87: Ecumenism: Against the feeling of superiority
87: Ecumenism: Against the feeling of superiority

87: Ecumenism: Against the feeling of superiority

Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby deliver a blessing as they conclude a vespers service at the Church of St. Gregory in Rome Oct. 5, 2016. Image copyright: PAUL HARING/CNS

Last week’s post argued on the urgency of ecumenism in the Church in Nigeria. One is dishonest to argue that there are no efforts made. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the Church’s commitment to ecumenism, Ut unum sint, is instructive to the Church’s inter-denominational dialogue. However, we can improve our efforts. Two related points undermine improvement: apostolicity and over-emphasis on our superiority.

Apostolicity is the mark that shows that the Catholic Church is identical to the Church Christ founded upon the apostles. Describing the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council teaches:

“This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth”. This Church constituted and organised in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium, 8).

Our apostolicity has led to an over-emphasis on superiority – ‘They must come back to us’ and ‘we must always lead’.

Yet, the same Second Vatican Council says the following concerning our separated brethren:

“For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptised are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church – whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church – do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3).

As ecumenical studies and interests have changed, we should no longer be unwilling to engage those not in full communion with the Church, that is, in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance (Lumen Gentium, 14; Canon 205). No doubt, some of them are antagonistic, and many began by attacking the Church in their sermons before some gradually fell into the same customs they rejected.

Jesus habitually reached out to subordinates, sinners, and those in need. He reached out and chose his disciples. He said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). Jesus also visited and dined with Pharisees and tax collectors. He reached out to the poor, prostitutes, adulterers, the sick and the possessed. These visits and shared meals did not mean he was no longer the Christ, nor did they make these people the Christ.

If Christ, the head of the Church and our model, reached out, should we not follow in his footsteps?

Pope Francis understands this principle. Hence, part of his strategy is to de-emphasise the long-standing tradition of Catholic superiority to become arguably the most non-sectarian pope in history. In his address to the Ecumenical Pilgrimage to Geneva to mark the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches on 21 June 2018, Pope Francis said:

“Let us also look to our many brothers and sisters in various parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, who suffer because they are Christians. Let us draw close to them. May we never forget that our ecumenical journey is preceded and accompanied by an ecumenism already realised, the ecumenism of blood, which urges us to go forward. Let us encourage one another to overcome the temptation to absolutise certain cultural paradigms and get caught up in partisan interests”.[1]

Pope Francis also has strengthened relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the first among equals (primus inter pares) among the various leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church. On 10 February 2022, Pope Francis sent him a congratulatory message on the 30th anniversary of his election, expressing their “good personal rapport”[2]

On 15 January 2023, Pope Francis announced that there would be an Ecumenical Prayer Vigil at St Peter’s Square on Saturday, 30 September 2023, to entrust the work of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to God. The Taizé community (an ecumenical monastery in France) will also organise a special weekend program for young people, who will come for the vigil. This vigil means Catholics and the so-called Protestants will pray together before Catholic leaders deliberate on Catholic Church’s reforms.

On 3 February 2023, Pope Francis made an ‘ecumenical pilgrimage of peace’ to South Sudan with Archbishop Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, and Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. They shared the stage as they continued their effort towards ending the conflict in South Sudan. They also returned to Rome in the same flight. As Pope Francis said,

We undertook this ecumenical pilgrimage of peace after hearing the plea of an entire people that, with great dignity, weeps for the violence it endures, its persistent lack of security, its poverty and the natural disasters that it has experienced. Years of war and conflict seem never to end and recently, even yesterday, there have been bitter clashes[3].

Indeed, we live in a time where aggregation and unity are indispensable for economic, political, and religious survival. To pursue any purpose as a religious body, we must come together without emphasis on superiority. We must not always expect our separated brethren to come to us or assume that we must lead.

De-emphasising our superiority does not negate our apostolicity nor grant them apostolicity.

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


[1] Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis on his ecumenical pilgrimage to Geneva to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the World Council of Churches, 21 June 2018, available at URL: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2018/june/documents/papa-francesco_20180621_pellegrinaggio-ginevra.html (accessed 23/02/2023).

[2]  Pope Francis, Video Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 30th anniversary of the election of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, 10 February 2022, available at URL: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2022/documents/20220210-videomessaggio-30bartolomeo.html (accessed 23/02/2023).

[3] Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness on Apostolic Pilgrimage to South Sudan, Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps, 3 February 2023, available at URL: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2023/february/documents/20230203-autorita-sudsudan.html (accessed 23/02/2023).

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