious pluralism" have been put forward.

The questions are complex and relatively new. It is scarcely to be expected that all the theologians would get all the answers right from the start. Some of the answers given, or at least implied, in some of the initial speculations would distinguish between a "theocentric" economy of salvation, which embraces all religious traditions, and a "Christocentric" economy which embraces only the Christian tradition. Others would distinguish between an "economy of the Holy Spirit", which is universal and all-embracing, and an "economy of the incarnate Logos", which is limited to those within the Christian faith. The one God and one Holy Spirit would thus be responsible for several different and even conflicting "economies" of salvation.

The Declaration declares emphatically that such theories are "in profound conflict" with divinely revealed truth and are "contrary to the Christian faith". The first three chapters of the document abound in quotations from Holy Scripture and are, in fact, a firm restatement of standard Christian teaching, common to all Christian denominations. In this section we find all the biblical texts which are so strongly emphasized in the Reformed tradition, about Jesus Christ as the one mediator, the one Lord and Saviour, the "only name under heaven given to mankind whereby we must be saved", and about the Bible as the only divinely inspired Word of God in written form. The document quotes the Second Vatican Council, which declared: "By [God's] revelation the deepest truth about God and the salvation of mankind shines forth in Christ, who is at the same time the mediator and the fullness of revelation" (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, n. 2).

Indeed, in the first two-thirds of the document (23 pages out of 36) I believe that there is hardly a sentence which is not a reflection of the shared mainstream belief of all Christian denominations, founded, as this belief is, on the Word of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ and the Word of God in written form in the Bible. I suggest that a clear and firm declaration of this shared doctrine is itself a valuable form of ecumenical sharing and a positive contribution to the search for Christian unity. As such, indeed, and to that extent, this part of the declaration, which is in fact its major part, has been welcomed in varying degrees by leading members of other denominations, for example by Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury, by Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore, by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr Trevor Morrow, and by the President of the Protestant Churches of Germany. Indeed, the latter likened this part of the declaration to the famous Barmen Declaration of 1934, issued by the Protestant "Confessing Church" in Germany in reaction to the so-styled "German Church" fostered by Adolf Hitler. Would it not be a wonderful thing if all the Irish denominations could together produce their own agreed "Barmen Declaration" of their common faith in the one Lord and only Saviour, Jesus Christ, whose universal lordship they jointly and joyfully proclaim in face of an increasingly faithless Europe? Meanwhile, however, this, the major portion of Dominus Iesus, has been barely noticed in some reports of the Declaration and in some of the responses to it.

As to the charge that a claim to truth is "triumphalist", it must be said that truth is not something one "possesses" but something one is "possessed by"; not something one "owns" as a trophy, but something one "submits to" as a duty. It is not "my truth", but "the truth", which is independent of me and has objective claims on my assent. This is the case even at the philosophical level. How much more is it the case at the level of faith, where conscience is confronted with truth revealed by God, truth which is, quite literally, "as true as God". There is no "superiority" in one's obeying it, once convinced of its truth, only sinfulness in disobeying it. It is not held in any spirit of "triumph" on our part, but accepted as a gracious and gratuitous gift from God, and treasured as a privilege of which we are not worthy. Divinely revealed truth judges us; it does not allow us to judge anyone else.It is the final truth, which shall not be superseded;but for us, it is a beginning of learning and a challenge to ever deeper understanding of "things beyond the mind of man" (St Paul, 2 Cor 2:9). As Pope John Paul II has put it, this is "a universal and absolute truth which stirs the human mind to ceaseless effort"(Fides et ratio, n. 14).

Inter-Church relations

The negative reactions to the Declaration have, in the main, been based on one short chapter, namely chapter IV, on "The Unicity and Unity of the Church". This occupies just over three pages of a totalof 36 pages of the Declaration, and yet it has attracted much more attention than the rest of the document. The negative and sometimes very sharp reaction here was, though in a minor degree, influenced by the conflation in the initial press reports of Dominus Iesus with a separate document from the same Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, entitled, Note onthe term "SisterChurches". Thisconflation inevitably affected some initial reactions to the Declaration, although the theme of "Sister Churches" is not treated of in the Declaration itself. The note in question is concerned to establish what it calls a "correct theological terminology" among Catholic theologians and to achieve consistency in Roman Catholic usage of this term throughout the wide variety of dialogues in which the Catholic Church is currently engaged. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is at the present time engaged in no less than 14 inter-Church dialogues, with their appropriate mixed commissions, and is in touchwith a multitude of national dialogues and with the World Council of Churches. The Catholic Church is naturally concerned to display consistency in its self-understanding and its self-definition throughout the entire range of these dialogues, where it meets with a very wide variety of doctrinal and theological positions, whether Orthodox, Reformed, Pentecostal or other. Such consistency is obviously of vital importance in the whole ecumenical enterprise.

