The Unity of Christians

Author: Cardinal Walter Kasper


Cardinal Walter Kasper

Reflections on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter ‘Novo Millennio ineunte’ - 8

"Duc in altum!", "Put out into the deep!" These are the words that ring out in John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte (nn. 1; 15; 58). They are also the challenging and encouraging words that Jesus addressed to his disciples (Lk 5,4), and inspire the paragraphs the document has dedicated to the ecumenism of the third millennium (Novo Millennio ineunte, nn. 12; 48).

1. An ecumenical prospect for the third millennium

The fact that in his Apostolic Letter the Pope referred explicitly to the ecumenical dimension and the ecumenical commitment in these two paragraphs and that he mentioned ecumenism in general a number of times in the text shows how deeply the Holy Father is concerned about the unity of all Christians. As he states in the Encyclical Ut unum sint (1995), it "is not something added on" (n. 9), "it is not just some sort of 'appendix' which is added to the Church's traditional activity" (n. 20), but "belongs to the very essence of this community" (n. 9); moreover it represents "one of the pastoral priorities" of his Pontificate (n. 99) and one of the most fundamental points of the programme for the new millennium.

In underlining the ecumenical dimension, the Pope confirms how important it is to do the will of the Lord, taking up the mission that Christ entrusted to his disciples as his testament, on the eve of his passion and death (Jn 17,21). The Second Vatican Council explicitly formulated in a binding way this mission in the Decree Unitatis redintegratio. The Council Fathers clearly sustained that "the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns" of the Council (n. 1). The Second Vatican Council, in defining the ecumenical objectives, offers us a "sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 57).

The first millennium could be described roughly and speculatively as the millennium of the undivided Church and the second, as that of divisions and multiplicity. We hope that the third millennium may be defined as the millennium of differences reconciled in unity. Already in the 19th century, great philosophers and theologians had foreseen that there would be a third undivided age, a so-called "Johannine" age. Pope John Paul II used this idea in his own way, speaking of an "ecumenical age" (Ut unum sint, n. 4) and of an "age of grace for ecumenism" (ibid., n. 100).

2. The fruits of dialogue

The Encyclical on ecumenism, Ut unum sint (cf. nn. 4 ff.) recalled the progress of dialogue and its results. Therefore the Encyclical Novo Millennio ineunte also reflects on the fruits of dialogue, rendered visible in an even more significant and moving manner by the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. In the 35 years that have passed since the end of the Second Vatican Council, the dialogue of love and truth has produced an abundance of fruits, the most important of which is the rediscovery of the brotherhood of all Christians (Ut unum sint, nn. 41 ff.). Today the various Churches and Ecclesial Communities no longer face one another in hostility, competition, misunderstanding or indifference. Their rediscovery of solidarity, of brotherhood, "is not the consequence of a large-hearted philanthropy or a vague family spirit", but is rooted "in recognition of the oneness of Baptism" (ibid., n. 42), through which they belong to the one body of Christ (cf. I Cor 12,13; Gal 3,27 ff.) and are united in a real, if still incomplete, community (Unitatis redintegratio, nn. 3 ff.; Ut unum sint, n. 11).

The Jubilee celebration of the second millennium of the birth of Jesus was the right occasion for confirming this rediscovered brotherhood and "for encouraging progress on the path towards full communion" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 12). The entire programme for the Jubilee year was laid down in the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio adveniente of 1994 (cf. nn. 16; 19; 24; 34).

3. Prophetic ecumenical acts

A particularly significant ecumenical event "remains a highlight": the ecumenical celebration in St Paul-outside-the-walls on 18 January 2001. "For the first time in history a Holy Door was opened jointly by the Successor of Peter, the Anglican Primate and a Metropolitan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, in the presence of representatives of Churches and Ecclesial Communities from all over the world" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 12). This joint celebration was a truly prophetic act, a symbolic prefiguration of full unity in diversity.

Other important meetings with various Orthodox Patriarchs and the leaders of other Christian confessions took place in the same spirit. The meeting with His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all the Armenians, for the return of a relic of St Gregory the Illuminator, venerated as the founder of the Armenian Apostolic Church, was a deeply significant event from various viewpoints. The Armenian Church, which is one of the oldest, became a State Church 1,700 years ago, even before Rome. However, the division dates back to as early as the fifth century: since she was located outside the territory of the Roman Empire, relations with the Church of Rome could only be sporadic. In the course of history, the Armenian Church and the Armenian people have been through difficult situations and have suffered indescribable atrocities, but they always preserved the apostolic faith. In the last two decades, the Church of Rome has been able to develop increasingly more and more intense contact, with both the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin and the Catholicos of Cilicia (Antelias). Through these relations, a new itinerary heralding hope has been undertaken.

The Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte recalls other important ecumenical events of the Jubilee Year. Particularly noteworthy, in addition to the Holy Father's pilgrimage to Mount Sinai and to the Holy Land (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 13), is the "purification of memory", expressed in the "moving Liturgy", on 12 March, the first Sunday of Lent in the year 2000, to request forgiveness for sins, among which we find those committed against unity. This "purification of memory has strengthened our steps for the journey towards the future and has made us more humble and vigilant in our acceptance of the Gospel" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 6; Ut unum sint, nn. 17; 33 ff.; 42; 52).

