By Sergio Centofanti
Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Ut unum sint – on ecumenical commitment – was published on 25 May 1995. Twenty-five years later, it maintains its relevance and its prophetic character.
With a forward-looking gaze, it indicates a goal that still seems far off: the unity of Christians. It is the desire of Jesus Himself who, before His Passion, prayed to the Father that His disciples might be one.
The Pope of unity
Pope John Paul II felt personally felt Jesus’ ardent desire and made it his own. Ecumenism became one of the priorities of his Pontificate, because the division of Christians is a scandal that affects the Jesus’ work.
“To believe in Christ,” John Paul writes, “means to desire unity”. It is an act of obedience that broadens the horizons of the heart and mind. But it was precisely the Pope of unity who suffered the great pain of schism. Some among the brothers and sisters did not understand this forward momentum.
The document came just seven years after the illegitimate episcopal ordination conferred by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, which in 1988 formalized his break with Rome.
Accused of relativism
The French traditionalist prelate accused the Polish Pope and the Second Vatican Council of what he called “false ecumenism”, saying they destroyed the true faith and led “the Church into ruin and Catholics into apostasy”. Lefebvre claimed that Providence had entrusted him with the mission of opposing “modern Rome, infested with modernism”, so that “Rome may become Catholic again and rediscover its two thousand year old Tradition”.
In his view, a “Protestant conception” of the Mass and the Sacraments had been introduced.
Lefebvre died in 1991. His disciples attacked the Encyclical of John Paul II because, they said, it not only leads to “dogmatic relativism”, but de facto contained it. This was a position based on “an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition”, as John Paul had already said in the Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei: incomplete. The Pope says this notion does not consider that Tradition is alive and growing as it is handed down from generation to generation, without it being fixed at a predetermined historical date; and contradictory, because Tradition can never be separated from communion with the Pope and with pastors throughout the world.
Dialogue: a priority that allows unexpected discoveries
The Encyclical looks forward with courage. It indicates dialogue as a priority and as a necessary step toward discovering the riches of others. It reviews all the steps taken towards unity with the various Churches and Christian communities, beginning with the mutual lifting of the excommunications between Rome and Constantinople, and the common Christological Declarations with the ancient Churches of the East.
It outlines a path forward that allows “unexpected possibilities” in the awareness that “legitimate diversity is in no way opposed to the Church’s unity”. “Intolerant polemics and controversies”, the text reads, “have made incompatible assertions out of what was really the result of two different ways of looking at the same reality”.
It is a path that can help us “discover the unfathomable riches of the truth” and the presence of elements of sanctification “beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church”.
The expression of truth can take different forms
John Paul II explains that ecumenism is not a matter of “altering the deposit of faith” and “changing the meaning of dogmas”.
Rather, “the expression of truth can take different forms” because “doctrine needs to be presented in a way that makes it understandable to those for whom God himself intends it”, in whatever culture they belong to, avoiding any form of “ethnic exclusivism or racial prejudice, and from any nationalistic arrogance”.
A dialogue of doctrine that is also a dialogue of love
The Encyclical indicates the need for a “manner and method of expounding the Catholic faith” that is not “a hindrance to dialogue with our brothers and sisters”, acknowledging that there is “a hierarchy in the truths” in Catholic teaching.
The Church, John Paul says, is summoned by Christ to “continual reform”, which “might require a review of assertions and attitudes”. Dialogue, he says, “does not extend exclusively to matters of doctrine but engages the whole person” because “it is also a dialogue of love”. It is from love that “the desire for unity is born”. It is a path that demands, “patient and courageous efforts. In this process, one must not impose any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary”.
The primacy of prayer: converging on the essential
In ecumenism, the Polish Pope explains, pride of place belongs to common prayer. Christians, praying together, can discover that what unites them is much stronger than what divides them.
The liturgical renewal carried out by the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communities has allowed for convergences on what is essential, and together, more and more, they are able turn to the Father with one heart. “At times it seems that we are closer to being able finally to seal this ‘real although not yet full’ communion”, the Pope observes. “A century ago who could even have imagined such a thing?”
A common commitment to freedom, justice, peace
Among the steps forward on the path of ecumenism, the Encyclical points to the growing collaboration of Christians of various confessions in their commitment to “freedom, justice, peace, and the future of the world”. The “united voice of Christians has more impact than any one isolated voice” by “inculcating respect for the rights and needs of everyone, especially the poor, the lowly and the defenceless”.
For Christians, the Pope emphasizes, it is not merely a question of humanitarian activity, but of responding to the world of Jesus, as we read in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel: “I was hungry and you gave me food…”
Changing the language: from condemnation to mutual forgiveness
John Paul II calls for a change of language and of attitudes: we must avoid the aggressive and antagonistic approach of opposition, of “a defeatism which tends to see everything in negative terms,” or “of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side’, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption”.
It is necessary, instead, “to do everything possible, with God’s help, to break down the walls of division and distrust, to overcome obstacles and prejudices”, eliminating hurtful words and expressions, choosing the path of humility, meekness and fraternal generosity. So with time we’ve reached the point where we no longer speak of heretics or enemies of the faith, but of “other Christians”, of “others who have received baptism”.
“This broadening of vocabulary”, John Paul points out, “is indicative of a significant change in attitudes”. It is a journey of conversion that passes along a necessary path of mutual repentance for wrongs committed. And Pope John Paul II asks forgiveness for the faults committed by members of the Church.
The primacy of the Pope: a service of love
Full unity has in Peter its visible point of reference, and John Paul II launches an appeal to the various Christian communities to help “find a way of exercising the [papal] primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”, as “a service of love recognized all concerned”.
A Church on the path to unity
Ut unum sint is a splendid synthesis of the Church’s journey through its 2000 years of history. It is a light that points the way forward, continuing along the same path as those who have gone before us.
It shows the living character of Tradition, which – as Dei Verbum says – traces its origins from the Apostles and progresses in the Church under the assistance of the Holy Spirit. And it is thanks to the Spirit that the understanding of the faith grows.
In this journey – says John Paul II quoting St. Cyprian – brothers must learn to go to the altar reconciled, because “God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion”. Instead, “the better sacrifice” to offer to God “is peace, brotherly concord and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.
This is Pope St. John Paul II’s final invitation: to ask the Lord the grace to prepare us all “to offer this sacrifice of unity”.