The aim of Dominus Iesus is, of course, similar to that of the Note. The Declaration insists that the one Church founded by Christ and entrusted to the Apostles, with Peter as their leader and head, "continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church". In the same sentence, however, the Declaration continues by saying "on the other hand, that outside of her structure, many elements of sanctification and truth are found in those churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church". The text goes on to add that "with respect to these, it must be stated that these (elements) derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church". Cardinal Ratzinger, however, in an interview in a German newspaper emphatically rebutted the charge that the Declaration denies "ecclesial reality" to other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. He said: "There is also an ecclesial reality outside the Catholic community".

Nevertheless, the language of the Declaration inevitably caused resentment among both the Orthodox and the Ecclesial Communities issuing from the Protestant Reformation. Almost all of this paragraph, however, consists of direct quotation from the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium) and the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio).The fact is that criticisms of Dominus Iesus in this regard should rather be directed against the Second Vatican Council itself. Some critics of the Declaration have in fact admitted this and have declared that it is really the basic ecclesiological premises of Vatican II which are wrong.

One new feature of the Declaration is that it offers an important clarification of the term "subsists in". This term was chosen by the Council to express two complementary principles of the Catholic Church's self-understanding and of its approach to the relationship between the Catholic Church and the other Christian denominations. The Declaration affirms that there are two doctrinal statements, neither of which can be downplayed: firstly, that the one Church of Christ already visibly exists, here and now, in and only in the Catholic Church; secondly and inseparably, that outside of (the) structure (of the Catholic Church) many of the means of saving grace and of sanctification exist, which come from the same Holy Spirit of Christ, who has entrusted the "very fullness of grace and truth" to the Catholic Church. These other Christians, through their baptism, are indeed "incorporated into Christ, and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church." The "elements" to which the Vatican Council referred are described in the Decree on Ecumenism, from which the Declaration is here quoting. The Decree elaborates on these "elements of sanctification and truth" as follows: "Some, even very many, of the most significant elements or endowments which together go to build up and give life to the [Catholic] Church herself can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, along with other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit and visible elements" (Unitatisredintegratio, n. 3). Cardinal Ratzinger himself has admitted that the term "elements" used by the Vatican Council is perhaps not the best term that could have been used.

Be that as it may, this passage is the source and the context of the Council's term "ecclesial communities". The communions issuing from the Protestant Reformation are not "Church" in the same sense in which the Catholic Church sees itself as being Church, but they are not just groupings of individuals; they do have "ecclesial reality".

The "respect and affection" expressed by the Vatican Council, and the warmth of the phrase "brothers and sisters in the Lord" used in its Decree on Ecumenism, are in no way withdrawn or altered by Dominus Iesus. They are, in fact, presupposed by it, as the Declaration's many references to that Decree sufficiently indicate.

Inevitably, however, the language has been seen by many—and even by some Catholics— as at best patronizing, as "triumphalist", and by a few as insulting. In a short chapter, in a Declaration concerned primarily with interfaith rather than intra-Christian relations, the Declaration could not have been expected to deal fully with relationships between the Catholic Church and other Christians. Dominus Iesus is explicitly addressed to Catholics; it is not intended to be an ecumenical document as such. It certainly does not discourage ecumenical dialogue; on the contrary, it calls attention to issues which are indispensable for fruitful ecumenical dialogue. It is already clear from experience of bilateral and multilateral dialogues, especially with the Reformed, that questions of ecclesiology are fundamental: hence the issues of the nature of the Church and its relation to Christ, and the related issues of apostolic succession, Eucharist and priesthood and episcopate, the sacraments, the Petrine primacy, cannot be evaded. Some might say, these are divisive issues and should be left aside. The truth is that, precisely because they are divisive issues, they cannot be ignored. We must have confidence in the Holy Spirit, who is present in the process of ecumenical dialogue. Experience has shown that positions hitherto thought irreconcilable can be gradually brought closer together. Nothing is impossible to God in whom we trust.

What has to be faced is that Dominus Iesus does state basic elements of the Catholic Church's self-understanding and self-definition. The Catholic Church has never attempted in dialogue to present itself otherwise. This has not prevented very real progress in ecumenical relations and in inter-Church dialogue. Clarity and consistency in doctrinal statements cannot be an enemy of ecumenism, for all authentic ecumenical dialogue must be based on the truth, spoken by each Church, but spoken in love and in mutual respect, and indeed affection, and spoken in a spirit, not just of readiness, but of eagerness to be enlightened and enriched by the truth of the others.

