Ecumenism, or the movement toward Christian unity, has been getting some love in USCCB circles lately. Two recent news releases have dealt with the issue, covering both the basic groundwork of the effort toward Christian unity, as well as one major breakthrough.
The more newsy of the items is the announcement that this Thursday, October 1, USCCB president Cardinal Francis George would be meeting with Lutheran and Methodist leaders in Chicago to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Joint Declaration on Justification.
The idea behind the Joint Declaration is summed up nicely by Cardinal George himself in this video:
The second news item tied to ecumenism was this September 18 item outlining "10 Things to Know About Working for Christian Unity." Sometimes concepts like the ones described in the "10 Things" list are difficult to get one's mind around in the abstract. So with the celebration of the Joint Declaration anniversary so close at hand, it's probably worth taking these two news items together to see how they breathe life into and lend context to one another.
For instance, when the Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist leaders get together on October 1, they will be participating in an evening prayer service. Number 6 on the list of "10 Things" asserts that shared prayer is the first work of Christian unity. So that's an encouraging sign. It shows that our leaders can come together on a matter as intrinsic to the faith life as prayer. They form bonds with each other through the shared experience of prayer, and they practice, if you will, for what will be the long-term result of working toward Christian unity: Christians praying together as one.
Number 8 on the list says the third work of Christian unity is dialogue. This is apparent in that the Joint Declaration itself was the work of decades of dialogue between the Catholics and Lutherans, going back to the 1950s. That it took until 1999 to definitively settle this one issue of justification speaks to number 10 on the list -- that Christian unity is going to take a long, long time.
This is a daunting fact in a microwave culture. But there are also encouraging signs, like that it only took an additional seven years for the Methodists to throw their support behind the Joint Declaration, turning a historic two-way agreement into an even more historic three-way agreement. One has to ask, is it only a matter of time before the document draws another signer, the Anglicans perhaps? The Orthodox?
But in the meantime, we don't have to just sit around and wait. For instance, number 5 on the list is that dialogue and work toward Christian unity takes place on many levels. That could be the pope and cardinals engaging Orthodox Patriarchs, priests chatting with pastors and ministers of different denominations and even lay people in the pews learning more about the non-Catholic Christians in their lives -- the Pentecostal friend at the gym, the Presbyterian next door, the Methodist college roommate.
This interaction can also take place on a more formal level. Number 7 on the list says the second work of Christian unity is common work and witness among Christians, or working together where we can. The list gives the example of local church communities working together to operate food pantries and other efforts. This, again, is good practice for an ultimate goal of united Christians who work together as one. It promotes cooperation on a personal level that humanizes the other and makes it harder to stereotype them because of their faith. It also goes a long way toward healing number 2 on the list, that division among Christians is the greatest stumbling block to the credibility of the Gospel.
Growing respect/cooperation between Christians as they work toward unity raises point number 9 on the list, which forbids proselytism (a.k.a. "sheep stealing") or targeting a member of another faith tradition with the intention of getting that person to reject his or her faith tradition in favor of another. Conversions must come from the heart. And no trusting dialogue can be built if either party has ulterior motives. Instead, point number 4 gives the best illustration, that the goal of Christian unity is to move together toward Christ and that, like spokes on a wagon wheel with Christ as the center, the closer Christians get to Christ, the closer they get to one another.
Points number 4 and 1 drive home the final importance of the move toward Christian unity, that it's a key part of our identity as Christians, as expressed by St. Paul and Pope John Paul II, but also that it is the wish of Christ himself, who prayed at the Last Supper that "they all may be one." It can't hurt to offer a similar intention for our faith leaders as they gather in Chicago in prayerful celebration of how far we've come in the journey toward Christian unity.