"Pray for those who will believe in me through their word that all may be one as you, Father, are in me and I in you. I pray that... they may be one as we are one... that their unity may be complete"
The goal of the international ecumenical movement is "visible unity" among all of Christ's disciples; unity in a common understanding of the one apostolic faith, a common sacramental life and a common understanding of ministry, which for Catholics means hierarchical ministry.
Because the divisions among Christians have lasted for centuries and efforts to heal them can be complex, there is no deadline, no target date to achieve the lofty goal of visible unity. There is, however, a sense of urgency and commitment because of the spiritual benefits of unity. It is understood the unity of Christians is the will of Christ (Cf. John 17:21). There is also a heightened spirit of encouragement because an ecumenical path has been established. Thus far, there is recognition that, despite ancient schisms and mistrust, ecumenical efforts among Christians during the last four decades have achieved considerable progress toward unity.
Before Vatican II there were few contacts between Catholics and other Christians, but today there is much good will. As a result of theological dialogue, Christians have found convergences and agreements on fundamental aspects of the Christian faith. For such reasons many theologians have described the present time as an "intermediate stage" of the ecumenical movement, in which progress has been made, although unity has not yet been achieved.
The road ahead to go beyond this intermediate stage will be difficult, warned Msgr. John A. Radano, who served on the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity for more than 23 years.
Msgr. Radano's distinguished service on the council ended last May. He returned to Seton Hall University, South Orange, where he was a member of the Religious Studies department from 1965 to 1984, following his ordination for the Archdiocese of Newark in 1965. He entered the seminary after graduating from Saint Peter's College, Jersey City, in 1959.
In 1984 the Vatican petitioned then-Archbishop Peter L. Gerety to release Msgr. Radano so that he could join the council-known at the time as the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, part of the Roman curia. Archbishop Gerety consented and in the ensuing years Msgr. Radano served on numerous international dialogues co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council and was the council's liaison with the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and a member of the "Joint Working Group" between the Catholic Church and the WCC.
Though no longer a member of the Pontifical Council, Msgr. Radano was asked to continue as a member of the Joint Working Group. Last November he attended a meeting of the Joint Working Group, which was held in Bossey, Switzerland (near Geneva). The group, since 1965, has fostered cooperation between the Catholic Church and the WCC. Two months ago he was a guest at the council's plenary meeting at the Vatican, when Pope Benedict XVI addressed the assembly on the progress of Christian unity.
The pope told council members it was time for a "broad, precise and detailed" reflection on the ecumenical movement, weighing its accomplishments and shortcomings, in order to "identify new paths to follow" (see The Catholic Advocate, Dec. 24, 2008).
All popes, during the last 40 years, have been committed to the ecumenical movement. Pope John Paul II described the work for unity as a pastoral priority and an imperative of the Church, Msgr. Radano said, noting that the aim of promoting Christian unity was a central concern of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
"Catholics everywhere-here in the Archdiocese of Newark as well as throughout the world-must understand this (the ecumenical movement for unity) is a major commitment and an essential part of the Church's life and mission," Msgr. Radano said.
While Vatican II marks the point for deep commitment by the Catholic Church to the modern ecumenical movement, it is generally understood the movement began with the 1910 World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh, Scotland (which did not have Catholic or Orthodox representation). In the decades that followed more Catholics turned toward ecumenical involvement and Vatican II strongly endorsed the movement.
There are theological subtleties that must be grasped in order to fully appreciate the quest of the ecumenical movement. Msgr. Radano explained that the goal of "visible unity" does not mean "uniformity," but rather unity in legitimate diversity, as John Paul II described it (Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, No.57). "This is unity with diversity, not divergence," Msgr. Radano said, pointing out the Catholic Church already embraces diversity in liturgy and culture that links its Eastern and Latin heritages.
An important current thrust for this intermediate stage of the ecumenical movement involves the "harvest project" now being undertaken by the Pontifical Council-a scholarly review of dialogue reports reached during the last 40 years between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, the World Methodist Council, the Anglican Communion and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The research will "harvest" and assess ecumenical progress made in these dialogues to help clarify an agenda of priorities going forward to reach the next stage of the unity journey.
For example, Msgr. Radano said the harvesting underlines the consensus on the basic Christian doctrine concerning the Trinity and Christology. Consensus also has been reached on "justification," the theological understanding of how we are saved and sanctified.
"We are 'justified' by God's initiative," Msgr. Radano said. "We are saved through God's grace." At the same time, he said there also is a recognition in faith that those who are justified need to perform good works in order to bring forth the works of love of which Scripture speaks.
Ever since the Reformation (1517) there has been strong contrast and conflict between questions of faith and good works in regard to the justification doctrine. Dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans in recent decades has moved beyond the conflicts of the past so that today they have achieved a common understanding of this doctrine. Meanwhile, there remains considerable debate on other issues such as the nature and role of ministry, and much work remains to resolve the differences that still exist on this question.
During his Dec. 12 address to the Pontifical Council, the pope made special mention of the "consolidation and growth of ecclesial fraternity" between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. Msgr. Radano pointed out an important step in this relationship relates to the "Ravenna Document," which was approved by members of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in October 2007 during the commission's plenary session, which was held in Ravenna, Italy.
The decision at Ravenna was to undertake a four-year joint Catholic/Orthodox study that will trace the authority of the pope over 2,000 years. "The fact that we are having this project, in and of itself, is significant," Msgr. Radano said, explaining that theologians and historians on both sides will perform a systematic review of the papacy's history and the role of the Bishop of Rome. There is already much agreement between the two sides concerning the primacy of the pope as the "first among equals," but the question of a common understanding of the authority and jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, as well as the relationship between primacy and synodality, needs to be further explored.
Going forward, the ecumenical movement must be optimistic and realistic, Msgr. Radano stressed. "Ecumenical dialogue reveals our common ground and points to issues not yet resolved. The goal of achieving visible unity is not going to be easy. It will require a great deal of spiritual depth.
"There is virtue involved," he continued. "We need a sense of humility and a spirit of repentance to deal with the healing of bitter memories and theological differences that have existed for hundreds of years. We will need courage. Much depends on the commitment to unity that we all demonstrate. The pope has called on Catholics to work tirelessly for ecumenism-that we may all be one so the world may believe."