Pope John Paul and Ecumenism: A Tribute on his Beatification on May 1, 2011

Posted by: Fr. Lhem | April 13th, 2011

The Ecumenical Pope

    Throughout his entire life, the late Pope John Paul the Great has shown the world how passionate was he in fostering inter-Christian dialogue or what we commonly called ecumenism. Even when he was still a bishop/cardinal in an overwhelmingly Catholic Krakow, his ecumenist enthusiasm thrived through participating ecumenical services during the Chair of Unity Octave, an eight-day period of prayer for Christian unity, observed in the West since the early 20th Century, held in Poland. In his sermon, he praised the Protestant monks from the ecumenical community at Taize, France, whom he had met during Vatican II. When he became Pope, he traveled extensively and came into contact with believers from many divergent faiths. He constantly attempted to find common ground, both doctrinal and dogmatic. He had a good relationship with the Anglican Church, whom Paul VI called “Sister Church” but greatly disappointed with its decision to ordain women. In May 1999, John Paul II visited Romania on the invitation from Patriarch Teoctist of the Romanian Orthodox Church. This was the first time a pope had visited a predominantly Eastern Orthodox country since the Great Schism in 1054. His dream of visiting Russia to open ecumenical dialogue to the Russian orthodox Church did not realize in his lifetime. 1

Criticisms and Praises

    Pope John Paul, in his entire pontificate, has gained mixed praises and criticisms from both Catholic and non-Catholic folds alike. Conservative bloc within the Church have commented that the Pope has gone through extreme in his ecumenical endeavor by participating in the following few instances, like: preaching in a Lutheran church Liturgy(December 11, 1983) reciting psalms with Jews while visiting the synagogue of Rome (April 13, 1986) inviting Catholics and Jews to prepare together for the coming of the Messiah (June 24, 1986) engaging in dialogues with the high priests and witch doctors of Voodoo (February 4, 1993) taking part in Animist rites in the “Sacred Forest” in Togo (August 8, 1985) had the sacred Tilac put on his forehead by a priestess of Shiva in Bombay (February 2, 1986) and invited representatives of the “main religions” (about 130 came) to Assisi to pray for peace (October 27, 1986). 2
    On the other hand, Protestant churches and liberal Catholics have commended the Pope on the abovementioned endeavors. But to their dismay, they attacked the Pope’s seemingly “contradiction” in his ecumenical pursuit when the Pope published his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, reiterating the Vatican II documents of the unicity of the church and of the subsistence of the Church of Christ in the Catholic Church as having the full means of salvation. The encyclical as followed up by the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith Domini Iesus published upon his authority. Many who felt this way wondered how this document could so quickly follow the ecumenical triumph of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification issued October 1999 by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran church. 3

What really is Ecumenism as perceived by Pope John Paul II?

    Pope John Paul II held on to what he called mature and authentic ecumenism. It involves not only a spirit of penance and conversion on all sides but a willingness to face our differences directly, realizing with him that “far more unites us than divides us.” Authentic ecumenical sensitivity and reverence do not drift into religious indifferentism. Rather, they require a bold and authentic Catholic witness so that genuine ecumenical progress and dialogue can occur. 4

    Ut Unum Sint and Domini Deus: PJP’s Ecumenical Pursuit in the light of Catholic Ecclesiology
    PJP reiteration of the Vatican II teachings in line with his ecumenical work, as found in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint and Domini Deus, is a clear manifestation of his search for an authentic ecumenical spirit. Christ founded only one Church —his Church— on Peter, with the guarantee of indefectibility in the face of the persecutions, divisions and obstacles of every kind which she would encounter in the course of history (cf. Mt 16:18). Therefore, only one Church exists, which we confess in the Creed as “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic”5

Unicity, Subsistence of the Church

    Pope John Paul reaffirmed the Second Vatican Council, in n. 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, stated that “this Church, constituted and organized as a society in this present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although (licet) many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside her structure; such elements, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic unity”.
    As is well known, this famous expression “subsistit in” was subsequently the object of many and contradictory interpretations. The notion became quite widespread that the Council had not wanted to adopt as its own the traditional statement according to which the Church of Christ is (est) the Catholic Church —as was stated in the preparatory schema so as to be able to say that the Church of Christ subsists also in Christian communities separated from Rome.
    “Subsisting is a special case of being. It is being in the form of a subject standing on its own. This is the issue here. The Council wants to tell us that the Church of Jesus Christ as a concrete subject in the present world can be encountered in the Catholic Church. This can occur only once and the notion that subsistit could be multiplied misses precisely what was intended. With the word subsistit, the Council wanted to express the singularity and non-multiplicability of the Catholic Church” 6

