When I was growing up in Montreal, every Sunday morning my older sister and I would walk five blocks west to the 9 o’clock Children’s Mass at St. Aloysius Church. My mother walked six blocks east to St. Cyprian’s Anglican Church, while my father worshiped at the Municipal Golf Course. We never once set foot inside my mother’s church because we were not allowed to by Roman Catholic law. We never prayed for Christian unity, or, if we did, we prayed that all those other wayward churches would one day return to the One Holy Roman Catholic Church, from which they had separated themselves during the Protestant Reformation.
If there is such a thing today as the Ecumenical Movement, a movement for Christian Unity, we owe it, first of all to the Anglican and Protestant Churches among whom it began in the early twentieth century, a hundred years ago, out of which came the World Council Churches. For almost fifty years, the Catholic Church remained aloof from this ecumenical body and refused to join in discussions with these other churches. Then, quite unexpectedly in 1959, Pope John XXIII called for an Ecumenical Council of all the Catholic bishops of the world, both Eastern Rite and Western Rite, and invited representatives of all other churches, Orthodox, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Protestant, to be present at the discussions as observers.
The Council published many important documents, all of a pastoral nature: there were no condemnations of heretics. Instead, the other churches were referred to as “our separated brethren,” our brothers and sisters in Christ. The validity of their Christian baptism was acknowledged. Instead of asking others to come back to the Church of Rome, the Council described all Christians as pilgrims moving forward to a future unity. The Council acknowledged that both sides were responsible for the divisions that had come about in the past. There was a new humility and a new openness on the part of the Catholic Church, which deeply moved the observers who watched all this unfold over the three or four years that the Council lasted.
Among other changes that Protestants found encouraging was the acknowledgement of the central place of the Bible as part of tradition and not separate from it, and the use of vernacular languages instead of Latin in our liturgies, both of which the early Reformers had asked for. The Council encouraged us to work together and to pray together as friends in the Lord, and to do this on every level.
Since then high-level discussions have gone on with Anglicans and with Lutherans. In 1999 there was issued The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith through Grace, settling one of the key theological issues of the Reformers. And just recently, at the start of a year-long commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, none other than Pope Francis was invited to Sweden to pray with Lutheran bishops in a demonstration of solidarity. One of the Lutheran bishops Francis embraced was, in fact, a woman.
Such gestures show us how far all of us have come on the road to Christian unity. What that unity will look like in the future we can only try to imagine, but we know it will be a unity which includes diversity. Just as the Catholic Church at present is in union with Eastern Rite Ukrainian or Greek Catholic Churches, who have different liturgies, different theologies, and different structures, including married clergy, so we can hope to find similar ways to unite with the churches of the Reformation, though many have their own history of splits and divisions to overcome. Intercommunion—sharing of the Eucharist—is not yet possible because this also symbolizes being in full communion with one another, which has not yet happened. But exceptions prove or test the rule, and there are already several exceptions allowing intercommunion: for instance, for decades, Anglicans have had permission to receive communion in Catholic Churches in France.
And so there is much to hope for and to pray for. I know you share frequent suppers with church groups in neighbouring non-Catholic Churches, and that much co-operation goes on with other religious groups working for social justice. With Paul, on the feast of whose conversion (25th January) we conclude the week of prayer, we can sing, “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God who is Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5).