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Ecumenism and the Faithful Catholic

By Deacon Keith Fournier
The Call to Christian Unity is not an option but reveals the Heart and Plan of God

Ecumenism and the Faithful Catholic
By Deacon Keith A. Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

"I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me." St. John 17:20-23

Walter Cardinal Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was recently interviewed concerning the "progress" of ecumenism in the forty years since the Council promulgated it’s 1964 decree "Unitatis Redintegratio", the Decree on Ecumenism. Cardinal Kasper said that "the Church's ecumenical awareness has grown." He noted that "problems and disappointments still exist" and "obviously, we have still not reached the objective: full and visible communion."

"We are in an intermediary state," he said. "Sometimes, old prejudices persist. Also to be deplored are signs of slowness and egoism… The suspicion that ecumenical dialog harms our own Catholic identity is a grave suspicion…The truth is the opposite. Dialogue presupposes partners who have their own identity...Ecumenism is not a form of ecclesiastical diplomacy, but rather a "spiritual process."

The Cardinal announced that the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is preparing the draft of a "Vademecum of Spiritual Ecumenism." This should come as no surprise. The Church is ecumenical in her mission. Not simply to be nice to other Christians but to be faithful to her Lord who wills that "all may be one". In a profound way, this foundational commitment to authentic ecumenism has been another of the extraordinary contributions of this pontificate.

Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter "Ut Unum Sint" (On the Commitment to Ecumenism, literally "May They Be One") is a monumental contribution to this "spiritual process". Among his many encyclicals, apostolic letters and exhortations, it is one of the least understood. In it he provides a path toward the full communion of the Church. He strongly affirms that there is no retreat from the ecumenical task and that the "way of ecumenism is the way of the Church"

His Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen (The Light of the East), promulgated on May 2, 1995, the Feast of St. Athanasius, is only one of several profound initiatives oriented toward healing the rift between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Most recently, his return of the bones of Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, pre-division archbishops of Constantinople, is only one in a series of profound gestures toward the Orthodox and, in particular Patriarch Bartholomew I. They are prophetic in nature. The Pope writes and speaks regularly of the "two lungs" of Christianity breathing together once again in the Third Millennium.

I am a "revert" to the Catholic Church. I wandered back home, after my wayward teenage years, to again embrace my deeply held Catholic faith. Though this is the faith that I had been raised in, my return came after a "search for truth" during the period sometimes referred to as the age of the "counter culture". This search for truth led me to make my childhood faith my own; to seriously consider the claims of the Gospel after years of living as a "cultural" Catholic with no real integration of my faith with my daily life.

Among the many questions that troubled me in my journey back to faith was why the Christian Church was broken, splintered and seemingly at odds, camp against camp, for an entire millennium. This question led me to a study of Church History. My concern for understanding the causes of the great divide between East and West led me through the Patristic literature and rooted within me a deep love for the Eastern Church Fathers. My concern over the divisions in the West, led me to study the writings of the Protestant Reformers. This study actually led me even more fully into the Catholic Church into which I had been baptized as a child and confirmed in as an early teenager.

I love the Catholic faith. I am deeply appreciative of the fullness that is Catholic Christian faith, worship, teaching and life. However, perhaps as a result of the journey, as well as a sense of a personal spiritual vocation, I have carried a lifelong burden to see the prayer of Jesus, recorded in St. John, Chapter 17, answered. Into a world that is fractured, divided, wounded, filled with "sides" and "camps" at enmity with one another, the Christian Church is called to proclaim, by both word and deed, the unifying love of a living God. The heart of the "Gospel" (literally "Good News"), is the message that in and through Jesus Christ, authentic unity with God - and through Him, in the Spirit, with one another- is not only possible but is the plan of God for the entire human race.

In Jesus Christ, we are invited into communion with God the Father. In Him, we find communion with one another. In Him we are invited into the world that He still loves to carry forward in time His redemptive mission. In His "High Priestly Prayer", the Son of God still prays to the Father, "…that they may all be one". Yet, in His Church, His Body on earth, that unity appears to be an illusive dream. That is without the eyes of faith. We are broken, at enmity with one another, and we fail to take the call to unity seriously. The heart of God breaks.

There is a reciprocal relationship revealed in the sacred words contained in this continuing prayer of Jesus. The world will believe the message we proclaim - and respond to invitation inherent within our mission- when we demonstrate our own unity of love with one another. The prayer of the Son of God will be answered; the only question is how soon it will happen. In some wonderful way, we who are Christians can help to hasten that day by the way we choose to live with one another. That is the message that the great apostle Paul proclaims to the Ephesian Christians.

