Is Ecumenism Still Alive?

As a seminarian in the early 1970s—does anyone listening remember the ’70s?—one of the exciting things I took part in was the ecumenical movement.

The Second Vatican Council was still fresh in our minds. Vatican II was known as an “ecumenical council,” using the word ecumenical in the sense of “universal” or “general.” Ecumenism can also mean fostering cooperation among Christians. Pope John XXIII, who convened the Council, had both ideas in mind when he announced the Council. Regarding Christians who were not part of the Catholic Church, the Pope said he desired “to invite the separated Communities to seek again that unity for which so many souls are longing in these days throughout the world.”

His desire resulted in an invitation to observers from Protestant and Orthodox communities to attend sessions of the Council, and in the promulgation of the Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism.” In its draft form, the document was to treat not only of separated Christians, but also of non-Christian religions and religious freedom. Eventually, these latter two themes received consideration in separate Council documents. The Decree itself sets forth key principles for dialogue between Christians.

By the 1970s, there were many official dialogues going on among representatives of various Christian communions. Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists were talking about the theological and structural issues that had divided Christians for centuries. What beliefs and practices did we share in common? I took seminary courses with other Christians studying for ministry, attended ecumenical meetings and got to know sincere people interested in Christian unity. I’d like to think that I grew up in the “golden age” of ecumenism.

Forty years ago, the latest breakthroughs in dialogue were news: common agreement on the meaning of Baptism, for example, led to a general acceptance of each other’s baptismal practice. Catholics recognize a Presbyterian’s Baptism as “valid,” for example.

Over the years, such interchanges have lessened; today some think the ecumenical movement has lost momentum. But the spirit of interfaith dialogue is still alive. I think the Holy Spirit is pursuing the goal of unity in other ways. In my inner-city neighborhood, we have a group of Christian pastors who meet monthly. We share a common spirit of social awareness. And most of all, we can pray together. That feels to me just like “the good old days”! In these gatherings, I’ve felt a little of the old excitement from 30 years ago—and maybe that’s a sign of the Spirit at work, continuing the dream of Pope John XXIII in calling the Council and praying for Christian unity.