Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:
A Spirituality for the Long
When the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity held its plenary meeting last November, Pope John Paul admitted to the council members that "the ecumenical path is not an easy path. Little by little, as we progress, the obstacles are easier to identify and the difficulties are more clearly seen."
The objective of the meeting was to focus on ways to develop a "spirituality for ecumenism", so necessary during this "intermediate period" when so much progress has been made, but new obstacles seem to have stalled the process. I would like to propose here some components for an ecumenical spirituality for the long haul.
First on my list would be baptismal solidarity. Too much energy has gone into defending differences and maintaining self-definitions that allow us to keep our distance from each other. Catholics and Orthodox like to underline the real presence, the apostolic succession, the biggest numbers, the longest track record. On the Protestants' trophy shelf are the primacy of the Word of God, a clear sense of the priesthood of all the baptized, participatory and inclusive forms of church government and equality of ministerial opportunity for women.
The disturbing news of the Gospel is that this way of self-identification is an illusion. It makes us competitive people who want to maintain our identities at all costs. But it is not a question of some belonging to Apollo, some to Peter and some to Paul. The Gospel asserts that our real identity is not at the edges of our existence where we can brag about our specialities, but at the center where we are rooted in Christ and where the bond of the Spirit gives us our essential Christian sameness. On this basis we are in solidarity with all Christians. Baptismal solidarity means desiring to participate in our sameness as fully and deeply as possible.
Second on my list would be voluntary displacement. For Christians who are trying to unveil and bring visibly to the fore our essential unity in the Spirit, voluntary displacement has some real implications. It calls us to distance ourselves from the comfortable and the secure. As we begin to do this, we will experience our true condition as pilgrims on the way and as sinners in need of grace. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, comes from two words: ek (out) and kaleo (to call). They indicate that we are called out of the familiar places to unknown territories where our unity in body of Christ is impaired and in need of healing.
We cannot enter into genuine dialogue without being changed. We cannot open ourselves to sharing life without being transformed. Our vision of Church will change. Our appraisal of other traditions will change. Our hearts and minds will become restless with a holy unrest as we become sensitized to the disobedience we are living as we settle comfortably into the status quo of division. Like a pilgrim's tent, ecclesiastical structures should be provisional so that they can be taken apart and put together again at each new stage of the journey. Voluntary displacement means we accept that as sojourners in the wilderness we are always moving forward to new campsites.
A third element in a spirituality for the long haul is biblical patience. True patience is the opposite of passive waiting in which we let things happen and allow others to make the decisions. Patience means entering actively into the thick of life and fully bearing the suffering within and around us. The word patience comes from the latin verb patior which means "to suffer". As Jean Vanier has said, "Most are in favor of Christian unity. Some are even willing to work for it. But few are willing to suffer for it."
Patience requires that we go beyond the choice between fleeing or fighting. It is more difficult than either, because it goes against the grain of our impulses. Patience involves staying with it, seeing it through, listening carefully to what presents itself to us here and now.
Patience calls for creative waiting, for doing now what we can instead of moaning about what church disciplines will not allow us to do. Biblical patience means overcoming the fear of a controversial subject, paying attention to shameful memories and searching for the healing that comes from understanding and forgiveness. It means being willing to accept or absorb negativity so that the person who is the source of it will eventually go beyond it.
At the plenary meeting of the Council for Christian Unity, John Paul II said that "despite the temptation to move too fast or to just give up, in the school of ecumenism we are learning to live this intermediate period with humble trust, knowing that it is a period of no return." A continuing commitment to dialogue and progress in Christian unity is possible, he said, only if we make it clear that "there is no other choice" because unity is the will of Jesus Christ for those who follow him.
He encouraged all church members to contribute to the development of an
ecumenical spirituality by participating in the January 18-25 Week of
Prayer for Christian Unity and by praying frequently for the unity of
Thomas Ryan, CSP, coordinates the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City.