"Brothers and sisters: I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace; one Body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." Ephesians 4: 1-6

Paul was the apostle of unity between the early Jewish and Gentile believers who were deeply divided. He knew the corrosive effect of divisions within the Body of Christ. His words urge us to "live in a manner worthy of the call". There is still only "…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and father of all". The God who is One, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, places the impulse toward Christian unity in our hearts. This call to unity in Jesus Christ must become the heart cry of the entire Christian Church so that this prayer be fulfilled; and so that the "world may know".

In his extraordinary Encyclical letter on Christian unity (signed on the Feast of the Ascension in 1995), Pope John Paul II not only reaffirmed that the "spiritual process" of ecumenism is an integral part of the Churches Mission, he also raised the stakes for all of us. He called for the use of a new language in our relationships with other Christians. He affirmed our foundational unity in one Baptism. This letter continues the trajectory of teaching from the Magisterium of the Church concerning the ecclesiology of communion, expounded by the Council fathers. Pope John Paul II underscored the language of communion as the way of the vocabulary to be used in authentic ecumenical efforts:

"42. It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters. Again, the very __expression separated brethren tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion — linked to the baptismal character — which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions. Today we speak of "other Christians", "others who have received Baptism", and "Christians of other Communities". The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as "Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church".

This broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes. There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ. I have personally been able many times to observe this during the ecumenical celebrations which are an important part of my Apostolic Visits to various parts of the world, and also in the meetings and ecumenical celebrations which have taken place in Rome. The "universal brotherhood" of Christians has become a firm ecumenical conviction. Consigning to oblivion the excommunications of the past, Communities which were once rivals are now in many cases helping one another: places of worship are sometimes lent out; scholarships are offered for the training of ministers in the Communities most lacking in resources; approaches are made to civil authorities on behalf of other Christians who are unjustly persecuted; and the slander to which certain groups are subjected is shown to be unfounded." (par. 42)

The ecumenical mission of the Church is at the heart of John Paul’s pontificate because it is at the heart of the Lord. To be a faithful Catholic is to long for the full communion of the Church. The Pope called all of the faithful to carry forward the task of ecumenism with a practical and spiritual urgency:

"40. Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message.

"Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant". This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself.

Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: "Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth. In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved."

I have long been a student at this "school of ecumenism" and walked along this road to unity. For thirty years, as a faithful Catholic, I have worked ecumenically. I have written books about Christian unity and have stood in the trenches of ecumenical endeavor, as a participant in one of the great human rights struggles of our age, the right to restore the recognition of a right to life for every human person, including our first neighbors in the first home of the whole human race, children in the womb.

I count it a privilege to call "friend" some of the finest leaders in the contemporary evangelical Protestant world. I have been actively involved in ecumenical efforts and have grown, through it all, to be even more deeply Catholic. We Catholics profess that the "fullness of truth "subsists" in the Catholic Church. This should never make us "haughty" but humble. It gives us, among all Christians, the highest obligation in charity. We are the ones called to the ecumenical task because as the Lord proclaimed: "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more." (Luke 12:48).

Several years ago I had an experience that helps to communicate the heart of why I have come to believe that it is in the mission to the culture and the service of social justice where the broader task of ecumenism advances most effectively. I experienced an ecumenical service which poignantly framed the importance of this for me. It was a cold January Monday in the first year of the Third Christian Millennium, 2000. My heart was burdened as I exited Union Station in Washington, D.C., on my way to the National Memorial for the Pre-Born and Their Mothers and Fathers. The event, which always coincides with the March for Life and the week of prayer for Christian Unity, is sponsored annually by the National Clergy Council, an ecumenical alliance of Christian clergy. I serve the NCC as its Catholic representative on their Executive Council.

Carrying my clerical vestments, I passed by dozens of people from all over America, who, braving the cold, had come to stand in solidarity with the innocent children, who have no voice but ours. In giving these children, mothers and all the victims of this national tragedy our voice, we champion the major human rights’ issue of our age, the right to life and the freedom to be born.

Many whom I passed in the street recognized the symbols of my clerical service which were draped over my arm, my vestments, and greeted me with smiles and the steely determination that has characterized this struggle for justice. I rounded the corner to the Senate Hart Building, the site of that year's ecumenical service. Upon entering Room #216, where the service was beginning, I was immediately impressed not only with the number of participants, but with the variety of Christians represented. They were all dressed in accordance with their traditions.