Subsistence of the Catholic Church in each Particular Church

    John Paul II wrote of “particular Churches in which there subsists the fullness of the universal Church” 7 or that the “Catholic Church herself subsists in each particular Church” 8 The fullness of the universal Church can indeed be predicated of every particular Church, in the sense that, in each particular Church, “the Church universal with all her essential elements is made present” 9 Therefore, each particular Church is constituted “in the image of the universal Church” 10 and, in each one, “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is truly present and operative (inest et operatur)”11
    This fullness of the particular Church, however, does not come from its particularity, but rather from the presence in it of all the essential elements of ecclesiality, including the Primacy of the Successor of Peter and the College of Bishops. Indeed, these elements, though not originating in the particularity of the Churches, are interior to them 12 In order that such a fullness might exist, the particular Church must be inserted into the universal Communio Ecclesiarum, which in turn is not possible without communion with the Roman See and its Bishop. 13
    However, this ecclesial fullness is not sufficient to predicate the subsistence of the local Church in the sense of Lumen Gentium, n. 8, since subsistence implies not only the presence of all the essential elements of the Church of Christ, but also their indefectible permanence. And no particular Church has such a guaranteed permanence. Particular Churches may even disappear, as has happened many times in e course of history. In this sense, it is ore accurate to say, with Christus Dominus, that, in a particular Church, the Church of Christ is present and operative (inest et operatur) or that, in the particular Churches, the universal Church exists (exsistit) 14

Non-Catholic Ecclesial communities as Particular churches

    Pope John Paul’s very strong fostering of ecumenical dialogue with non-Catholic communities that have preserved the episcopate and the Eucharist (Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran) could be traced from his reaffirmation of the Vatican II teachings that these ecclesial communities are indeed particular churches. 15 With regard to magisterial texts, the most notable pronouncements on this question have been two Documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: the Letter Communionis Notio of 1992 which stated that these communities “merit the title of particular Churches” 16 and the Declaration Dominus Iesus of 2000 which stated that they are “true particular Churches” 17

But are they really Particular Churches?

    We should remember always that for an ecclesial community to be a particular church “there must be present in it, as a proper element, the supreme authority of the Church: the Episcopal College ‘together with its head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him” 18 But PJP reaffirmed Vatican II in his Apostolic Letter Communionis Notio saying that he real presence of the Petrine Primacy (and of the Episcopal College) in non-Catholic Churches, based on the unity of the “one and undivided” episcopate 18 a unity that cannot exist without the Bishop of Rome. Where, on account of apostolic succession, a valid episcopate exists, the Episcopal College with its Head is objectively present as supreme authority (even if, in fact, that authority is not, recognized).
    Furthermore, in every valid celebration of the Eucharist, there is an objective reference to the universal communion with the Successor of Peter and with the entire Church 19 independent of subjective convictions.

    Yet their Ecclesiality is wounded
    PJP stressed further that it will be possible along these lines to arrive at a deeper understanding of the fact that these comunities, while being separated from Rome, are “true particular Churches”. However, it must be remembered that the fact of being not in full communion with the Pope implies a wound in their ecclesiality 20 which is not only of a disciplinary or canonical nature, but is also related to the not full profession of the Catholic faith. Therefore, what is lacking for a non-Catholic particular Church to be fully a Church is not only a belonging to the visible manifestation (in an exterior sense) of the full Christian communion 21

Always Go Back to the Catholic Teaching on the Unicity of the Church

    Pope John Paul in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint clearly explicated that it is necessary to return always to what the Catholic faith teaches about the unicity of the one Church of Christ so as not to overlook another aspect of capital importance: non-Catholic particular Churches are true Churches on account of what is Catholic in them. Their ecclesiality is based on the fact that “the one Church of Christ has an operative presence in them” 22 and they are not fully Churches —their ecclesiality is wounded— because they lack elements proper to the Catholic Church. In other words, recognizing that these communities, which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, have the character of Churches also means necessarily that these Churches are —in an apparent paradox— portions of the one Church, that is to say, of the one Catholic Church, portions in an anomalous theological and canonical situation. One could say similarly that theirs is a “participated ecclesiality according to an imperfect and limited presence of the Church of Christ”23.