Of equal importance from an ecumenical viewpoint was the Commemoration of Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th century, celebrated on 7 May 2000 at the Colosseum with representatives of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 17). The famous "law" proclaimed by Tertullian says Sanguis martyrum—semen christianorum (The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians). The commemoration of the martyrs belonging to all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities encourages us to look with hope to a common ecumenical future. The perception that the Holy Spirit also acts in other Ecclesial Communities, through persons who are examples of holiness, willing to shed their blood in the name of the faith, is one of the great experiences of the ecumenical movement (cf. Ut unum sint, nn. 12; 15; 48; 83 ff.) and gives "new vigour" to the Conciliar appeal for Christian unity (Ut unum sint, n. 1).

4. Still a long way to go, but a way full of hope

If during the Jubilee Year there had been silence about ecumenical difficulties, such as the question of indulgences at the very beginning of the Holy Year and about ecclesiological problems, such as those raised by the Declaration Dominus Iesus in the second half of the Holy Year, this would have implied a lack of lucidity, a deceptive oversimplification. Other questions that require further clarification and study were already identified in the Encyclical Ut unum sint (n. 79). It is quite natural, in a situation where full unity has not yet been fully achieved, that there are stumbling blocks and sometimes even "boulders". However this must not discourage or embitter us, but rather oblige us to continue on the path of dialogue. And our progress must not be characterized by a spirit of indifference, relativism or of false irenicism, for we must genuinely pursue the quest for the truth without misleading compromises (cf. Ut unum sint, nn. 18; 36; 79).

Novo Millennio ineunte clearly and realistically affirms: "unhappily, as we cross the threshold of the new millennium, we take with us the sad heritage of the past. The Jubilee has offered some truly moving and prophetic signs, but there is still a long way to go" (ibid., n. 48). However, although the path is difficult, it is full of hope and the Spirit is "always capable of new surprises" (ibid., n. 12).

5. Fundamental prospects for the future

The Apostolic Letter does not only identify the difficulties that still exist, but also suggests some fundamental guidelines aimed at overcoming these obstacles.

The first and most important direction is a Christological one. It inspired the entire Jubilee Year, since it was the basis of the programmatic orientation that the Pope wanted to give to the third millennium. Search for the face of Christ: is the key to our witness (cf. Novo Millennio ineunte, nn. 16-24). It is only through the full gift of ourselves to Jesus that we realize unity in him. Membership in the Church has its ultimate foundation in Christ. Just as he was not divided, so the Church must not be either (cf. I Cor 1,13). Inasmuch as it is the Body of Christ, the Church is indivisible. The reality of the division draws its origin from history, it is generated in the relations between Christians, and is the consequence of human frailty in accepting the gift of unity. The same gift of unity flows continuously, mysteriously, from Christ the Head into his Mystical Body, which is the Church (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 48).

The divisions between Christians cannot therefore destroy the fundamental unity of the Church, ruining the ultimate foundation of its relations. Because unity is an indestructible gift, we do not need to produce it, to create it; it is given to, us. But our task is that of having it reach its full realization. Jesus' prayer: "that they may all be one" (Jn 17,21) is therefore "both revelation and invocation". Unity needs to be accepted and developed ever more deeply. As the Holy Father writes unambiguously, this imperative is, at once, "the force that sustains us, and a salutary rebuke for our slowness and close-heartedness" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 48).

The second indication is an ecclesiological one. In spite of the typical limits of the human, unity has not failed to be achieved in the Catholic Church, but "is at work in varying degrees in all the elements of holiness and truth to be found in the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities" (ibid.)It is a question of the famous "subsistit" taught by the Conciliar document Lumen gentium (n. 8), whose interpretation has made so much ink to flow, as G. Philips, the chief editor of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church predicted. The indirect interpretation that we find in Novo Millennio ineunte istherefore interesting. It does not see only single elements of the Church of Jesus Christ at work in the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, but in varying measure also the unity of the Church in Christ.

The consequences of the fundamental unity of all baptized persons are expounded in. detail in the other paragraphs of the Apostolic Letter. This happens especially where it speaks of a spirituality of communion (ibid., n. 43) and of an evaluation and development of the institutional elements for promoting unity, such as the Petrine ministry, episcopal collegiality, the Roman Curia, the Synods, Episcopal Conferences, presbyteral and pastoral councils (ibid., n. 44 ff.). The themes of communion and of synodality taken in the broad sense, are fundamental ecumenical problems that must be dealt with seriously in the years to come, in our relations both with the Churches of the East and with the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West. Understanding communion as what "embodies and reveals the very essence of the mystery of the Church" (ibid., n. 42) entails various forms of communication.

Novo Millennio ineunte does not intend to define an ecumenical programme in detail, as the Ecumenical Directory (1993) and the Encyclical on Ecumenism (1995) did. For this reason, when referring to the Churches of the East and to the Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West, what was already expounded in a complete and detailed way in these documents is repeated only in a concise and summary way. With regard to relations with the Churches of the East, the Pope confirms the importance of the exchange of gifts, so that the Church may resume breathing with both lungs, as it did in the first millennium, and learn anew to walk on a common path. In this sense, the Christians of the East and of the West, "with respect for legitimate diversities", will have to accept and support each other as members of the one Body of Christ (ibid., n. 48).

The paragraphs dedicated to ecumenism in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte closewith a word full of confidence and hope, which echoes the initial invitation: "Duc in altum!". "Let us go forward in hope! A new millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture forth" (n. 58).

(Orig. Ital. in O.R. 2 June 2001, n. 7)  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 September 2001, page 5

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