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Ecumenical Dialogue: Not Just Words

Bishop Brian Farrell

Friday, January 20, 2017

CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka, pool
The quest for the unity of all Christians depends above all on God’s grace. Peace, reconciliation, mutual understanding and forgiveness, communion in faith and love–are all gifts from the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit.
There is also the question of overcoming the theological controversies that divided the Churches in the first place. For that, the instrument and method is ecumenical dialogue.
Back in 1965, when the then Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity prepared to put into practice the Second Vatican Council’s invitation to engage in ecumenical relations with the other Churches and Ecclesial Communions, the Joint Working Group (JWG) between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC) studied the question of the methodology to follow in ecumenical dialogue. In 1967, the JWG published the results of its reflection in a working document (cf. Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity, Service d’Informations, 1967/3, p. 27). Three years later, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity produced its own text containing “reflections and suggestions concerning ecumenical dialogue” (cf. Ibid. 1970/IV, p.5).
For nearly forty years these two documents, in their complementarity, offered a solid basis and useful framework for ecumenical discussions. With the passage of time, however, the need to further clarify the concept of dialogue became ever more evident. In Ut unum sint (UUS), Pope John Paul II took the idea of dialogue to a new level. He placed it within the context of a personalistic Christian anthropology: dialogue is not just an exchange of ideas, but the gift of oneself to the other, in reciprocity, as an existential act. In this view, dialogue does not unfold simply on a horizontal level; rather, it bears within itself a transforming energy insofar as it is a journey of renewal and conversion, an encounter that is not only scholarly and spiritual, but also an “exchange of gifts” that is both personal and institutional (cf. UUS, 28, 57). Understood this way, dialogue entails an examination of conscience and a purification of the heart, which in turn lead to a shared recognition of “sins against unity,” whether personal, social or structural. From there it moves to repentance, conversion and communion. “This vertical aspect of dialogue lies in our acknowledgment, jointly and to each other, that we are men and women who have sinned. It is precisely this acknowledgment which creates in brothers and sisters living in Communities not in full communion with one another that interior space where Christ, the source of the Church's unity, can effectively act, with all the power of his Spirit, the Paraclete” (UUS, 35).
Hence, dialogue is inseparable from a genuine desire for conversion, by way of a more radical fidelity to the Gospel and the overcoming of every ecclesial narcissism. If we want to keep the ecumenical movement from an irreversible decline, it is necessary that this process of transformation be readily accepted by the churches and ecclesial communions involved. This requires courage on the part of all, including Catholics.
Pope Benedict XVI deepened this approach in his ecumenical teaching and contacts. He spoke from the experience of someone who had been active in dialogue for his entire life as theologian and pastor and had cultivated long-standing friendships with representatives of the other churches and ecclesial communities. In October of 2006, on the occasion of a meeting of the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions, he affirmed: “However daunting the journey, we must not lose sight of the final goal: full visible communion in Christ and in the Church. We may feel discouraged when progress is slow, but there is too much at stake to turn back. On the contrary, there are good reasons to forge ahead, as my predecessor Pope John Paul II pointed out in his Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint on the Catholic Church’s ecumenical commitment, where he speaks of brotherhood rediscovered and greater solidarity in the service of humanity” (41ff.)
Pope Francis often speaks of ecumenical dialogue as an ecclesial exchange of gifts. In the joint declaration made with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew during their meeting in Jerusalem in May 2014, they affirmed:
“This [theological dialogue] is no mere theoretical exercise, but an exercise in truth and love that demands an ever deeper knowledge of each other’s traditions in order to understand them and to learn from them. Thus we affirm once again that the theological dialogue does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening our grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church, a truth that we never cease to understand better as we follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings. Hence, we affirm together that our faithfulness to the Lord demands fraternal encounter and true dialogue. Such a common pursuit does not lead us away from the truth; rather, through an exchange of gifts, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it will lead us into all truth." (cf. Jn 16:13)
If we want the ecumenical commitment of the Catholic Church to be sincere and genuine, we must receive the results achieved in dialogue as gifts of the transforming and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, the only power capable of bringing about the unity towards which we tend. The gifts which God gives to the “other” must be received willingly and with enthusiasm, not only by the small circle of authorized participants in formal dialogue, but in the tangible life of the Church, by pastors and their people together.
Bishop Brian Farrell is currently Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican. Within the Council he is Vice-President of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. From 1981 to 2002 he served the Vatican's Secretariat of State, from 1999 as head of the English desk in the Office of General Affairs.
On December 19, 2002 he was appointed Titular Bishop and named Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He was ordained Bishop on January 6, 2003 by Pope John Paul II. Bishop Brian Farrell is the older brother of Cardinal Kevin Farrell, former Bishop of Dallas, Texas, whom Pope Francis appointed in August 2016 the first Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

*This article was originally published in the 2016-2017 Salt + Light Magazine! Order your copy today.

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