Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
January 19, 2009
The great Catholic conversion
Fifty years ago this week, Pope John XXIII announced a council that turned Catholic attitudes to other Christian churches upside down
BY FR. THOMAS RYAN, CSP
Fr. Yves-Marie Congar was an ecumenical visionary prior to Vatican II.
His 1937 book Divided Christendom was the first and in some respects is still one of the greatest Catholic ecumenical manifestos.
His personal story demonstrates that “conversion experience” language is not an overstatement.
Congar, along with other theologians, was warned about false “irenicism” with respect to ecumenism and in 1954 was silenced for this and other “theological deviations.”
[False irenicism refers to an overly conciliatory approach to Christian unity that dilutes essential Christian teaching.]
His posthumously published journal records his anguish from 1947-56: “I knew nothing from that quarter [Rome] but an uninterrupted series of denunciations, warnings, restrictive or discriminatory measures and mistrustful interventions.”
Then came an abrupt turn-around.
In 1960 he was named to the council’s preparatory commission and ended up playing an important role in the composition and editing of the most important conciliar documents, including the constitutions on the Church and on revelation; the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World; the decrees on ecumenism, missions and the ministry and life of priests, and the declarations on non-Christian religions and religious freedom.
What were the pivotal points of reference for the about-face where ecumenism was concerned? There were two basic premises: the will of Christ, and the shared communion of all Christians through Baptism.
The prayer of Jesus challenges all his disciples to strive to free his Church from the divisions that have come to separate those baptized in his name. As he prepared to offer his life for the salvation of the world, Jesus prayed to his Father for those who believe:
Pope John XXIII presides over the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962.
“May they all be one, as you Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
That unity is both for the Father’s glory and for the sake of the Church’s mission in the world: “That they may believe.”
Unity is for mission. Divisions among Christians are a stumbling block to the Gospel we bring, because at the heart of that Gospel’s message is the proclamation that we have been reconciled to God and to one another through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The second premise, the communion among the baptized, reveals an assertion that inverts the way we usually think about these things.
Ecumenism is not our effort to achieve a unity that does not exist. Rather it is our response to the gift of unity already given. We Christians have not chosen one another; we have been chosen.
Because it is the one Christ who has done the choosing, we have been chosen to be his together. Unity is not then our choice. The work to make that unity more visible — ecumenism — is not optional.
When someone is approaching death, it’s wise to pay close attention to what they have to say. Their final words usually tell us much about what is important to them and reveal what that person valued most and wants us to learn from them.
Such were the last words of Pope John XXIII. As he lay dying he whispered Jesus’ prayer over and over, “May they be one.”
If both Jesus and the pope prayed before their deaths for unity among believers, that should tell us something.
Find a group of believers during this year’s Jan. 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and make that prayer your own.
(Paulist Father Thomas Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C. Ryan is the former director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal.)
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