Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Christian Unity

By Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

I need hardly dwell on the state of the world in which we live, a world that is striving to achieve unity and peace, a world also that is frightened and fearful. There is the violence and the injustice and the racism and those evils which we encounter everywhere in our society. There is a frightening rejection by society of its past; a forgetfulness and contempt for what has gone before and a break with continuity and tradition, with so many things that are permanent and endure. Coupled with the rejection by society of its past is the more frightening factor of the rejection of life itself. The man and woman of the consumer society is becoming insensitive to respect for human life. Moreover, the preoccupation with the comforts and material luxuries of life absorb people's energies to such an extent that the means of life are transformed into the end of life. Solzhenitsyn, that prophetic figure, said, 'We have become hopelessly enmeshed in our slavish worship of all that is material - we worship things, we worship products. Will we ever succeed in shaking off the burden, in giving free rein to the spirit that was breathed into us at birth, that spirit that distinguishes us from the animal world?'

I mention all this because we Christians are meant to be the light and the hope of the world, because we claim to live our lives in union with Christ, Emmanuel, which means, 'God with us'. We are here to witness to the world the deeper things which give life and vision, which bring joy and hope to our society. But the fact is that we should somehow do this together, not just for our own sake but for the sake of people who need the vision and hope and trust that are in Jesus Christ. The primary purpose of ecumenism is not just for churches to come together, but rather that together they may give witness to Christ. 'May they all be one, Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me' (John 17:21). But how much do we care? How important it is to remember that, in the area of ecumenism, it is no longer the object to convert the other to one's own private view; the purpose of our meeting each other is not that the other turn from his wrong or wicked ways, but that each one of us should; the conversion we demand is our own, and that is painful. 'There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion, for it is from newness of attitudes of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way' (Decree on Ecumenism, ch. 2).

I was reading recently a farewell letter written by a Greek Catholic bishop in Galilee, whom political offence had forced to resign. In his letter to his friends, he said:

I came to the Holy Land to give, and behold I was overwhelmed by what I received. I came to enrich and purify, and behold I was the one to be enriched and purified. I love the family of the Lord; His family are both the Jews and the Arabs. As a Bishop, a preacher of the Gospel, I never tried to convert a Jew or Arab Moslem to Christianity; rather to convert them to be a better Jew, a better Moslem. My vision of a Catholic Bishop is to identify with his people, with all people. Cultures, all cultures, Jewish and Christian and Moslem, are all of God. Men, all men, are holy, sacred and good. But men, all men, of all cultures and all religions, always need conversion. Conversion is openness, understanding, respect, even awe in the presence of each other, and forgiveness. This is the conversion preached by the Gospel. So I try to identify with Jews and Arabs. It is possible. Anyone who opens his heart to them can see in each one's face the face of God. They have the warmth of a mother's womb.

This reflects a truly ecumenical mentality. The scope of ecumenism is not, therefore, like a merger of companies, with limits on how the merger will go. It is rather like a road which someone enters and from which he discovers there is no going back; no one can say, 'I will go so far and no further.' There is no exit once I have taken this road. It is a road we enter together and one not taken for our own sakes, but for the sake of all men. We enter it because we have experienced a vision and a union with Christ, and a knowledge and faith that the world is loved by God and that the world needs to be told that it is not fatherless or unloved, and a deep belief that the Church exists to serve all people and not just those who belong to it.

Let us look now at some areas of ecumenical activity, points that concern all of us. Let us begin with common prayer together. I am convinced that the greatest way to ensure ecumenical progress and advancement is for Christians to take every opportunity to pray together and to meet one another. I rejoice that there are many groups in Sussex that are praying together and meeting for prayer. I rejoice that there are groups meeting for Bible study together, accompanied again with common prayer. I am sure that initiatives of this kind are extremely valuable and I would want to encourage them in every way. Occasionally, too, there should be opportunities for large gatherings of Christians to meet together and celebrate the oneness that we have already achieved in Jesus Christ.