Ecumenism in the Light of Catholic Ecclesiology: PJP’s legacy

    The commitment to ecumenism, which the Church neither can nor wishes to relinquish, is not limited to doctrinal aspects.24 “But what is most urgently needed is that ‘purification of memory’, so often recalled ‘ by John Paul II, which alone can dispose souls to accept the full truth of Christ” Certainly, obstacles remain, but there is always room for prayer, thanksgiving, dialogue and hope in the action of the Holy Spirit.25 An ecumenical spirit and a commitment to interreligious dialogue is a logical extension of her missionary spirit. Jesus prayed that all his followers might be one.
    John Paul II says, “It is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age, or suppressing certain articles of the Creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today. The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all the content of the revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the body of Christ, ‘the way, the truth, and the light’ (John 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of truth?” 26.

The Church as a Sign of Contradiction

    For Pope John Paul the Great the Church will always be a sign of contradiction to a world that accepts such views as moral relativism (the idea that there is no objective truth), redeemer relativism (Jesus Christ—along with Buddha, Confucius, Muhammad, and Marx—is simply one among many revered moral teachers), and ecclesiological relativism (the Church of Christ is merely a federation of different ecclesial communities whose differences in approach to doctrinal and moral issues is insignificant).27

Personal Reflection:

    Looking at the ecumenical endeavors of the late pope, always in line with the Catholic teaching, which he did in his entire life, I can now understand why was so passionate in this kind of work. His desire of fostering relationship and healing the wounded-ness of their ecclesiality, is the gist of this ecumenical endeavor, so that one day we can gather, in his own words, “around the altar of concelebration.” Though this may seemed be in far distant future, yet I come to realize, that what Pope John Paul the Great has started, was just manifestation that if ever Christian unity, comes about, it would not be a human achievement but a gift of God. For this reason we must keep the primary emphasis on spiritual ecumenism and prayer. The most efficient ecumenism is that which nurture fortitude, humility, and ardent belief in the Holy Spirit, who allows us to hope against hope and to leave the future in the hands of God, the God of dialogue.

1. George Weigel, “Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1999, p. 214.
2. “Should We Follow What Pope John Paul Does?” www.catholicforum.com (accessed 26 November 2007).
3. John Paul II’s “Ecumenical Passion” A Clear Eyed Look at Domini Iesus by Msgr John O. Barres http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2001/0101fea2.asp (accessed 26 November 2007).
4. ibid.
5. Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 8; Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 4; John Paul 11, Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, n. 11
6. John Paul II, Letter to the Bishops of the U.S.A: “Pastors of particular Churches in which there subsists the fullness of the universal Church” (Insegnamenti IX, 2 [1986], 1332).
7. Ibid., Address to the Bishops of the U.S.A.:. “The Catholic Church herself subsists in each particular Church” (Insegnamenti X, 3 [19871, 555).
8. Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith; Letter Communionis Notio, 28 May, 1992, n. 7.
9. Lumen Gentium, n. 23.
10. Decree Christus Dominus, n. 11. For a full and documented analysis of the magisterial and theological development on the topic of particular Churches, see, for example: A. Cattaneo, La Chiesa locale (Citta del Vaticano, 2003).
11. ibid
12. Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter Communionis Notio, n. 13. “In this perspective too, we must see the ministry of the Successor of Peter not only as a ‘global’ service, reaching each particular Church from ‘outside’ as it were, but as belonging already to the essence of each particular Church from ‘within”‘ (John Paul 11, Address to the Bishops of the U.S.A., 16 September 1987: Insegnamenti X, 3 [1987], 556).
13. Cf. Ut Unum Sint, n. 97.
14. Cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 23.
15. Already in the discussions of the Second Vatican Council on the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, some of the Council Fathers had used this term: see, for example, Acta Synodalia, II/V, 567, 3.
16. Communionis Notio, n. 17.
17. Dominus Iesus, n. 17.
18. Lumen Gentium, n. 22; Communionis Notio, n. 13.
19. Cf. Communionis Notio, n. 14.
20. Cf. ibid., n. 17.
21. Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism and Politics(St. Paul Publications, 1988), 74-75.
22. Ut Unum Sint, n. 11.
23. P. Rodriguez e J.R. Villar, op. cit, 608.
24. Cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, nn,. 5-12.
25. Cf. Ut Unum Sint, no.102
26. Ut Unum Sint 18
27. John Paul II’s “Ecumenical Passion” A Clear Eyed Look at Domini Iesus by Msgr John O. Barres http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2001/0101fea2.asp (accessed 26 November 2007).

Categories News/Events | Tags: | Posted on April 13, 2011

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