Quest for Christian Unity: Where It Stands

Interview With Bishop Farrell, Secretary of Council for Promoting Christian Unity

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 25, 2004 ( Impatience is a great temptation against ecumenism, says the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

At the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Bishop Brian Farrell assessed the state of the quest for full unity among the disciples of Christ.

Q: What is the present state of the search for Christian unity?

Bishop Farrell: There are lights and shadows. Significant ecumenical achievements are visible at the local level of parishes, dioceses, associations. All kinds of shared activities and cooperation are being implemented.

Generally, people are convinced that there is no turning back from the search for the unity that Christ wishes for his followers. There is a new interest in “spiritual” ecumenism, that is, in prayer for unity and in purifying the idea that communities have of one another.

Among the shadows: Some become discouraged that things take so long; it is not always easy to involve the younger generation, which has perhaps less experience of how relations between divided Christians have changed in past decades.

And then, importantly, after the various ecumenical dialogues have focused on the many things Christians have in common, we are now reaching the point when we have to face the deeper differences between the Churches, and this requires more patient and more penetrating effort. Impatience is a great temptation against ecumenism.

Q: How are relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches?

Bishop Farrell: Enormous progress has been made in recent years in improving relations and cooperation with the various Orthodox Churches individually.

With practically all of them there is regular contact and exchange of ideas. There are frequent visits of delegations — impossible to list them all here.

There is an increasing effort to face common challenges together, especially in Europe. Unfortunately, all of this is sometimes overshadowed by the media insistence on the tensions and misunderstandings which can and do exist in some cases.

In the new situation in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism, the Catholic presence is more visible, and this is sometimes perceived as a threat by the Orthodox. They have a wider concept of proselytism than we do in the West, and therefore tensions do arise. This is especially true in many of the events surrounding the re-emergence of the Greek-Catholic Church in Ukraine.

Only in a fraternal love that excludes rivalry and competition, and is truly an exchange of gifts, can we overcome these serious difficulties.

Another important sign that we are making headway is the great effort which has been made on both sides to restart the international theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and all the Orthodox Churches together, stalled for the past few years. The coordinating committee of the dialogue will be convened in the near future to suggest a path forward.

Q: How are relations with the ancient Churches of the East?

Bishop Farrell: These are the Churches which remained outside the influence of the Roman Empire and developed their own specific traditions in theological and ecclesiastical matters: the Copts, the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, the Malankara Church. With these the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has begun a new theological dialogue.

There is also a dialogue in course with the Assyrian Church of the East. These Churches are especially present in the Middle East.

In the present situation of conflicts and divisions, the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Churches are conscious of the need to strengthen their cooperation on the pastoral and social levels. Ecumenically they tend increasingly to work together as a family of Churches.

After a preparatory meeting with representatives of these Churches here in Rome last year, the first session of the dialogue will take place this coming week in Cairo. The Holy See will be presented by Cardinal Kasper, and it is hoped that the meeting can, above all, strengthen already existing forms of cooperation and communion.

Q: How are relations with the Anglican Communion?

Bishop Farrell: As everyone knows, this past year has been particularly intense in this area.

The first visit of the new archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, to the Pope was greatly successful in consolidating the special nature of Anglican-Catholic relations and in laying the ground for even more frequent and “almost institutional” contacts.

However, the internal difficulties of the Anglican Communion could not but have serious consequences on ecumenical relations. Now the Anglican Communion must clarify how it intends to hold together as a Communion.

Our theological dialogue will continue, but the other official instrument of Anglican-Catholic dialogue [the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, or IARCCUM] will not meet as a body, but will work through a special subcommission to harvest from already agreed-upon statements the ecclesiological principles that might be of help at this time.

As you see, far from weakening our dialogue, this time of challenge has brought a new intensity to our ecumenical exchange.

Q: How are relations with the Reformation communities?

Bishop Farrell: Since the solemn signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in Augsburg in 1999, relations between Catholics and Lutherans and other Reformation-originated communities have continued to develop and improve. There are yearly meetings and a whole series of discussions and conversations.

A survey of the past year shows how important is has become that spiritual communion in prayer and worship, human encounters and theological discussions contribute together to affirming the goal of the full and visible unity of the Church.

Representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity meet regularly at least once a year for consultations between the staff members of the two bodies, alternately in Rome and in Geneva, on all the pressing questions facing their relationship.

The Joint International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2002, and started a new and promising dialogue phase. Methodists are investigating the possibility of officially endorsing the agreements reached in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

With the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the dialogue continues in its present third dialogue phase, seeking the biblical and theological foundations of our common witness in the world. There is also a promising series of conversations with the Mennonites, the Baptist World Alliance [and] the Disciples of Christ.

Since 1972 there has been an international Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue with a group of leaders and communities of classical Pentecostalism. This makes it possible to address mutual misunderstandings and to learn better to understand the others’ speech patterns and ways of living the Christian message.

There is constant contact and interaction between the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Q: What is the motor that fuels ecumenical work and progress?

Bishop Farrell: As you can see, the ecumenical world is a vast and varied one. The overall picture is of achievement and progress. We know that unity will be God’s gift and not a human feat.

It is important to return to the core concept of the ecumenical movement, the impulse that has sustained and inspired it from the beginning, and to develop on that basis a new energy for and a new commitment to true dialogue.
Crucial at the beginning of the ecumenical movement was the spiritual ecumenism that inspired the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and sustains it still. The ecumenism of life and love must be renewed at all levels, from theology to pastoral activity.

If ecumenical cooperation could create ever increasing numbers of “meeting places of unity in diversity,” this would open up a field of intensive learning and action; it would offer the experience of a reconciling and enriching communion in action as a way of deepening the bonds between Christians on the basis of their common baptism and faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ.

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