Then there are liturgical celebrations in which members of our different denominations are sharing more and more frequently. I think this is still for the most part confined to celebrations such as marriages, baptisms, funerals and services for special occasions, such as the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Holy Week and Pentecost; I do not think that this is something to be surprised at. However, I am sure that it is good for Catholics and Anglicans to have a know ledge of each other's liturgies and to understand how closely alike many of our celebrations are. This can be a source of prayer and great encouragement. It is, of course, particularly true of the Eucharist, which is the very central act of worship of the Church at which mutual sharing can be a cause of great hope but also a cause of much pain. But the Catholic Church does not normally permit other Christians to receive Holy Communion and this is, I know, often a cause of misunderstanding and sorrow. I would like to say here that I truly believe that this situation is becoming equally painful for Roman Catholics. I am often asked the reason for the present attitude of the Catholic Church in this matter, so I will try to explain it briefly. For a Roman Catholic, there is a strict relationship between the mystery of the Church and the mystery of the Eucharist. The Eucharist signifies a fullness of common faith and a fullness of unity within the Church. Thus, if, for example, a fellow Christian receives Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, we understand that, in entering into communion with Christ, that Christian is also entering into communion with the faith of the whole Church and thus with the bishop who teaches and presides over the Eucharist. What does this say then about one's own loyalty to one's own Church and one's own ecclesial communion? I say this to emphasize that the reasons for the attitude- of the Catholic Church in this matter are not to diminish in any way ecumenical friendship but rather to underline the importance of the very Church unity that we so earnestly desire. Having said that I should say that there are occasions of deep spiritual need when admission to Catholic Eucharist communion for other Christians is permitted, but I thought it would be helpful to underline the self-understanding of the Catholic Church, which maintains that the spiritual need of the Eucharist is not merely a matter of personal growth; at the same time and inseparably, it concerns our entering more deeply into Christ's Church, 'which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all' (Eph. 1:23).

There is, of course, also an evangelism to the world in which we Christians ought to be together more and more; called to work together. And how much greater reason have we for this because we believe in God and bear the seal of Christ's name. Christ is not only the Lord of the world, he is its servant. There are numerous ways in social action in which we can co-operate and how important it is that we should work together to uphold and preserve the dignity of the human person, to evoke the blessings of peace and especially to alleviate any distress or loneliness or breakdown which can be such a sad feature of our society today. Through co-operating in these ways, we begin to know one another and esteem and love one another more and that is the way to Christian unity. My experience is that ecumenism happens where it happens! By that I mean that where Christians of different denominations are meeting together, praying together and working together, progress towards Christian unity is being made. And where it is not happening then there is little progress. I cannot chart the path ahead.

As I said earlier, ecumenism is not a merger. It is a road we enter of which we do not know the end. But I do think there is a certain stagnation today and that all of us ought to have the courage to come to new decisions drawn from the very being and mission of the Church, as an answer to our present impasse. It may even mean relinquishing old tried ways and risking untried paths where the future historical outcome cannot be adequately foreseen. In the Book of Ecclesiastes it says:

He who obeys the command will come to no harm, and the wise man knows there will be a time of judgement. For there is a time of judgement for everything; and man runs grave risks, since he does not know what is going to happen, and who can tell him when it will happen. No man can master the wind so as to hold it back. (Eccl. 8:6-8)

There are, therefore, no simple criteria for our coming together in unity and yet, in recent years, the realization has progressively dawned that, to help us live with this tension, there is another criterion rather than just that of orthodoxy. It is called orthopraxy, namely, right doing, not just speaking. When Christians pray together they discover and deepen the conviction that they share the same faith and the same Lord. They discover that not even Christian division can destroy the unity that he gives. When Christians work together to carry out the Lord's command of loving our neighbour, they simply become rapidly convinced that they share the same faith and the same spirit. This dimension of orthopraxy takes some of the strain off that of orthodoxy and helps us to experience the difficulties of living in our present state of partial communion as a livable tension. There are difficulties here but I think we would be right to explore fully our present situation of partial communion which is a real communion though not as yet full communion. We must have confidence that God himself will enable us to live in unity and diversity and then take the risks and opportunities of working more closely together.

