It often surprises Catholics to learn that the Church calls all of its members to embrace the work of ecumenism. Each of us is called to do whatever we can to heal our divisions and bring about unity among believers from every Christian faith tradition. It’s easy to think that this work belongs only to bishops, theological experts, and the pope. Of course they play a vital role, especially when it comes to official dialogue and discussions about doctrine. But the Church insists that there is more to ecumenism than dialogue and theological exploration. There is also love, reconciliation, respect, and repentance—and these tasks belong to every Catholic. God wants all of us to be one, and that means that we all have a vital role to play. Here is how the Fathers of Vatican II explained it:
The attainment of union is the concern of the whole Church, faithful and shepherds alike. This concern extends to everyone, according to his talent, whether it be exercised in his daily Christian life or in his theological and historical research. (Unitatis Redintegratio, 5)
A Call to Conversion. From its very beginning, the ecumenical movement has been seen as first and foremost a work of the Holy Spirit among all of his people. The work of unity is not just a human task, and especially not just the task of experts. It is founded on prayer, on the fruit of the Spirit, and on openness to God’s movement in the hearts of his people.
No one, no matter how “ordinary” or “unqualified” they may feel, is excluded from this call. That can sound intimidating, but it shouldn’t. The Council Fathers included us because they knew they could not do it on their own. They knew that we could make a difference in a way they could not! We encounter ordinary people from different traditions every day. That gives us the unique—and necessary—opportunity to sow seeds of understanding and affection. It gives us the opportunity to treat them with respect and love and to show them that we want to live as brothers and sisters.
This is why the Church constantly emphasizes the spiritual aspect of ecumenism in addition to the intellectual aspect. It’s also why the Church calls each of us to deeper conversion—to put aside whatever prejudices, pride, or fear might be keeping us from loving all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As the Vatican’s 1993 Ecumenical Directory tells us, “God’s call to interior conversion and renewal in the Church, so fundamental to the quest for unity, excludes no one. For that reason, all the faithful are called upon to make a personal commitment toward promoting increasing communion with other Christians” (55).
So let’s unpack this high calling that the Church has entrusted to us. Let’s see how conversion and prayer are meant to work hand in hand with dialogue and understanding.
Spiritual Ecumenism. One of the most consistent themes of the Church’s teaching on ecumenism is “spiritual ecumenism.” This part of our call to unity emphasizes the central role of intercession, repentance, and holiness. It focuses on praying for everyone involved in the official work of dialogue, praying for unity between the churches in general, and dedicating ourselves to ongoing, deepening conversion. The way we live each day can make a real, discernible impact.
Spiritual ecumenism tells us that as we do these things, openings to build relationships across our faith traditions will arise. We’ll also find ourselves more willing to build these relationships—and more open to the gifts and blessings that our brothers and sisters have: “This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 8).
Pray Together. In addition to praying for our brothers and sisters from different traditions, the Church asks us to take the next step and pray with them. Here is how Pope St. John Paul II described it:
When brothers and sisters who are not in perfect communion with one another come together to pray, the Second Vatican Council defines their prayer as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement. This prayer is “a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity, . . . a genuine expression of the ties which even now bind Catholics to their separated brethren.” (Ut Unum Sint, 21)
That can sound very formal, but it doesn’t have to be. Of course, we might join in when our pastor or parish prayer group hosts a joint ecumenical prayer service, but these kinds of events are not the only opportunities. Perhaps a friend or coworker from a different tradition is involved in a Bible study or prayer group. Ask if you can join them every now and then. Try to be open to the possibility of praying with someone for his or her needs and asking that person to pray with you for your needs. Or you can go one step further and invite a friend to join you on a regular basis in praying for unity between your traditions.
An Entire Week of Prayer. Every year, Christians from many different traditions come together from January 18 to January 25 to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. During this week, special events are often sponsored by a group of churches in one town—usually joint prayer gatherings and social activities to help people get to know one another. If you want to see ecumenism in action on the local level, this is often your best chance.
But again, don’t limit yourself to formal gatherings. Every day during this week, pray with your family or friends for Christian unity. Find a time that you can dedicate to this prayer and try your best to be faithful to it. You can also find Scripture passages and reflections for this special week on the Vatican website. Spend a few minutes reading these passages and let them help guide your prayer. And as you pray, remember that you are praying for something close to your heavenly Father’s heart.
Another way to observe this special week is to pray for a different faith tradition each day. You can include traditions like Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and, of course, Catholicism. Maybe you could even spend a few minutes learning a bit about their tradition before you pray for them. Ask God to bless them. Ask him to forgive you if you find yourself thinking judgmental thoughts against any of them. And pray that we find ways to pull down all the barriers that keep us apart.
Working Together for the Kingdom. Of course, “relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialogue. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message. . . . This cooperation . . . is a manifestation of Christ himself. . . . Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith” (Ut Unum Sint, 40).
This means we can join other Christians to evangelize. It means we should be open to working side by side in ministry. Soup kitchens, homeless shelters, pregnancy care centers, mentoring programs—these and so many more outreaches can give us the perfect environment to grow in love for each other and to see each other’s faith in action. We can also grow in respect for different traditions by asking a friend to explain his or her faith to us. The more we listen to one another, the more we will grow in mutual love and respect.
You never know; by reaching out in these various ways, you might spark something new in your area. Remember, the ecumenical movement sprang up as believers from many different traditions began to feel called together. That feeling must continue today.
The Way Forward. Shortly after the close of Vatican II, Christians from every tradition were filled with excitement and anticipation. It seemed to many that Christian unity would move quickly. With the establishment of a number of dialogues and the blessing of numerous joint prayer gatherings, much progress truly was made in a few short years. But the work is slow. It’s not easy to undo centuries of division. It’s not easy to resolve all our doctrinal and liturgical differences. That’s why we need a combination of patience and persistence in prayer. That’s why we need a strong commitment to our own ongoing conversion so that the entire body of Christ can grow in holiness.
The Council Fathers knew that obstacles to unity were bound to crop up. Even more important, they knew that our human efforts alone would not be enough to produce the unity that God desires. “It is because of this,” they wrote, “that the Council rests all its hope on the prayer of Christ for the Church, on our Father’s love for us, and on the power of the Holy Spirit” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 24).
May the Holy Spirit continue to bring us together. And may we all pray, “Lord, make us one!”