Harmony with Council and Pope

It was disappointing that the Declaration was seen as a departure from the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. It was particularly unfortunate, and surely painful to Cardinal Ratzinger, that the Declaration was perceived as in disaccord with the thinking of Pope John Paul II, or indeed as not having been formerly and fully endorsed by him. The Pope himself, in fact, in an unprecedented gesture, availed himself of a Sunday Angelus statement on 1 October last, to express regret about "erroneous interpretations" of the Declaration and to affirm that the Declaration was "approved by him in a special way", and that it was "close to his heart" (L'OsservatoreRomano, 4 October 2000). There should not have been need for that formal endorsement. Many of the central themes of Dominus Iesus had been already explicitly and extensively developed by the Pope himself in several documents, particularly in the Encyclicals Redemptoris missio (1990) and Ut unum sint (1995), as well as in the Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (1999), all of which are quoted in the Declaration. Any suggestion of a divergence of thought or of approach is quite fanciful; it seems to me that there is a remarkable harmony of mind and spirit between the Cardinal and the Pope.

With respect to the harmony of the Declaration with the Second Vatican Council, it has to be said that the Declaration frequently uses quotations from the documents of the Council to expound and to develop its own theses. Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have been himself taken by surprise by some interpretations to the contrary which were put upon the Declaration. In the lengthy interview to which I have referred he robustly defended the Declaration against any such charge, insisting that there is no new teaching in the document.In that interview, he declared. "I wish that there had been no need to explain that the Declaration ... has merely taken up the Council's texts and thepost-conciliar documents, neither adding nor removing anything". He pointed out that, for example, the Lutheran Church structures are not the Church in the sense in which the Catholic Church intends to be so and that they themselves have no wish to be so. He declares that, having been present himself at the Second Vatican Council, when the phrase "subsists in" was chosen, he knows well why the phrase was chosen.

In fact, the Declaration is very close to the ecclesiological thinking of such great conciliar and post-conciliar theologians as Yves Congar, Jean Tillard and Avery Dulles, all of whom have also been leaders on the Catholic side in the ecumenical movement. Yves Congar once described his own life's work as having been marked by a "passion for unity". In 1968, expounding the Vatican Council's term, "the Church as universal sacrament of salvation", Congar used language which is very similar to that of Dominus Iesus. He wrote: "The necessity to belong to the Church is not founded on any absolute value the Church has in itself, but on the fact that Christ is the one mediator between God and mankind and that he is the unique point at which the other world has touched ours.... This truth [the Church as universal sacrament of salvation] comprises two assertions: (1) the Church is the only institution created and ordained by God to procure for humankind the salvation which is found in Jesus Christ; (2) the Church has received from its Founder everything that is needed to procure the salvation of the whole of humanity. This is exactly the content of truth expressed by the idea of the Church as universal sacrament of salvation" (CetteÉglise que jaime, pp.52, 62).

Ten years later, in 1987, in one of his last conversations, Congar said: "Jesus Christ is the absolute and unsurpassable religion ... the criterion of any possible relation with God.... He is that, not by the exclusion of other factors, possibly other religions, but by inclusion. The perspective is changed a great deal when it is inclusive and not exclusive".

Given the doctrinal purpose of Dominus Iesus, it was not possible to develop these points extensively in the Declaration; but they are presupposed by it. Cardinal Kasper has pointed out that the discussion since the publication of Dominus Iesus has explained its contents more satisfactorily.

Indeed, Dominus Iesus is fundamentally in continuity with the conviction of the Church from the early centuries onward. Indeed in the Prologue of St John's Gospel we read that "the Word was the true light that enlightens all people, and he was coming into the world" (Jn 1:9). Justin Martyr, in the middle of the second century, is quite explicit: "Whatever has been uttered aright by any men in any place belongs to us Christians; for, next to God, we worship and love the reason which is from the unbegotten and ineffable God; since on our account he has been made man.... For all the [pre-Christian] authors were able to see the truth darkly, through the implanted seed of the Word dwelling in them" (Apology 11, 13).

In the fourth century, St Hilary of Poitiers, in his treatise on the Trinity, prayed that the pastors of the Church in his time might follow the example of the prophets and the Apostles "and assign the right shade of meaning to every utterance they made", and, like them, proclaim that the one Lord Jesus Christ is not to be thought of as one of a number of gods ... or acknowledged as other than true God, who has been born of you the true God and Father …". He prayed: "Bestow on us the right use of terms, give light to our understanding and an agreeable style to our words. Grant us loyalty to the truth" (De Trinitate 1:38).

