The Demands of Ecumenism

Interview With Secretary of the Vatican’s Unity Council

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ROME, OCT. 3, 2011 ( Christ’s prayer during the Last Supper makes it clear that he wants his Church to be united. But ecumenism is the exercise of discovering «how this will of Christ should be understood and be put into practice.»

This is the reflection offered by Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Bishop Farrell, 67, spoke with the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

Q: Your Excellency, you are an Irish citizen. How is it that you find yourself here in Rome and working for this council?

Bishop Farrell: Well I started out wanting to be a missionary in Latin America and ended up spending 25 years of my life here in Rome. It has been a strange journey. 

Q: You are working as the secretary at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Was unity always a subject close to your heart?

Bishop Farrell: Well yes, I would say. I grew up with very dear Anglican and Methodist friends, and was always interested in the different reasons why they could not come into my church and why I could not go to theirs, and why we should have two different ones. But, that was a childish kind of interest. When I came back to Rome after a number of years as a young active priest, I had to choose a theme for a doctoral thesis, so I decided I would do something in this field. I did a thesis at the Gregorian University, which before I even finished became in a sense a dead book, because during that period I began to work in the Secretary of State — in a whole different kind of world — and stayed there until almost the end of the pontificate of Pope John Paul ll. The thesis was kind of forgotten. Then suddenly one day, precisely a year and a half before the Pope died, he sent me to be secretary of the Council of Christian Unity, and everything came back into the picture. 

Q: What are the goals of this council? 

Bishop Farrell: The council was set up just before the Second Vatican Council as an instrument through which Pope John XXIII wanted to bring into the discussions of the Second Vatican Council his concern for the unity of the Churches. And the Second Vatican Council, during the period when all of the bishops of the world were here, played a very active part in what I call educating the bishops about the true nature of the Church and our true relationship to all the baptized, who generally speaking before the Second Vatican Council were always considered to be just outside the Church. During the four years of the council, the bishops learned, through their discussions, through the presence of observers from the Orthodox Churches and the Protestant communities, a lot so that at the end of three years they were able to practically unanimously affirm a document in which we recognized that with all of the baptized, with all of the other Christian churches and communities we have a real, though incomplete, but real communion.

Q: Pope Benedict XVI has made this ecumenical dialogue – particularly with the Russian Orthodox Church – a priority of his pontificate. Why is this a priority for this Pope? 

Bishop Farrell: Well, let me start by saying yes there is a certain priority [with the Russian Orthodox] because that is the biggest of all the Orthodox Churches. But, this interest and desire for greater communion with the Orthodox embraces the entire Orthodox world to the point where our theological dialogue with the Orthodox cannot be with individual Orthodox Churches. We have agreed from the very beginning that it has to be with all of them together because all of them together form a unity. They have the same principals, they have the same structures and they have the same tradition, the same liturgical values and beauty. So they work as one in the theological dialogue. 

Now, in the meantime we also have bilateral or direct relationships with each one of these individual Orthodox Churches and since the Second Vatican Council, these relationships have developed enormously. With some Churches it has been faster than with others, with some it is deeper than with others, but we can say that with all of the Orthodox Churches, without exclusion, we have at this point very friendly, very open and very constant contact and collaboration in many ways. When Pope Benedict XVI says that yes, the dialogue with the Orthodox Churches is a priority, this is clear and if you ask me why I will simply say because they are so close to us. We have the same faith, we have the same sacraments, we have the same apostolic succession; therefore we absolutely consider that every one of their bishops and their priests are true bishops and true priests. In that we have a closeness that we do not have with any other Christian community.

Q: Where have we not made the bridge? Where is it that we have not been able to reach unity? 

Bishop Farrell: This is a very difficult question to answer in a few words. It takes volumes, it takes whole libraries, it takes years of discussion to work out where we are with each other. 

Q: It has been one thousand years of separation…

Bishop Farrell: It will take a long time to learn to live with one another, truly recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in the same Church. And this brings me to a very important element, which I think is absolutely necessary if one wants to understand what ecumenism is all about. Ecumenism is not like intergovernmental or international politics where you have a common goal and you can make compromises on how to get there — where there are strategies and tactics and so on. Ecumenism is discovering what God wants and how he wants it. 

Now, we know that Christ’s will for the Church is unity; he prayed for this the night before he died. We know that this unity has been broken almost from the very beginning. Our ecumenical effort is to discover today how this will of Christ should be understood and be put into practice. It also has to deal with not just personal relationships. It has to do, above all, with what we call communion. Communion means participating, sharing in all of those gifts, all of those graces that Christ has transmitted to the Church through the Holy Spirit. Ecumenism is a matter of all of us being better recipients of all that Christ wants to come alive in his Church. As you can see it is a very profound and very difficult question. It involves not just thought, not just theology, it involves above all living the Christian life. It involves above all how deep our faith is.

The day we will be able to sit together with the Orthodox and say there is nothing further that divides us, we are together, and we will be actually making an act of faith. And if I try to imagine what that day will be like it will, I am sure, be some sort of great liturgical celebration in which we will profess our faith. Now this involves the whole person, this involves your life; you commit yourself. Ecumenism is very demanding in that sense. It is not just a question of agreements here and there between church people; it means that the whole body of the Church has to assimilate this greater fidelity to Christ and to the Gospel. There is an enormous amount of work to be done.  

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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