One of the most exhilarating experiences of my life was attending the 1983 World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver. The event was a three-week reflection on Jesus Christ: The Life of the World. It brought together leading theologians and church leaders representing a dazzling array of Christian denominations from around the world.
I realized the event was going to be special the day before it began when Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, head of the world Anglican Church, got in the lineup behind me to get his delegate credentials. After our brief chat, he was whisked up to the front of the line. (Imagine the pope having to line up to get his delegate's badge!)
The assembly was an all-too-brief immersion in the music, liturgy and prayer of Christians ranging from Russian Orthodox to African Methodists. (Roman Catholic participation was minimal.) My heart soared as I sang Taize chants with Brother Roger, founder of that remarkable French community, and listened to a passionate midnight talk by South African Bishop Desmond Tutu.
The impression of the enormous diversity of the church made during those three weeks left an indelible mark on me. At first, it was difficult to return to parish worship. The sameness of the liturgy from week to week and the half-hearted participation of the congregation paled next to what I had encountered in Vancouver.
But a deeper problem with which I struggled for many years afterwards was that of the oneness of the church. Jesus Christ had founded one church, one body. Yet, my most profound experience of the WCC assembly was of the church's diversity. What, however, was the source of the church's unity?
This was not just an intellectual question. It was something I mainly experienced on a gut level. In fact, at the time, I don't think I could have described this struggle in words. My commitment to the Roman Catholic Church eventually turned lukewarm. I sometimes worshipped at other Christian churches, not so much out of an ecumenical commitment as out of spiritual drift. I once made a Mennonite congregation my home for a few months. But really I was homeless, a spiritual nomad.
Emotionally, I returned home that day in 1989 when, having moved back to Edmonton after four years in Winnipeg, I first stepped into St. Joseph's Basilica. I experienced a warm embrace from the people, from the very building itself.
Intellectually, I returned home by gaining new eyes for the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Sometimes Vatican II is presented as a break with the past. But what I now see in those documents is a respect both for other Christians and for the Roman Catholic heritage. Other Christians are seen as gifted by the Holy Spirit, rather than as lost souls on the road to perdition. But the council also held firm to the teaching that the Catholic Church is the church founded by Christ.
All of this is wrapped up in the council's statement that "The church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in union with that successor, although many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside of her visible structure" (Constitution on the Church, 8).
During the 1960s when those words were written, most of the attention was focused on the last part of the sentence. It was novel for Catholics to say sanctification and truth can be found outside of full union with Rome. Indeed, that was surely my own experience at the Vancouver assembly. Truth and sanctification abounded there.
Yet, some things were missing. The assembly spent three weeks discussing Jesus Christ: The Life of the World, much of it focused on social justice issues of life and death such as nuclear weapons and Third World oppression. But there was nary a mention of other threats to life such as abortion, contraception and euthanasia. One would have to turn to Pope John Paul to receive the fullness of The Gospel of Life.
So we also need to focus on the first part of that statement from the Constitution on the Church. We don't need to wait for visible unity among all Christian churches to experience the oneness of the church. It already "subsists" in the Roman Catholic Church.
As Pope John Paul stated in his 1995 encyclical That All May Be One, "God has already manifested the church in her eschatological reality. . . . The elements of this already-given church exist, found in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other communities" (14).
The truth and sanctification I found in other Christian churches "derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church" (Catechism, 819).
The Reformation was a tragic time in church history, a time which has left the church with a heritage of sinful division. But we ought not believe that all sins lay on the side of the reformers. Far from it. In many ways, the reformers were calling the church to express some elements of the Gospel more fully. No doubt there were problems with how they expressed the call of the Spirit. But, just as surely, the Catholic response was defensive and overly eager to excommunicate.
So we struggle in the midst of the pain and the richness of Christian diversity. We seek to be one as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:22). And we await that glorious liturgy at the end of time when all God's people bring together diverse voices of varied times and cultures to praise God fully united in one heart.
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