Dominus Iesus certainly has, as a statement of Catholic faith, the "right use of terms", and "loyalty to the truth". Does it find "an agreeable style of words"? Several respected commentators, while completely endorsing its substance, have expressed reservations about its style. Cardinal Schönborn has said that the substance of the Declaration is essential, but "the style could be questioned". Others, like Archbishop Daucourt of Orléans, expressed similar doubts about the style, while fully supporting the content. Others have suggested that, since the central concern of the Declaration is not relations between the Christian Churches, but the relations between Christ and the Church on the one hand and non-Christian religions on the other, it might have been better to omit this chapter altogether. Since, however, as the Catholic Church sees Christ as inseparably united with the Church, which is his body, it would be impossible, in a declaration of Catholic teaching, to treat adequately of the unicity and universality of salvation in Christ without also treating of the unicity and universality and unity of the Church in all of its relations with those outside its communion. At the same time, however, the document, following the Vatican Council, explicitly recognizes that the situation of separated Christians is quite distinct from that of non-Christians. Separated Christians are in various degrees of communion with the Catholic Church; they do have their ecclesial reality; their members are our brothers and sisters in Christ. The saving power which comes from Christ through his Church reaches also beyond the visible boundaries of the Church.

The Declaration recognizes that much work remains to be done by theologians in further exploring the implications of these truths and the ways in which the above two complementary statements of doctrine can both be true together. The Declaration stresses that its purpose is not to impede theological research but to recall those truths of divine revelation which are relevant to theological exploration in these areas, and to indicate that some of the theological propositions which have been advanced as solutions of these problems are not acceptable because they are in conflict with revealed truths. The Catholic Church believes that the Successor of Peter has the right and above all the duty, with the help of his collaborators, to adjudicate. Congar has quoted St Thomas Aquinas as saying that the teaching authority of the Church has been given by Christ the task of keeping all of us in the Church faithful to the Revelation once given by God through Jesus Christ, his Son. Aquinas wrote: "The role of the Vicar of Christ and the significance of his primacy and his office is that, as a faithful servant, he should keep the whole Church submissive to Christ" (Contra errores Graecorum, 16).

The Declaration could be said to seem to lack the warmth of affection and respect for other Churches which characterize Vatican II and which have happily become usual in our time, and which indeed are particularly marked in the attitude and actions and writings of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and the present Pope John Paul II. I repeat, however, that the Declaration is addressed to Catholics and is intended to reaffirm for them basic truths of Catholic faith. At the same time, all of the sentiments which are a feature of ecumenical dialogue are presupposed by Dominus Iesus, which abounds in quotations from these sources and which obviously shares their spirit. In particular, Pope John Paul II's Ut unum sint is copiously quoted, and the tone of this document is particularly warm and his message remarkably humble. In no way does Dominus Iesus either intend to convey a different message, or in fact do so. Truth, spoken in love, cannot be in conflict with the ecumenical spirit. The language of this Declaration may be considered terse, but it simply restates the well-known positions which have already served well in the ecumenical dialogue so energetically pursued by the Catholic Church over the past 30 years.

'Excess' and 'defect' in Churches

Particular exception was taken to the use by the Declaration of such terms as "not Churches in the proper sense", or "suffer from defects" , as applied to other denominations in the Declaration. The reaction is understandable, even if several Protestant spokespersons have, with admirable candour, admitted that their Churches equally regard the Catholic Church as being in error and as suffering from defects. I doubt that any other denomination in Ireland sees itself as being "Church" in the same sense in which the Catholic Church sees itself as so being. It might in fact clarify the whole discussion if other denominations were to think of drawing up statements of how they understand themselves to be, or to belong to, the one Church of Jesus Christ.

Surely this kind of candid and courteous, exchangeis the very point of ecumenical dialogue. If all participants are already in agreement, ecumenism is not necessary. If participants do not state their own position clearly, while respecting the position of others, ecumenism in depth is not possible. Historically, the positions of the various denominations have in fact characteristically been expressed in terms precisely of "defect" or "excess". To illustrate this, I wish to quote from two of the greatest Protestant theologians, and, indeed, two of the greatest among all Christian theologians of the 20th century, the late Karl Barth, and the late Oscar Cullmann.

In 1963 Karl Barth said: "The greatest obstacle to reunion between Protestants and Catholics is a little word which the Catholic Church adds after nearly every one of our Protestant affirmations. It is the little word and. When we say Jesus, Catholics say 'Jesus and Mary'. We seek to obey Christ, our only Lord: Catholics obey Christ and his Vicar on earth, the Pope. We believe the Christian is saved through the merits of Jesus Christ: Catholics add, 'and our own merits', that is, because of works, We believe the sole source of Revelation is Scripture: Catholics add 'and Tradition'. We say knowledge of God is obtained by faith in His word expressed in Scripture: Catholics add and byreason".

