Not long after his election as pope in 1959, Blessed John XXIII surprised the whole world when he announced his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council. Nobody expected this affable son of peasant farmers to take such a bold move. He was supposed to be a “caretaker pope,” spending his remaining years preparing for the next pope. But Angelo Roncalli had other plans.
Pope John XXIII caused an even greater stir when he stated that one of his primary intentions for the council was Christian unity. Having served as a papal representative in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, John XXIII experienced firsthand the divisions between Eastern and Western Christians. In addition, during his time as papal nuncio in France, he was appointed as the first permanent observer of the Holy See at UNESCO. This international perspective made the new pope keenly aware of the scandal of a divided church. He wanted Vatican II to put the church on a new path toward reconciliation with all believers.
It was for this reason that John XXIII took the extraordinary step of inviting to the Council representatives from every major Christian denomination. These “observers” were treated with great respect, and were given the opportunity to comment on the Council Fathers’ discussions throughout Vatican II’s four sessions.
Most significantly, the Council released its Decree on Ecumenism, which expressed deep regard for Christians of all denominations. Among other things, it stated that in the long history of divisions in the church, “men of both sides were to blame,” not just those who separated from Rome and founded other churches or denominations. This is why all believers must undergo a conversion of sorts, a “change of heart and holiness of life” that will bring us all together (3,8).
Clearing the Obstacles. Throughout his pontificate, John XXIII instituted a number of innovations to help foster unity and reconciliation among churches and cultures. For one, he broadened the College of Cardinals, naming the first Indian and African cardinals. He created a new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and appointed the first-ever Catholic representative to the Assembly of the World Council of Churches.
Pope John also welcomed the heads of many churches to the Vatican. For instance, not since the fourteenth century had an archbishop of Canterbury set foot inside the Vatican—until Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher’s visit in 1960. The pope reminded those separated from the Catholic Church of the words of St. Augustine: “Whether they wish it or not, they are our brethren. They cease to be our brethren only when they stop saying ‘Our Father.’”
When once asked about the possibility of Christian unity, Pope John replied, “I realize that it will take a long time. Neither you nor I will be there to celebrate the great feast of reconciliation. Neither will my immediate successors. But someone must begin to clear away the obstacles that stand in the way.” And that’s just what John XXIII did. It is also what his successors have continued to do: In December, 1965, Pope Paul VI joined Patriarch Athenagoras I in lifting the mutual excommunications between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that had been in place since 1054. In 1995, Pope John Paul II dedicated an entire encyclical to ecumenism (That They May Be One), and throughout his pontificate went out of his way to meet with the leaders of other Christian denominations. And Pope Benedict XVI has continued along this path, urging Catholics to pray and work for unity, and is himself making contacts and moving forward dialogue with a host of different Christian leaders.
As we observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from January 18-25, let’s dedicate ourselves to unity. Even if we feel inadequate, we can take on Pope John’s attitude: “Whenever I see a wall between Christians, I try to pull out a brick.” Each in our own way, let’s pray and work for the day when the followers of Jesus “may all be one” (John 17:21). We may not live to see full unity within the body of Christ, but it is possible that we will see hopeful signs of the reconciliation and healing God longs for!
Jeanne Kun lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and is the author of a dozen books on Scripture study and the spiritual life.