I was there, along with Father Frank Pavone and Deacon Hiram Haywood, as a part of the Catholic clergy contingent. On the dais, along with us, was our sister and then a relatively new member of the Catholic Church, Miss Norma McCorvey (formerly Jane Roe of the infamous Roe vs. Wade decision), who is a prophetic witness for the truth about life.

On each side of us were clergy of most Christian confessions and communions: Orthodox, Protestant, evangelical, self-professed "Free Church," Pentecostals and a large Messianic Jewish contingent. This gathered assembly represented the breadth of the larger Christian community that has mobilized around this issue.

All of us were there, together, to mourn, to repent, to intercede, and to worship the Author of Life, who alone can bring an end to this modern slaughter of the "holy innocents." As the music began, the burden of my heart seemed to lift with the melody. The presence of the Lord of life began to fill the room.

I dedicated first my lay apostolate, and then my clerical service to evangelization, apologetics, and authentic ecumenism. In fact, I took as my own personal "motto" at my diaconal ordination, "Ut Unum Sint" (May They Be One).I have drawn my own passionate conviction concerning both the essential requirement for Christian unity, and its inevitability, from the words of John Paul the Great. I believe he has not only led us into a great new missionary age, but is himself, in his extraordinary writings, the "first fruits" of a new Patristic age, and he proclaims prophetically the coming "family re-union" of the Church.

On this blustery morning I thought of the words of another great Church leader, from another great missionary age,"…let unity, the greatest of all goods, be your preoccupation." Thus wrote Ignatius, the third Bishop of Antioch, to Polycarp, his brother Bishop in Smyrna. The year was 107 A.D., the beginning of the first Christian Millennium.

Those Christians also lived in a "culture of death." Roman society practiced the killing not only of children in the womb, but of newborns, through a practice called "exposure." The holy man wrote these words while traveling to Rome, under the persecution of Trajan, the leader of that "culture of death." There he would be thrown to the wild beasts and be martyred for the Lord. Remember, it was in Antioch that they were first called Christians, St. Luke tells us (Acts 11:26).

There is precedent for earning that name through pouring our lives out for Jesus Christ in the midst of a hostile culture. It was Ignatius who first called these early Christians "Catholic." He insisted that Christian unity, and the "catholicity" or universality of the one Church, was a cause worth dying for. In the words of this great father and martyr "wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."

His words still ring true as we have begun another millennium of missionary work. They also represent a great theological synthesis of the ecclesiology and the ecumenical vision of both the Second Vatican Council and this great Pope.

In a wonderful interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (published under the title "Salt of the Earth" by Ignatius Press), the Cardinal was asked a question concerning John Paul II's vision of Christian unity for the Third Millennium. He tells the interviewer that this is foremost in the heart of the Holy Father. Pope John Paul II believes that whereas the first millennium was a millennium of union and the second a millennium of disunion, the third will be a millennium of re-union:

"The Pope does indeed cherish a great expectation that the millennium of divisions will be followed by a millennium of unifications. He has in some sense the vision that the first Christian millennium was a millennium of Christian unity-there were schisms, as we know, but there was still the unity of East and West; the second millennium was the millennium of great divisions; and that now, precisely at the end, we could discover a new unity through a great common reflection.His whole ecumenical effort stands in this historical-philosophical perspective. He is convinced that the Second Vatican Council, with its yes to ecumenism and its call to ecumenism, is part of this historical philosophical movement."

This passionate love for, and burden to rebuild, the broken unity of the Church… this dogged commitment to the prayer of Jesus, "May they be One" (John 17:21), has inspired the ecumenical ministry of this prophet who now occupies the Chair of Peter. This has been demonstrated over and over again. We should never forget that great event on January 18, 2000 when he led twenty-two leaders of other Christian churches, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Pentecostals, in an historic ecumenical rite opening the fourth jubilee holy door.

The ecumenical liturgy that day included three readings, one from St. Paul, one from the famous Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoffer, and one from the famous Orthodox theologian Gregor Florovsky. Each emphasized the call to unity. In a prophetic homily, the Holy Father proclaimed the call to unity, and, overcome with the Holy Spirit, cried out loud, "Unitade, Unitade."

He led the assembled crowd in this cry and proclaimed his hope and prayer, "… that in the not too distant future, Christians, finally reconciled, can return to walk together as one people, in obedience to the Father's plan."

