How can I become an ecumenist?
by Nicholas Jesson
Sometimes people ask me, “How did you become an ecumenist?” I try to answer their curiosity with some honesty, but like most people, my own vocational path was only apparent looking back. Once in a while, someone asks, “How can I become an ecumenist?” The simple answer is that all Christians are called to work for the unity of Christ’s church, so becoming an ecumenist is as simple as saying “Amen” to God’s call. Becoming an ecumenist does not require extensive education or credentials. It doesn’t require ordination or commissioning in a particular ministry. To be an ecumenist is to pray and work for the unity that Christ wills in his church.
While it is the vocation of every baptized Christian to work for the unity of the church, some have a particular call to ecumenical ministry. In a recent document from Rome entitled The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum
, we are reminded, “As shepherd of the flock the bishop has the distinct responsibility of gathering all into unity.” Vatican II taught us that the bishop is “the visible principle and foundation of unity” within the local church. It is not just that the bishop has been charged with this task, but that in every part of his ministry – teaching the faith, sacramental ministry, and pastoral care – he is to build and strengthen that unity for which Jesus prayed at the Last Supper. For this reason, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
has developed this latest text for bishops. The Latin word “vademecum” is literally translated as “go with me”. A vademecum is a handbook or guide constantly kept at hand for consultation. It is hoped that bishops throughout the world will have this little handbook close, if not in their pocket, perhaps on their desk.
This short handbook is just 51 pages but is rich with essential principles and practices of Catholic ecumenism. In just a few pages, the Introduction summarizes the key theological principles that orient the church’s ecumenical ministry. The search for unity is intrinsic to the church’s own nature; we share a real but incomplete communion with those who believe in Christ and are baptized; Christian unity is the concern of the whole church; the bishop is the “visible principle” of unity. These principles are all found in Vatican II
, the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint
(UUS), or the 1993 Ecumenical Directory
. Though it doesn’t have the formal authority of any of these earlier documents, and despite its brevity, this handbook has a maturity that comes from decades of theological dialogue and engagement with every Christian tradition. The Vademecum offers an authority rooted in the experience of lived ecumenism.
In the first part of the document, the Vademecum outlines the ecumenical structures within the local church, updated from the earlier Ecumenical Directory to reflect the experience of local dioceses and eparchies. Focusing on the bishop’s role, the Vademecum encourages the appointment of an ecumenical officer to be “a close collaborator” with the bishop in ecumenical matters and a point of contact with other Christian communities. A diocesan commission assists the bishop in implementing the ecumenical teaching of the church. Ecumenical formation of all the faithful – laity, seminarians, and clergy – is a vital task of the bishop, ecumenical officer, and ecumenical commission. The goal of formation is that the people of the diocese “are properly disposed for engagement with other Christians”. The use of media and diocesan websites for the promotion of Christian unity is also addressed. “The Catholic presence through the media should demonstrate that Catholics esteem their Christian brothers and sisters and are a people open to listening and learning from them.”
In what is perhaps the richest part of the document, spiritual ecumenism and the three dialogues of love, truth, and life are presented under the broad rubric of “the Catholic Church’s relations with other Christians”. Here, in addition to prayer for unity and for one another, we are reminded of the Vatican Council’s admonition that scripture is “an instrument of the highest value for the attainment of ... unity” (Unitatis Redintegratio
21). As spiritual ecumenism, the document discusses sharing with other Christians in similar lectionary cycles, liturgical feasts and seasons, “the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs”, and consecrated life – particularly new communities and ecclesial movements that have a charism for ecumenical hospitality, prayer for unity, and the exchange of gifts. A few paragraphs in section 24 on the “healing of memories” captures the challenge of “a healing of historical memories, a mutual forgiveness, and a firm commitment to strive for communion” (UUS 52). As the 2013 Lutheran-Roman Catholic report From Conflict to Communion
expressed it, “What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change.”
The three dialogues of love, truth, and life are commonly found in Catholic ecumenical texts. In their 2014 text A Church in Dialogue: Towards the Restoration of Unity among Christians
, Canada’s bishops wrote, “As we continue to grow as brothers and sisters in Christ, called to full unity, we are summoned to commit ourselves to grow together in love, to seek the truth together, and to share together in Christian life and witness.” Awareness of a real though incomplete communion compels us to engage other Christians in a culture of encounter at various levels. In love for the truly Christian endowments of our brothers and sisters, we initiate exchanges, visits, and meetings that, by word and gesture, show our love for the other. “How very good and pleasant it is when brothers [and sisters] live together in unity” (Ps. 133:1). The dialogue of truth includes theological dialogue at local, national, and international levels but is essentially an exchange of gifts. Through ecumenical dialogue, each partner contributes from its own gifts to the whole church. As Pope Francis has said:
“It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift to us.” (EG 246)
The dialogue of life embraces all of the practical aspects of life together, including working together to address local pastoral needs, sharing in ministry and resources, working together in mission and catechesis, pastoral care of interchurch marriages, cooperation in service to the world, joint witness, and interreligious dialogue.
Canon 844, n.4 states that either in danger of death or if there is a “grave necessity”, Catholic ministers can administer the sacraments to other Christians “who seek such on their own accord, provided they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.” It should be noted here that bishops and priests consistently report frustrations when canon 844 is understood in legalistic rather than pastoral terms. Though the Vademecum cannot change canon 844, the document does move the needle incrementally. The Vademecum stresses that the “judgement about what constitutes a ‘grave necessity’ ... is always a pastoral discernment, that is, it concerns the care and the salvation of souls.”
How can I become an ecumenist? Though addressed to the particular context and needs of Catholic bishops, the Vademecum offers helpful advice and pastoral orientations for everyone seeking to respond to the baptismal call to pray and work for Christian unity.
Nicholas Jesson is the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Regina, former ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Saskatoon, and former executive director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism. He is a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, editor of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Margaret O’Gara Ecumenical Dialogues Collection, and editor of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue archive IARCCUM.org.