Primacy of Peter in 21st Century

Father Michael Hull on Why the Pope Pushes for Christian Unity

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NEW YORK, APRIL 6, 2003 ( New York theologian Father Michael F. Hull delivered this address March 28 for a videoconference organized by the Congregation for Clergy on «The Primacy of Peter.» The text has been adapted by ZENIT.

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The Primacy of Peter in «Ut Unum Sint»
By Father Michael F. Hull

John Paul II’s encyclical letter «Ut Unum Sint» (May 25, 1995) articulates a refined notion of the primacy of Peter in terms of the Pope’s role as the servant of Christian unity.

The early history of the ecumenical movement in the 19th and 20th centuries is predominantly the story of a Protestant-based ecumenism, which culminated in the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, but the later history has a distinctively Catholic flavor.

The decision of John XXIII to invite non-Catholic observers to the Second Vatican Council, the council’s decree on ecumenism «Unitatis Redintegratio» (Nov. 21, 1964), and Paul VI’s numerous ecumenical overtures situated the Church as an ecumenical vanguard in the late 20th century among all Christians.

John Paul II, with «Ut Unum Sint,» desires that the Church not only guide contemporary ecumenical endeavors but that she also inaugurate new efforts for unity among Christians in the 21st century, particularly through the Petrine ministry. Indeed, it is the role of the Petrine ministry to serve all Christians so «that they may all be one» (John 17:21).

According to John Paul II, «Ut Unum Sint» is «essentially pastoral in character» and is meant «to encourage the efforts of all who work for unity» (no. 3). But «Ut Unum Sint» is much more than that.

It is a clarion call to all Christians Catholic and non-Catholic alike to be especially attentive to the Lord’s desire for unity; and, at the same time, it is a reminder that the responsibility for unity falls on the shoulders of all Christians Catholic and non-Catholic alike though it rests principally on the shoulders of the Successor of Saint Peter.

The Pope writes «Ut Unum Sint» in three chapters: «The Catholic Church’s Commitment to Ecumenism,» «The Fruits of Dialogue,» and «Quanta Est Nobis Via?» Our examination of the encyclical letter follows in two parts. First, we look to the Pope’s teaching regarding the Church’s commitment to ecumenism as well as the fruits of recent dialogue. Second, we turn our attention to how much farther we have to go and how the primacy of Peter is indispensable to the journey of Christian unity.

Catholic ecumenical commitment and the fruits of dialogue

John Paul II reminds us that the [Second Vatican] Council committed the Church irrevocably to ecumenism and that it is the duty of the Bishop of Rome to encourage the need for full communion among all of Christ’s disciples.

In fact, quoting «Unitatis Redintegratio,» the Pope acknowledges that there is already a stringent bond, an essential unity, among all Christians: «All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord by the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church» (No. 13).

As with baptism, many of the elements constitutive of the Church may be found outside her visible boundaries. Baptism and the concomitant gift of the Holy Spirit secure the reality of grace operative in all other churches and ecclesial communities.

Thus, there is already a partial communion among all Christians. «Ecumenism is directed precisely to making the partial communion existing between Christians grow towards full communion in truth and charity» (No. 14).

The change of heart, which must be effected in all Christians, begins with common, ecumenical prayer. «When Christians pray together, the goal of unity seems closer. The long history of Christians marked by many sad divisions seems to converge once more because it tends towards that source of its unity which is Jesus Christ» (No. 22).

The reciprocal relationship of prayer and community instills a greater sense of unity and evokes in us an awareness that what unites us is much greater than what divides us. In such wise, prayer and community lead naturally to dialogue. «When undertaking dialogue, each side must presuppose in the other a desire for reconciliation, for unity in truth. For this to happen, any display of mutual opposition must disappear. Only thus will dialogue help to overcome division and lead us to closer unity» (No. 29).

Dialogue also leads perforce to an examination of conscience. Such an examination leads us to the truth that we are all sinners, that we all stand in need of grace, and that we have all in some way sinned against Christian unity.

Without a doubt, love for the truth compels us to present the whole body of our doctrines clearly, cogently and without dilution. «Full communion of course will have to come about through the acceptance of the whole truth into which the Holy Spirit guides Christ’s disciples. Hence all forms of reductionism or facile agreement must be absolutely avoided. Serious questions must be resolved, for if not, they will reappear at another time, either in the same terms or in a different guise» (No. 36; see Nos. 18 and 133).

Ecumenism, then, is not ignoring differences, but focusing on commonalities. When we focus on the truth or on the various modes of fluency in expressing truth we find ourselves not only more cognizant of our own shortcomings in conveying divine realities in human language, but also more appreciative of other Christian conveyances of the same truth.

But ecumenism is more than that. Christians must cooperate on the pastoral, cultural and social levels. Such cooperation brings us closer to unity and also «becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved» (No. 40).

The principle fruits of dialogue rest on the communion of baptismal character. And the Pope does not wish us to be unaware that significant ecumenical progress has already materialized.

It is manifest in the joint ventures of Christians to protect freedom, justice and peace in the name of Christ. It is manifest in ecumenical efforts to share the copious understandings of the Word of God. It is manifest in the renewal of divine worship and the sacraments. All of these manifestations have led to greater communion within Christianity.

The Church has renewed heartfelt and open communication with the churches of the East and the ecclesial communities of the West. «Before the world, the united action in society on the part of Christians has the clear value of a joint witness in the name of the Lord …» and «the communion of faith which already exists between Christians provides a solid foundation for their joint action not only in the social field but also in the religious sphere. Such cooperation will facilitate the quest for unity» (No. 75).

