From its very beginning, the ecumenical movement has been composed of two equally important elements: official, doctrinal ecumenism and spiritual ecumenism. Doctrinal ecumenism happens mainly among theologians and church leaders, but spiritual ecumenism involves every believer. It’s this conviction that lies behind the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Spiritual ecumenism includes all kinds of initiatives in which Christians from different churches meet to pray and proclaim the gospel together—without any intention of proselytizing and with people remaining completely faithful to their churches.
I have been blessed to participate in many of these meetings. One of them remains particularly vivid in my mind because it was like a visual prophecy of what the ecumenical movement should be leading us to. In 2009 there was a large demonstration of faith in Stockholm called the “Jesus Manifestation.” On the last day, believers from various churches, each coming from a different street, processed toward the center of the city. Once at the center, the separate procession lines broke up and merged into one crowd that joyfully proclaimed the Lordship of Christ. Nobody could tell any more who was Lutheran or Catholic or Pentecostal among them. In the eyes of the astonished bystanders, they were simply believing Christians.
The risen Lord is still doing the same thing today that he did at the beginning of the Church. He is sending his Spirit and his charisms on believers of quite different churches as he did the day of Pentecost and in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10). How can we not see in that a sign that he is urging us to welcome and acknowledge them as brothers and sisters, even if we are still on the journey to more complete unity on the visible level? In any case, this is what converted me to a new love for Christian unity.
“We Preach Christ Jesus.” To understand this a little more, let’s look at the relationship of Catholics with the Protestant world. The purpose is not to enter into historical and doctrinal questions but to show how everything is impelling us to move forward in the effort to restore the unity of Western Christianity.
The situation has changed profoundly in these last five hundred years, but as always, it is hard to take due notice of it. The issues that provoked the separation between the Church of Rome and the Reformation in the sixteenth century primarily included indulgences and the way in which justification takes place for the unrighteous. But can we say that these are the problems today by which the faith of people stands or falls?
I believe that the centuries-old discussion between Catholics and Protestants about faith and works has ended up making us lose the main point of St. Paul’s message. What the apostle wanted to affirm above all in Romans 3 is not so much that we are justified by faith but that we are justified by faith in Christ. It is not so much that we are justified by grace but that we are justified by the grace of Christ. Christ is at the heart of the message even more so than grace and faith. What is at stake is not a doctrine but a person! When Paul wants to summarize the Christian message in one statement, he does not say, “We proclaim this or that doctrine to you.” Instead, he says, “We proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23), and “We . . . preach . . . Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
This does not mean ignoring all the good fruit that the Protestant Reformation has produced that is innovative and valid, especially with its focus on the primacy of the word of God. It means, rather, allowing the whole Church to benefit from its positive achievements once they are freed of certain excesses and hardening of positions on both sides that were due to the overheated climate and political interference of that time.
A Liberating Experience. One significant step in this direction has been the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” signed on October 31, 1999, between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. Reading this declaration, I came to a firm conclusion: the time has come to stop making the doctrine of justification by faith a topic of dispute among theologians. Instead, the time has come to help all baptized people have a personal and liberating experience of this truth. Now, every time I have had the opportunity in my preaching, I have not stopped trying to help brothers and sisters have this experience.
Justification by faith in Christ needs to be preached by the whole Church and with greater vigor than ever. It no longer needs to be preached in opposition to “good works,” an issue that has been dealt with and resolved. Rather, it needs to be preached in opposition to the claim by the secularized world that it can save itself through science and technology or through some newly invented spiritual techniques. I am convinced that if Luther and Calvin and the other reformers were alive today, this would be the way they would preach the justification freely given through faith!
We Christians have much better things to do than fight with one another! The world has forgotten, or has never known, its Savior, the light of the world, the way, the truth, and the life. How can we waste time arguing among ourselves?
Beyond the Formulas. I am also convinced that too heavy a focus on formulas can slow down and weigh on ecumenical dialogue. Let me explain. With the passing of time, doctrinal and dogmatic formulations tend to become rigid. They tend to become “watchwords” and labels that indicate affiliation. Faith no longer terminates in the real thing but in its formulation.
This obstacle is particularly apparent in relation to the churches of the Reformation. Faith versus works and Scripture versus tradition were understandable and somewhat justified oppositions at first, but they become misleading if they get repeated and maintained as though nothing has changed on both sides in five hundred years.
Let’s take, for instance, the opposition between faith and works. It makes sense if by “good works” you primarily mean indulgences, pilgrimages, fasts, votive candles, and so on. This is what it unfortunately meant, for the most part, in Luther’s time. The contrast becomes misleading, however, if by “good works” you mean works of charity and mercy. Jesus warned us that without them, we would be condemned on the last day (see Matthew 25:46). We are not justified therefore by good works, but we will not be saved without them. Justification is without conditions, but it is not without consequences! All Catholics and Protestants in real life believe that.
The same has to be said about opposing Scripture and tradition. It surfaces as soon as the issue of revelation comes up, as if the Protestants had only Scripture while the Catholics had Scripture and tradition. In reality there is no church without its own tradition. What explains the existence of so many different denominations in Protestantism if not their diverse ways of interpreting Scripture? And what is Christian tradition, if not precisely Scripture as read in the Church and by the Church?
A Unity of Love. It is not enough to find ourselves united in terms of evangelization and charitable activity. This is a path the ecumenical movement tried at the beginning, but it was soon shown to be insufficient. If the unity of the disciples should be a reflection of the unity between the Father and the Son, it should be above all a unity of love, because that is the unity that reigns in the Trinity.
The extraordinary thing about this path to unity based on love is that it is already wide open before us. We cannot “cut corners” on doctrine because there are real differences there that need to be resolved patiently in appropriate settings. We can, however, forge ahead in charity and already be fully united right now. The true and sure sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit is not, St. Augustine writes, speaking in tongues, but the love of unity: “You can be sure you have the Holy Spirit when you agree to cling to unity with genuine charity” (Sermon 269).
It has been said, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction” (The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry). Among Christians as well, loving one another means looking together in the same direction, in the direction of Christ. “He is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity” (Ephesians 2:14).
If we Christians will turn to Christ and go forward together toward him, we will draw closer to each other until we become what he prayed for: to be one with him and with the Father (see John 17:9). This can come about the same way that the spokes of a wheel fit together. The spokes begin at distant points of the circumference, but little by little, as they get nearer to the center, they get closer to each other until they form a single point. It happens something like what happened that day in Stockholm. May we always progress in this path to unity with the grace of the Spirit of Christ!
Cardinal Cantalamessa is the Preacher to the Papal Household. This article was adapted from a March 18, 2016, Lenten sermon.