The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council made it clear that ecumenical spirituality was no longer a mere movement of some of the Christian churches. It has become an essential part of the Christian way of life, and of the mission of the church. Since the council this view of the way in which the unity of the church and Christians is to be achieved is by a conversion of mind and heart and the work of grace and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by all who believe in Jesus Christ and seek to realize the prayer of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper: “Father, may they all be one…so that the world may believe” (Jn 20:21 ff).
Ecumenism of Life
Cardinal Walter Kasper’s A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2007) develops the documentation from the Second Vatican Council and subsequent documents as well as insights of his staff and many collaborators in the publication of his solidly pastoral and well researched sharing of scholars and professional ecumenists who share their insights into the nature of this spirituality and practical ways to nourish it. It reflects a gift of God’s grace to the church for which Jesus Christ prayed on the night before he died. It is the Word of God (Scripture) and the guidance of the Holy Spirit who helps us to see and understand the signs of the times and what God is doing in salvation history of the people of God. The sacraments, the example of the saints and their reflections on the unity of the church continue to move the church toward the unity Jesus desires for those who walk in his way.
Private and public prayer of Christians together, praying for Christian unity is vital to ecumenical spirituality as it is to all Christian spirituality. Reception of sacraments and sharing of spiritual gifts which are individual and collective are also part of the sharing of gifts which the Holy Spirit distributes for the common good of those who seek God with sincerity and truth.
The Liturgy is also a source of Christian spirituality and grace for Christian unity. In addition to faith and worship, there is the entire area of what Kasper identifies as diakonia (ministry) and witness. The areas of mission and evangelizaton which are so essential to the life and pastoral ministry of the Church are included. This whole area needs to be explored for ways in which Christian unity can be enriched by the exchange of gifts among Christians and their ecclesial communities.
Cardinal Kasper also speaks in another context of the “ecumenism of life”. Ecumenism must be real. This is closely related to what has been called “receptive ecumenism” (cf. Paul D. Murray, ed. Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism. Oxford Univ. Press, 2008). Both Kasper and Murray emphasize that theology and joint declarations from bilateral dialogues are not sufficient. The reason why ecumenism has lost its “steam” is because it was believed that a quick path of theological and ecclesiastical exchange could bring about the unity of Christians. The Second Vatican Council stressed that ecumenism required both a conversion and a spirituality. It had to be real. Such a conversion and transformation of churches that were involved in controversy for hundreds and thousands of years, leading to wars, stereotypes and anathemas could not be achieved either quickly or easily.
Since the millennium of 2000 AD, and beginning at the end of the 19th century, the churches were learning that ecumenism must come from the bottom up as well as the top down. Until the entire church was involved in the process, progress would be slow, if at all.
The process toward unity must be at all levels and in ever greater depth. Hence a realization that achieving full Christian unity is not ours to do, it is God’s to give. The will to change is not enough. There must be a gradual process that is essentially the work of God’s grace. It requires a negative process of abnegation and a positive work of transformation, a gift of self and a putting on of Christ. It is not so much what the churches can teach each other, but what they can learn from each other. In the process there is a growth of all the churches because there is an exchange of the gifts of the Spirit given to all of the churches in their unity and their diversity. All must be received and appreciated as the work of God through the gifts of the Spirit.
We need to read the word of God (scriptures) and the signs of the times (what the Spirit is saying to the churches.) We must recognize the unity that is ours and come to appreciate our diversity. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”(Eph 2:5-6). This recognition leads us to gratitude for God’s grace and mercy for all who believe in Christ, for the glory of God our Father.