Athens, New Stage in Ecumenical Journey

Interview With Vatican Delegate to Mission Congress

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ATHENS, Greece, MAY 15, 2005 ( The 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism included for the first time a more numerous delegation of Vatican representatives, marking a new stage in the ecumenical journey.

The conference organized by the World Council of Churches, took place in Athens, Greece, from May 9-16, and included participants from virtually all Christian traditions.

Bishop Brian Farrell, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, led the 26-member delegation. In this interview he comments on the progress made and the challenges that remain in the process of uniting Christians.

Q: The Catholic Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches. Why has it sent an official delegation?

Bishop Farrell: It’s true, the Catholic Church is not part of the council, but since the time of the Second Vatican Council, it has had stable relations with this organization.

First, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has its own representatives in Geneva, and in the Department for Mission and Evangelization of the World Council of Churches, which has organized this conference.

Also, there are 12 Catholic theologians, named by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the Commission of Faith and Order.

Finally, there is a mixed working group between the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church, which gives continuity to the relationship.

Q: What attitude does the World Council of Churches have toward the Catholic Church?

Bishop Farrell: In the last years there has been notable interest by the World Council of Churches in the Catholic Church. But they are interested not only in the Catholic Church, as the conference attests. The council is trying to involve a greater number of Churches in its own initiatives, including those of Pentecostal and Charismatic origin.

Q: What is the objective of this conference, which for 8 days has gathered in Athens 650 Christians from all over the world.

Bishop Farrell: It is not a meeting from which official documents must result. The plan was to organize a fraternal meeting, at the world level, among different Churches. In this respect, the conference is an important event, as it fosters reciprocal knowledge and exchanges, calm reflection and dialogue.

Q: Has this objective been achieved in Athens?

Bishop Farrell: Certainly. The conference has offered everyone opportunities to meet with representatives from other churches. In particular, the place chosen for this meeting has made possible ample Orthodox participation.

Q: Has this made the dialogue with the Orthodox Church easier?

Bishop Farrell: The Greek Orthodox Church has been committed for a long time to ensure the good development of the conference. And the fact that for the first time it takes place in a country of Orthodox majority is not a mere geographic fact; it has symbolic value, full of possible developments. Moreover, the meeting is taking place in a propitious moment, shortly after the final report of the special commission on Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches, which has addressed some controversial points.

Q: Have you had informal meetings with other delegations?

Bishop Farrell: Yes, of course. We have had many contacts within and outside the works of the conference, with the Greek Orthodox Church and with other Churches and organizations with which the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has relations of study and collaboration. Moreover, all moments of the day have allowed for contacts and exchanges between delegates of the different churches.

Q: What method was followed in the working sessions?

Bishop Farrell: In relation to the past, there have been novelties. The topic «Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile!» has not been reflected on in-depth with theoretical addresses. Preference has been given to an attitude that emphasizes the experiential dimension, on which there was reflection. The addresses that have taken place every day in the sessions of the plenary were not professorial lectures. On more than one occasion, there have been contributions made by way of dialogue, geared to opening perspectives rather than arriving at conclusions shared by all. Moreover, great importance has been given to the so-called «sinaxeis,» namely, the numerous afternoon workshops on which specific issues have been discussed. The spiritual framework of these exchanges and reflections has been prayer, especially listening to the Word of God in small groups with the method of «Lectio Divina.»

Q: Can you offer a conclusive judgment?

Bishop Farrell: This conference offers the hope that there might be convergence on the important questions of the mission. In a world like ours, in rapid transformation, Christians are obliged to find a common answer and not 100 different answers, rivaling one another. Naturally, in a conference with such different presences, one realizes the complexity of the ecumenical journey. But the Spirit, who heals and reconciles, is able to find the way to make communion among churches grow.

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