We humans are a funny breed.
At one moment, we are arguing with a family member, growing more and more angry.
But if someone else were to make a disparaging remark about that family member, we would probably be the first to rush to his or her defense—even to the point of becoming combative against the other person!
A similar thing happens when it comes to our Church. We may complain about our parish council. We may make some negative remarks about our bishop or a position taken by the Vatican. But as soon as someone from a non-Catholic tradition criticizes our Church, maybe even voicing the same criticism we had, we can be very quick to put aside our critiques and defend the faith. We may even try to prove how the other person’s religion is inferior.
Rather than enter into theological or spiritual disputes, we ought to make it our goal to encourage ourselves and others to look upon believers from other Christian traditions with honor and respect. This is, after all, what our Holy Father has repeatedly asked us to do.
He’s Not Your Enemy. In the ninth chapter of his Gospel, St. Luke tells us about a controversy among the apostles. John and some other disciples had seen a man casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and they told Jesus that they tried to stop him “because he does not follow in our company” (Luke 9:49).
Who was this man? Was he a disciple of John the Baptist? Was he one of the seventy-two whom the Lord sent out a little while later? Or was he just someone trying to imitate the works he saw the apostles doing during their preaching tour? No one knows. But we do know that this man believed in Jesus. We can also assume that he enjoyed some level of success. John said that the man was “casting out” demons, not “trying” to cast them out. Ironically, this story comes soon after the account of the nine disciples being unable to cast out a demon from a young boy (see Luke 9:40). Who knows? If this man were present, maybe he would have been able to do something that Andrew, Philip, and the others couldn’t.
When Jesus heard John’s concerns, he rebuked him: “Do not prevent him,” he said. “For whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). Evidently, the man wasn’t doing any harm, and he may well have been doing a lot of good. Jesus made it clear that anyone who was working in his name was a friend and an ally, not a threat.
May We Be One! This story can teach us a lot about our attitude toward people who believe in Jesus but aren’t members of our Church. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They love Jesus and are committed to spreading his gospel. And in some cases, they do a better job of witnessing to the Lord than we do.
As Christians, we should applaud their good work and dedication to the Lord. We should resist the temptation to downplay their commitment to the gospel simply because they don’t hold all the doctrines that we do. If anything, we should look at the successes they are having and see if we can learn from them. Perhaps we could even find ways to work together, coming one step closer to Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers (see John 17:21).
In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical called Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). The Holy Father wrote: “It is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does” (20).
Pope John Paul II identified three broad areas where work toward unity should take place. First, he said, it is up to bishops and theologians to work through doctrinal differences constructively. Second, he called Catholics to engage with members of other denominations in all areas where we have common ground. And third, he called on Christians from every tradition to pray for unity. Let’s take a look at each of these areas.
Theological Dialogue. Of course this critical area is not central for most of us. Our role here is to trust in God’s grace and the good intentions of the theologians who are directly involved in ecumenical dialogue. We should remember that the issues they are discussing are not just theological. They also have to contend with centuries of misunderstanding, mistrust, and separation.
The challenge can seem overwhelming, and yet we have seen some very encouraging signs coming out of these discussions. In 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which stated how similar these two traditions really are when it comes to the question of justification by faith.
Similarly, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission continues to explore issues such as Marian theology, the Eucharist, and the role of the papacy. Dialogues continue as well with a number of other denominations, including Orthodox, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals. Setbacks occur upon occasion, but no one gives up hope. If theologians and bishops can sit down with members of other traditions and speak warmly, openly, and respectfully, surely we can!
A Common Focus. The theological aspects of ecumenism show us that God wants us to focus on the things that unite us, not on the things that divide us. As we do, we may be surprised to find how much we have in common with our brothers and sisters!
For instance, we all believe in the Trinity. We all believe that God created the world, that Jesus has redeemed us from sin and death, and that he sent the Holy Spirit to guide us and console us. We all believe in the Scriptures, the value of prayer, the call to love one another, and the call to serve the poor and marginalized. We all believe that God has given us the grace to overcome that which seems impossible—and this grace extends even to the challenge of Christian unity!
This focus on our common heritage can give rise to a kind of grassroots ecumenism. It can help foster an environment of unity, where we relate to one another at work, in our neighborhoods, and in our schools. In fact, every time we are with someone from a different tradition is an opportunity to put on love. It’s a chance to show that our common roots and convictions are strong.
Pope Benedict XVI has set an example. In September 2012 he met with representatives of the German Lutheran Church in the former Augustinian convent where Martin Luther lived before he launched his protest against the Catholic Church. At that meeting, Benedict praised Luther for his “deep passion and driving force,” and spoke warmly of all that Catholics and Lutherans have in common. These comments are fully in line with all the previous popes since Vatican II. They have all reached out to our brothers and sisters in dialogue, in mutual understanding, and in a firm commitment to unity.
Prayer. More important than theological dialogue or even a commitment to focus on our common heritage is the call to prayer. Not only do divisions between Christians present a poor witness to the world, they also sadden the Lord. We must get along. We must let the love of God color the way we look at our differences. And prayer is the way this can happen. In the same way that prayer helps us to love our enemies, to forgive those who hurt us, and to resist Satan’s temptations, it has the power to unite us—in our families, in our Church, and with those who belong to other denominations.
Unity cannot be achieved solely by theological dialogue or by common actions. We need the power of the Spirit as well. So make it a point to pray for Christian unity, and the Spirit will move you in the right direction. He will help soften your heart. He will show you ways you can be an agent of reconciliation. He can point you to people and groups aimed at ending divisions. He will help you break down every dividing wall.
Unity—Our Rallying Cry. When John told Jesus: “We tried to prevent him,” his heart was in the right place, but he was still mistaken. As John progressed in the spiritual life, he was better able to see the good in what that fellow was doing. In a similar way, as we grow in our faith, we will find ourselves rejoicing every time we see the kingdom of God advancing—no matter who is doing the work.
“Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). May we all use these words as a rallying cry. May we dream about—and work toward— the day when we are all in complete unity!