As a lay Catholic who grew up decades after the Second Vatican Council, my early experiences of church didn’t really include dialoging with other Christians. Dialogue was something done by academics, fueled by a spirit of “peace and love” in the years following the Council. Parish life, on the other hand, was and is a flurry of activity—catechesis, faith formation, focus on marriage and family—that leaves little time and energy toward nurturing fruitful relationships with our fellow Christians. After all, most people’s experience of church is restricted to Sunday mornings when, by default, we all worship separately with our respective faith communities.
This separation is especially unhelpful when the focus of so much catechesis is inward, on building a solid foundation for understanding the ins and outs of being Catholic. As Cardinal Bergoglio said only days before being elected Pope Francis, when the Church focuses inwardly, it “becomes self-referential and then gets sick.” Also, a frequently overlooked aspect of Catholic identity is that engagement with our fellow Christians is required in order to achieve unity. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, issued 50 years ago this November, says that divisions among Christians “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”
While the U.S. Bishops engage in multiple dialogues with other Christians throughout the country, lay people play an essential role in dialogue and Christian unity. Our common baptism should motivate us to engage in ecumenical collaboration. Praying with fellow Christians is often a great entry point for connection, dialogue and relationship. It’s the “dialogue of religious experience.” Creating spiritual connections through common prayer breaks beyond surface level understanding, allowing us to embrace our fellow Christians and the spiritual riches of varying traditions.
In the words of Pope Francis, “Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.” Ecumenism is most important where it is most difficult. Fractured and divided communities need the spirit of ecumenical dialogue for healing and to lay a solid foundation of friendship. The universal work of the Holy Spirit guides Christians through prayer to the unifying presence of Christ.
As we look to the future of ecumenical engagement, it will be the bonds of local communities through lay involvement that drives the direction of dialogue. Catholics must realize that dialogue and Catholic identity mutually enrich one another. Dialogue and engagement lead us to catechize ourselves and become better Catholics as we communicate our faith experience to others. And a Catholic who is well catechized understands that dialogue and the pursuit of Christian unity are essential to who we are and to answering the prayer of Jesus in John’s Gospel, “that they all may be one.”
Julia McStravog is the program and research specialist for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.