There are three things that I would like to end with which concern Christian unity today. First, what we must do as Christians is to interpret to mankind this life and not to be merely concerned about the next life. The most crucial area of Christian theology is the Christian doctrine about mankind, namely what God's gift of himself to us in Christ reveals about the true and ultimate meaning of life, of human enterprise and of human experience. Pope John Paul II put this beautifully in his encyclical, Redemptor Hominis when he said:

This man is the way for the Church - a way that, in a sense, is the basis of all the other ways that the Church must walk - because man - every man without any exception whatever - has been redeemed by Christ, and because with man - with each man without any exception whatever - Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it: 'Christ, who died and was raised up for all, provides man with the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme calling.'

Since this man is the way for the Church, the way for her daily life and experience, for her mission and toil, the Church of today must be aware in an always new manner of man's 'situation'. That means that she must be aware of his possibilities, which keep returning to their proper bearings and thus revealing themselves. She must likewise be aware of the threats to man and of all that seems to oppose the endeavour 'to make human life ever more human' and make every element of this life correspond to man's true dignity - in a word, she must be aware of all that is opposed to that process.
(Redemptor Hominis No. 14)

So the point I would make is that Christian thinkers of all denominations say similar things about Christian revelation, about mankind, about the human person; the Holy Spirit seems to be stirring thinkers in different traditions to the same conclusions. Christian revelation rightly understood tells us that man is man, that he rises to human heights and falls to human depths, and has a past and a future only because God's self-gift stirs and drives him with all his human faults to eternal life.

The second point I would make concerns the particular time in history in which we live. It is a time of change and therefore of that over-used word 'challenge'. Ecology - communications - nuclear threat - the contrast of rich and poor - these are the issues of mankind today, together with the crucial question whether mankind will take a creative rather than a destructive course. The irony is that such an enormous opportunity exists for Christians together to be a new pointer for a way of life for mankind. However, I repeat that we cannot do this unless we first of all deepen our own spiritual lives. We must interiorize our faith. It means that we must be open to others, make our homes places of welcome, homes of peace and forgiveness. It means the realization that we have neighbours, next door, down the street, wherever there is loneliness or injustice. There are many wounds in the human family and we each have a part to play. It is the Spirit of God that is speaking in our hearts and that enables us to pray together, to look forward together to a future which we can only at present dream of and hope for. But I believe that the future is full of hope because I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling us in paths we do not know, but the way itself is sure and certain because it is the way of Christ, the Christ who prayed for unity and faithful love.

Lastly, I must plead for patience. I do not mean by patience merely a marking of time. It is rather a quality of mind or heart rooted in the profound belief that God is in charge and accomplishes his gracious design through us and also that for all great things delay is necessary for their maturation. Do you remember the words of St Paul, 'Patience breeds hope' (Rom. 5:4)? One might have thought that it should have been the reverse, that one can wait patiently because one has hope in one's heart; but Paul puts it more profoundly. Those who do not know how to suffer do not know how to hope either. People who are in too much of a hurry and who wish to grasp the object of their desires immediately, are also incapable of hope. The patient sower who entrusts his seed to the earth and the sun is also a person of hope. Because, as Coventry Patmore has said, 'to the man who waits, all things reveal themselves provided that he has the courage not to deny in the darkness what he has seen in the light'. So what I am talking about is active patience which is particularly suited to the work of ecumenism. It is not an easy path and it can bring some suffering and pain but I am sure that with that suffering and pain there comes a genuineness and depth to our joint enterprise that God will bless. After all, it is his work - 'The Lord who has begun the good work will bring it to perfection' (Phil. 1:6)