Citing the ecumenical overtures of John XXIII, Paul VI [and] John Paul I, as well as his own labors on behalf of Christian unity, the Pope notes that the cause of Christ has been stalwartly advanced in terms of peace. «When we survey the world, joy fills our hearts. For we note that Christians feel ever more challenged by the issue of peace. They see it as intimately connected with the proclamation of the Gospel and with the coming of God’s kingdom» (No. 76).

Quanta Est Nobis Via?

John Paul II is clear in stating that the aforementioned commitment of the Church to ecumenism and the progress already made is laudable and surely pleasing in the eyes of God.

Yet, it is not enough. «The ultimate goal of the ecu
menical movement is to re-establish full visible unity among all the baptized. In view of this goal, all the results so far attained are but one stage of the journey, however promising and positive» (No. 77).

The Pope is also clear in stating that the Church must enter into a «dialogue of conversion» (No. 82). The ecumenical road to full unity is arduous. It demands repentance and trust in the Lord. Although a dialogue of conversion presents enormous challenges, its goals are God’s will, and we cannot «hesitate to be converted to the Father’s expectations» (No. 85).

For this reason, we must be acutely aware of the Christian witness and erudition proffered by other churches and ecclesial communities, we must be ready to acknowledge the sanctity present outside the visible confines of the Church, and we must be willing to meet the hopes and expectations of our fellow Christians. In other words, the Church has an especial responsibility within Christianity toward ecumenical unity.

Quoting «Lumen Gentium» to the effect that only the Church has preserved the Petrine ministry, «the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity,» the Pope confesses his unique role in the quest for Christian unity as the «servus servorum Dei.» «This designation is the best possible safeguard against the risk of separating power (and in particular the primacy) from ministry» (No. 88).

The Pope is unabashed in his affirmation of the See of Peter as the sign and guarantor of unity, and he is consoled by the fact that other churches and ecclesial communities have expressed an openness to reconsider the Petrine ministry in Christianity.

In Nos. 90 [and] 92, the Pope recounts the many passages in holy Scripture that pertain to St. Peter’s distinctive vocation during the ministry of the Lord and in the early Church.

The Pope goes on to say: «As heir to the mission of Peter in the Church, which has been made fruitful by the blood of the Prince of the Apostles, the Bishop of Rome exercises a ministry originating in the manifold mercy of God. This mercy converts hearts and pours forth the power of grace where the disciple experiences the bitter taste of personal weakness and helplessness. The authority proper to this ministry is completely at the service of God’s merciful plan, and it must always be seen in this perspective. Its power is explained from this perspective» (No. 92).

The Petrine ministry, then, is not a ministry of lording over, but of leading in and to the Lord. «The mission of the Bishop of Rome within the college of pastors consists precisely in keeping watch (‘episkopein’), like a sentinel, so that, through the efforts of the pastors, the true voice of Christ the Shepherd may be heard in all the particular churches. In this way, in each of the particular churches entrusted to those pastors, the ‘una, sancta, catholica et apostolica Ecclesia’ is made present. All the churches are in full and visible communion because all the pastors are in communion with Peter and therefore united in Christ. With the power and authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of the Church. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity» (No. 94).

Recalling that the Bishop of Rome presided over a united Church for the first millennium of Christianity, the Pope ardently claims that whatever relates to unity among Christians is the rightful concern of the See of Peter.

Therewith the Pope offers this, his sacred ministry, to all Christians. With poignancy, the Pope asks all Christians to bear in mind the difficulty of preaching reconciliation to the world when we ourselves remain unreconciled.

The lack of Christian unity is detrimental to the preaching of the Gospel and injurious to the law of love. The Petrine ministry comes to the aid of all Christians in leading them to unity and, therefore, to the Lord.

In preparation for the third millennium of Christianity, the Pope exhorts bishops, priests and laity to accept their respective responsibilities, as the Pope accepts his, to promote «the unity of all Christians by supporting all activities or initiatives undertaken for this purpose, in the awareness that the Church has this obligation from the will of Christ himself» (No. 101; see No. 19).

The Pope also avows that the grace of the Holy Spirit will remain with us always in order to bring us to unity. For our part, we must continue to pray, to give thanks, and to hope in the Lord that we all may be one.

How then are we to consider the primacy of Peter in «Ut Unum Sint»? The first consideration is the weight of John Paul II’s magisterial authority now lent to a specific interpretation of «Lumen Gentium,» «Unitatis Redintegratio» and a plethora of the teachings of his immediate predecessors.

The Pope gives an emphatic urgency to ecumenism heretofore unknown in the Church. That is not to say that ecumenism was unimportant in the past, but it is to say that our present Pope lays great emphasis on the immediacy of the problem of Christian division and the obligation to seek its rectification without delay.

The second consideration is the grave onus the Pope places upon himself and his office. The Pope sees ecumenism as constitutive of the Petrine ministry he exercises. That is not to say that the sad divisions within Christianity did not trouble his predecessors, but it is to say that our present Pope lays great emphasis on his own role as the Successor of Peter, the first servant of unity.

But perhaps the most striking testimonial of «Ut Unum Sint» is the ease with which any Christian might read this present encyclical letter of the Bishop of Rome. In more ways than one, «Ut Unum Sint» is an example of the very thing of which it speaks.

In «Ut Unum Sint,» John Paul II writes as the servant of unity to all the servants of Christ in an attempt to procure the unity for which the Bishop of Rome is responsible with the help and by the grace of God.

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