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Ecumenism Is Far from Passé

Denis GrasskaBy Msgr. Dennis L. Mikulanis

Every year, sandwiched between Catholic Schools Week and annual pro-life events surrounding the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, is a commemoration that is considerably older, equally important and, sadly, little recognized: the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. 

For more than a century, the international commemoration has reminded all Christians that the ecumenical ministry of the Church is not a mere appendage, but an essential part of Church life, as popes from John XXIII to Benedict XVI have constantly preached. 

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is celebrated in different ways, from solemn vespers presided over by the Holy Father to local ministerial or ecumenical association prayer services.

This year, however, two major events took place in January that brought the Church’s work for unity to international attention. 

One was the election of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, successor to Patriarch Alexei II, for which Pope Benedict XVI sent fraternal greetings and congratulations.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Patriarch Alexei guided the Orthodox Church back to a place of prominence in Russian life, but relations with the Catholic Church remained “cool” at best. By contrast, Patriarch Kirill seems open to warmer relations with the Catholic Church and has said there is much the two Churches can do together for the betterment of the world.

The second event that surprised most, shocked many and angered some was the lifting of the excommunications leveled against four men who were illicitly ordained bishops by the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers rejected Vatican II, formed the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and claim they alone maintain Catholic tradition. Doctrines such as religious liberty, ecumenism and interreligious cooperation are anathema to them.

On Feb. 4, the Secretariat of State of the Holy See stated that, “For any future recognition of the [SSPX], a full recognition of the Second Vatican Council and the magisterium of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI himself is an indispensable condition”; the statement carried an implicit admission that at least some members of the SSPX do not recognize the legitimate authority of these popes.

However, in recent years, the group has sought to regularize its relationship with the Church and, in a conciliatory move, Pope Benedict lifted the excommunication imposed by Pope John Paul II. This does not mean the four bishops are now in full communion with the Church, but only that they are no longer formally excommunicated and that the door to dialogue is open. This is similar to the current relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The situation was complicated when Lefebvrite Bishop Richard Williamson, during a television interview, denied that 6 million Jews had died in Nazi gas chambers. His beliefs were immediately condemned by, among others, Pope Benedict and  Bishop Williamson’s fellow Lefebvrite bishops. The Vatican re-affirmed the Second Vatican Council’s repudiation of anti-Semitism in all forms and rushed to assure our Jewish brothers and sisters that Bishop Williamson’s comments were just the erroneous opinions of a man with a long way to go before being fully reconciled with the Church.

All of these recent events give Catholics cause to realize that ecumenism is far from passé. The great ecumenical thaw of 40 years ago has allowed us to enter more deeply into dialogue with one another. Perhaps the Week of Christian Unity doesn’t have the impact it should precisely because the Church’s ecumenical ministry has been so effective, but that is still no excuse. If we Catholics take seriously our calling to proclaim the Gospel to the world, then perhaps the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will attain a more important place in our lives.

The Southern Cross

This commentary first appeared in the February 2009 issue of The Southern Cross.

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