Every family gathering, I look forward to catching up with my relatives over good food, interesting stories, and lively table talk. Inevitably in my family, the conversation transitions to religion. It’s a heated discussion given that my immediate family is Catholic, whereas the rest (on my mother’s side) is Coptic Orthodox. From then on, our respective faith traditions are more or less pitted against each other as theological matters are analyzed and debated. Of course recognizing that at the core we are Christians united to our Lord through our baptism, we continue to respect each other’s beliefs (cf. Galatians 3:27). We still pray and hope for unification, too, though there are disagreements among us as to how this might occur. In any case, these opportunities to evangelize are enjoyable, as each of us advocates for the faith that has shaped our lives and beings.
“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” This first sentence of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism is still surprising to many Catholics. It set the stage for the last fifty years of Catholic dialogue and conversation with our Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican brothers and sisters in the Faith. The Decree gives “Catholic Principles on Ecumenism.” Even Jesus, at the Last Supper, prayed for unity, that His disciples be one (see John 17:21). Ultimately, Christian unity is God’s will and the work of the Holy Spirit rather than solely our own. The Decree nevertheless urges all Catholics to participate in the noble work of Christian unity (#4). This work— our conversation, dialogue, and service with others— calls for complete honesty. We must represent the position of others with truth and fairness and never be dismissive or ignorant of the other traditions. By not pointing fingers and recognizing that any blame for schisms in the Church is shared by all, a heartfelt and meaningful dialogue can be achieved.
Ecumenical dialogue, rather than making us less Catholic, makes us more so. By searching within our own faith, we are made aware of the commonalities that we share with our fellow Christians. As for the divergences that we also discover in doing so, it is the Holy Spirit who will help us to overcome them; ecumenical conversation leads us back to prayer: “This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism’” (#8). To engage others, then, a spirit of humility, honesty, patience, and gentleness is needed. After all, the Church is stronger when its members are open to and inclusive of all traditions. How can the Church, being commissioned to spread the Truth to all, fully honor her call if she does not communicate well with fellow Christians (see Matthew 28:19-20, cf. 1 Corinthians 10-15)?
Though we may not agree on every theological point, Christians of all traditions continue to work towards the unification and the strengthening of Christ’s body (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). We worship the same Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sacrificed Himself for all without distinction. We answer the same call to evangelize and offer ourselves in loving service to all. The holy sacrifice of the Mass offered and the reception of the sacraments by Christians each day are the same gifts and sources of grace from God. And the ultimate witness of martyrs for their belief in Christ across the world and time further lead us on the road to unity. The Church continues to face uncertain times, just as she always has; Christ, likewise, remains steadfast in His promise to stand by her (see Matthew 16:18, John 16:33).
Thomas Wong is an undergraduate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.