The Future of Ecumenism

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On March 1-2, 2010 Cardinal Walter Kaspar visited Emory University where he met with ecumenical leaders, Jewish leaders, and the Candler School of Theology.  Emory University, which is related to The United Methodist Church, invited Cardinal Kaspar as a part of its commitment to foster interreligious dialogue and appreciation for the role of religion in public life.  I was invited by Candler Dean Jan Love to participate because I am co-chair of the Catholic-United Methodist Dialogue in the United States.

Cardinal Kaspar is the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.  He is also the overseer of Catholic-Jewish relations on behalf of the Vatican.  Some of his recent publications are two books of immense value to anyone interested in ecumenism:  That They May All Be One (Burns & Oates, 2004), his personal reflections on the progress and challenges of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches; and Harvesting the Fruits (Continuum, 2009), a summary of formal Catholic dialogues with Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists compiled by Cardinal Kaspar and his staff.

In his meeting with ecumenical leaders in Atlanta, Cardinal Kaspar articulated his view that the future of ecumenism will be guided by the concept of communio, which is that the visible unity of the church of Jesus Christ should be unity in diversity and diversity in unity rather than uniformity.  He stated that communio requires a "spiritual ecumenism" in which all parties seek, not conversion of others to our side, but conversion of all to the full truth of Jesus Christ by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  He has also recommended a practical project to advance the cause of communio.  He has proposed an ecumenical catechism which would provide a common teaching to seekers and believers about the apostolic and universal Christian faith.

Cardinal Kaspar is always mindful that the visible unity of the church of Jesus Christ is essential for its mission.  Jesus prayed that "they may all be one...so that the world may believe..." (John 17:20-21).  On his last evening at Emory, he spoke to a large, pluralistic and receptive audience on the theme, "The Timeliness of Speaking of God."  Addressing the failure of secularism to meet the spiritual needs of human beings while acknowledging the relative ineffectiveness of the church to relate to these needs as well, Cardinal Kaspar spoke of the love of the Triune God as the Christian vision of reality which offers hope for our personal lives and hope for the world threatened by poverty, war and ecological danger.  The openness of this pluralistic audience to his substantive presentation of the unique insights of the Christian faith was in itself a sign that people know that their secular worldview lacks the breadth, depth, and height of the Christian vision, and that this Christian vision still has a strange power to speak to us in our personal and social life at the beginning of the 21st century.  As one person who was listening to this talk about how we need to speak of God again, I was reminded of why I am a Christian and how there is no other worldview that can compare with the Christian vision.  If we could unite in communicating this vision together, then it would be even more powerful.  Imagine a future when a secular society encounters an unified ecumenical witness to Jesus Christ so that people become accustomed to talking about "the" Christian vision rather than thinking of Christianity as cacaphony of voices.  Think how one consistent and persistent public witness would change persons and influence society.

To learn more about the Cardinal's ideas about "spiritual ecumenism" with its goal of communio, you should read That They All May Be One.  What is exciting about these ideas is that they have emerged without human foresight over the last several decades as churches have engaged in dialogue.  All the dialogues converged upon the idea that visible unity can only happen by the work of the Holy Spirit, and the visible unity which will be produced will consist of full communion among churches with an ever-deepening oneness for the sake of Christ and Christ's mission to the world.  In other words, these ideas represent the illumination of the Holy Spirit.  Trusting the guidance of the Spirit so far, we can look forward to probably some remarkable developments in ecumenism in next 50 to 100 years. 



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