Barth concludes: "Practically the whole problem comes to discussing in what measure we can agree on the sense to be given to this little word 'and' ".

Somewhat similarly, Cullmann said in 1962: "What separates us are not the positive elements of our faith but precisely what there is more in Catholicism (from our point of view, what there is in excess in Catholicism); and, vice versa, what there is less in Protestantism (from the Catholic point of view, what there is by defect in Protestantism)".

Obviously, both Barth and Cullmann were here using popular language rather than precise theological terms, but the differences between Catholic self-understanding and Protestant self-understanding do correspond broadly with the descriptions they give. Historically, more than one reform movement rejected certain elements of Catholic teaching as being unevangelical accretions to the pure Gospel. The Protestant Reformers in particular cast aside certain teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as unjustifiable and unscriptural additions to the primitive Creed of the Church.

Much of ecumenical dialogue will, in fact, be centred on lessening and eventually overcoming these differences in order to attain the ultimate goal of a united Christian Church. But we must all be clear about the unity which we seek. The Catholic Church seeks visible unity expressed in visible bonds of communion: profession of one faith; common celebration of worship and the sacraments; apostolic succession through valid Holy Orders; all of this crowned by charity which "binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Col 3:14; cf. Catechism ofthe Catholic Church, n. 814). The ecumenical dialogues will, however, not be simply reviving the debates of the past, much less the practice of the past; the dialogue will be trying to place these differences in a new context and re-centre them in what we hold in common, particularly our common commitment to our one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Those who participate in the dialogues will, therefore, be trying to respond to what is surely the fundamental challenge of the Gospel: "What do you think of Christ?". We may have learnt Christ differently, but we all try to be faithful to the one Christ.

The 'dialogue of conversion'

It seems to me that the more we fix our gaze on what unites us, the closer we can come to one another in Christ, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the closer we come, as individuals and as communities of faith, to Christ, the closer we shall come to the unity for which Christ prayed. He is the peace between us. This is the "spiritual ecumenism" which is the basis of all ecumenism, as the Vatican Council declared. In Ut unum sint, Pope John Paul II has again called for this spiritual ecumenism. He expresses the hope that all Christian Communities would be drawn into the "completely interior spiritual space" in which "Christ by the power of the Spirit leads all", and that, in that space, all would "examine themselves before the Father and ask themselves whether they have been faithful to his plan for the Church". This conversion, this self-examination, calls for prayer, deep, contemplative and often silent prayer. We must never doubt the power of prayer for unity. Prayer indeed is the means by which Christ draws us into that union of ourselves with God which is our sharing in Christ's own union with his Father and is the condition for our union with one another in Christ. Christ prayed: "Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe, it was you who sent me.... With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world may realize that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me" (Jn 17:21, 23).

That is the unity of holiness with Christ which the great holy men and women in all of our traditionstried to reach. It is the foundation of the "dialogue of conversion" of which Pope John Paul has spoken in Ut unum sint;conversion of individual Christians, conversion also of communities and of Churches. It includes, as the Pope stated, "constant reform of the Church in so far as she is also a human and earthly institution". These conversions, the Pope said, "represent the preconditions for all ecumenical commitment" (Ut unum sint, n. 82). In this sense, no denomination can call itself a "reformed Church", if that phrase implied that it had no further need for reform; but all of us can see our ecclesial institutions as being in need of constant reform: Ecclesiasemperreformanda.

In a document called by its Latin name Tertio millennio adveniente, issued in 1994 in early preparation for the year 2000, which the Catholic Church celebrated as a year of Jubilee, the Pope had a striking paragraph in which he said that "perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs". He was referring, of course, to the Protestant saints and martyrs as well as to the Catholic ones. He said that "the communio sanctorum, the communion of saints, speaks louder than the things which divide us". He concluded: "The greatest homage which all the Churches can give to Christ on the threshold of the third millennium will be to manifest the Redeemer's all-powerful presence through the fruits of faith, hope and charity present in men and women of many different tongues and races who have followed Christ in the various forms of the Christian vocation".

Alas, we are all very far from sanctity, but we keep trying. As Léon Bloy once said, "the greatest sadness is that we are not saints"; but we keep hoping. As St Paul prayed, so we pray, for ourselves and for one another: "May the God of hope bring us such joy and peace in our faith that the power of the Holy Spirit will remove all bounds to our hope" (Rom 14:13).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 March 2001, page 9

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