As the memorial service proceeded on January 24, 2000, that same Spirit filled our ecumenical liturgy. There we stood, Christians gathered together, on this commemoration of tragic decision of Roe vs. Wade, in the Senate Hart building, under the chambers where our elected representatives had once voted to end the infanticide known as "partial birth abortion" only to be vetoed. We prayed, we sang, we worshiped, and we wept… together.

We heard from a mother who lost her child to an abortion and came to see not only the tragic truth of what had happened, but also received the healing love of a merciful Father. We heard from a father who had come to mourn the loss of a son he sent to death at the hands of one who had taken an oath: "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art." One more Doctor who had been deluded by the lies of the contemporary culture of death.

We shared from our common Book, the Sacred Scriptures, the Bible, and sang songs to our common Lord. We enjoyed the rich diversity of our traditions but cherished most of all this prophetic sign of our unity.

As I was called forward lead a prayer and to greet the gathered assembly, I was struck by what our gathering symbolized: a silver lining in the dark cloud of the "culture of death.

In coming together to speak for the innocent pre-born, we had rediscovered one another.

We heard an eloquent homily calling us to understand the full implications of our shared convictions concerning the dignity of every human person from conception to natural death. It was given by an old friend, who, along with his brother Rob, co-founded the National Clergy Council. At that time he was still known as Reverend Paul Chaim Schenck, a Protestant clergyman. Just this past year, I had the honor of serving as a deacon at his Liturgy of reception into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church! He also laid aside his ministerial credentials.

Now, as the Executive Director of "Gospel of Life Ministries", he is the first to explain that it was the pro-life movement that led him to deeply consider his relationship to the Catholic Church. It was the teaching f the Catholic Church on this vital issue that opened the doors to his own examination of the Catholic claim. In the early 1990's I, along with others, had helped in his legal defense when he was wrongfully jailed for his pro-life witness. Years later I served as co-counsel at the United States Supreme Court when he was vindicated in the United States Supreme Court case entitled Schenck v. Pro-Choice Escorts. It was in jail, that Paul he deepened his own commitment to authentic Christian unity.

Many of us assembled that morning have moved from what I once called "trench ecumenism" to embracing the challenge to build a new "culture of life" and a "civilization of love," together. This movement toward unity, forged around this human rights struggle, offers hope to the whole Church and a model of authentic ecumenical co-operation.

It was a rich and encouraging moment. I stood with other Christians who may not have stood with me just years earlier. Some even in my own Church, who, though they thought I was "orthodox" in my Catholicism, criticized my "risky" ecumenism over all these years. Yet, we all stood… together. We prayed… together. We committed ourselves…together, to the work of building a new culture of life and civilization of love.

This burgeoning unity is a silver lining in the cloud of death that has covered our day. The struggle to build a new culture of life has brought us together and helped us to find our common bond in Jesus Christ. Yes. I believe it is the beginning of a break in the cloud that has hovered over us as we have continued on in our wounds, our hostility and our divisions for an entire millennium of Christian history.

The malady that ails not only America, but the entire West, is a loss of soul. Only a revitalized Christian witness and presence can bring the necessary healing. Abortion is only one bad fruit falling from this rotted tree. An early Church leader, who remains anonymous, wrote an instruction to an early pagan inquirer named Diognetus. In it he penned these now famous words "as the soul is to the body, so are Christians to the world."

Perhaps we should examine our own participation in this loss of soul in the broader Christian community. Has our own disunity impeded our ability to lead this "world" out of the darkness? Have we weakened our own efforts to persuade the contemporary "pagans" of our own age to believe the truths that we proclaim?

I believe so.

But more importantly, so does Pope John Paul II. In that same ecumenical service on January 18, 2000 to open the holy doors, he challenged all Christians when he proclaimed: "We know we are brothers, and we are still divided, but we have directed ourselves with decisive conviction on the path that leads to full unity of the Body of Christ…. During this year of grace, the awareness must grow in each one of us of our own responsibility in the fractures that mark the history of the mystical body of Christ."

The church of the First Millennium, and the great heroes of the first Patristic age, said "yes," with their words, and with their lives. Through that "yes," including, as with Ignatius, the full "witness" of martyrdom, they transformed entire cultures which had lost their soul, and with it, their humanity. They did so… together.

Now, it is our turn.

Rev. Mr. Keith A. Fournier is a deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy with approval. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is the Associate Director of Deacons in Service of Life, an out reach of priests for Life. He is the founder and president of Common Good, an ecumenical movement committed to building a culture of life, family, freedom and solidarity and the author of seven books including "A House United".His newest book : "The Prayer of Mary: Living a Surrendered Life" will be available from Thomas Nelson Publishers this Spring.

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