Unity requires conversion

NOTE: This post is my contribution the Rally to Restore Unity, hosted by Rachel Held Evans.  Head on over to her site, check out the wealth of great posts and hilarious signs about unity, and while you’re at it, consider donating to Charity:Water.

Anyone who is interested in the topic of Christian unity has got to read John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint, published in 1995.  And with JPII being beatified last weekend, there’s no better time than the present to acquaint yourself with one of the former Pope’s most remarkable pieces of writing.

If you haven’t read it, and you’re a protestant, you’ll be moved by his humility, his wisdom, and his deep spiritual insight.   If you haven’t read it, and you’re a Catholic, you might be surprised that he doesn’t see Christian unity as merely being about a “return to Rome” (my Catholic friends tell me that many Catholics make that assumption).

Particularly towards the end, when discussing the role of the Pope in the quest for Christian unity, he says some very interesting things.  There’s his remarkable request for forgiveness from those who have “certain painful recollections” caused by actions of the Papacy in the past (§88).  Then, his reflections on Peter’s human weakness and helplessness as a grounding for his own “Petrine” ministry are an attempt to show that he by no means considers himself “qualified” for the job (§§90-93).  This is followed up by a request for help from Christian leaders of other traditions in envisioning a re-shaped Papacy that they might receive as a ministry of unity:

I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the Pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek—together, of course—the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned…This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21)? (§§95-96)

Adding to this spirit of humility is the way John Paul speaks of the quest for Christian unity as involving a conversion.  To be clear, he’s NOT saying that non-Catholics have to convert to Catholicism!  He’s saying that Christian unity requires conversion on the part of all Christians.  Of course he isn’t being original in saying, so but hearkening back to the teaching of Vatican II:

There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart (Unitatis Redintegratio, §4).

The conversion that the Pope (and the Council) are calling for is both personal and communal.   It is not simply a call to be nice and civilized to one another, but a call to “be more radically converted to the Gospel,” (Ut Unum Sint, §15) by which each of us is irrevocably bound to one another.   Today, we have become so accustomed to divisions between Christians that many of us seldom think about it, but our disunity is a scandal, and an open contradiction of the one faith, one Lord, and one baptism which we all share.

Rooting the call to Christian unity in the gospel itself means that JPII is calling us to recognize that unity is not an afterthought for Christian life and mission.

Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape (Ut Unum Sint, §9).

Connecting unity, the gospel, and mission in this way is unsettling, because anyone can see that we fall far short of expressing the depth of God’s love in the way we alienate one another.  The only response possible is repentance and renewal – a conversion of our divided thinking, our divided practices, and our divided identities.

If anyone is thinking that this all sounds very Catholic, and that it therefore doesn’t apply to you (well, first of all, that way of thinking in itself is something to repent of), go and read the sections of the Cape Town Commitment that deal with unity and mission.  For example: “A divided Church has no message for a divided world. Our failure to live in reconciled unity is a major obstacle to authenticity and effectiveness in mission” (§IIF).

Protestants like myself tend to think of “conversion” as a one-time thing, but in Catholic thinking, conversion is seen as a lifelong process – a continual, Spirit-driven turning of the person away from sin and towards God and the truly human life which God desires for us and has pioneered for us in Jesus Christ.   Ecumenism (which I use broadly to refer to any efforts to restore unity among Christians) can be used by God to initiate this kind of continual turning.   As we encounter brothers and sisters of other traditions, we are drawn toward their examples of Christian life and their spiritual traditions – which often contain insights that are new to us.  At the same time, we are made more aware of the many ways in which our divisions impoverish and hinder the life and mission of the church as a whole.  JPII says it this way:

Thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of “the mighty works of God” (mirabilia Dei) has been enriched by new horizons, for which the Triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian Communities, the discovery of examples of holiness, the experience of the immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment. In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the “other side”, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption. Thus, the entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern (§15).

I hope the Rally to Restore Unity has been a time of conversion for at least some of Christ’s disciples – a time for celebrating the enriching differences among us, but also a time for repenting of the sinful divisions which keep us apart and obscure our witness to the gospel.

What is God’s Plan for Ecumenism?

That was the title of the episode of Perspectives: The Weekly Edition, which aired Firday night on Salt + Light TV.  Host Pedro Guevera Mann invited some representatives of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith & Witness to discuss the topic, and I was privileged to be interviewed along with my colleagues Dr. Mary Marrocco, and the Rev. Dr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ.

It is a huge topic, and we didn’t have nearly enough time, but it is wonderful that Salt + Light TV is showing an interest in ecumenism and trying to generate some discussion among their largely Catholic audience.

There isn’t an overwhelming interest in ecumenism on the grassroots level these days.  It was interesting to hear about why this is the case in Catholic circles.   In spite of clear teaching from Vatican II and subsequent magisterial documents like John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, many Catholics are still under the impression that ecumenism means bringing protestants “back to Rome.”    On the protestant side it would seem as if Christians are becoming more “ecumenical” in that denominational differences are no longer as signficant as they used to be.  Many people don’t really care at all about what denomination they belong to, as long as they feel at home in their local congregation.  But I think that it is precisely this dismissal of the significance of denominational differences that can undermine serious discussion about Christian unity.  If our differences don’t matter at all, then there is no reason to try to overcome them!

Still, the current situation is preferable to the hostilities of past generations.  And even if there is not an overwhelming interest in “official ecumenism” via bodies like the Canadian Council of Churches, there is, it seems to me, a lot of interest in “informal ecumenism,” as seen in some current trends in worship and spirituality (such as the growing interest in spiritual direction among evangelicals).

Salt + Light decided to do a show on ecumenism because this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which runs from January 18 to 25 each year.   This year, the week of prayer is focused on the church in Jerusalem, and the resources for the week (which can be found here) were prepared by Chrisitans from Jerusalem.   The theme is “One in the Apostles’ Teaching,” taken from Acts 2:42.

I’ll leave you with my favourite prayer from this year’s Week of Prayer service:

Merciful God,
may your life-giving Spirit
move in every human heart,
that the barriers that divide us may crumble,
suspicions disappear,
and hatreds cease,
and that, with divisions healed,
your people might live in justice and peace.
We pray to the Lord.


Typology of Views of Charismatic Movements, Part 5 continued: Charismatic Enlivens Institutional

Within this perspective we can also include some of the literature on charisms and the religious life in the Roman Catholic tradition (a word of clarification for those who aren’t familiar with Catholic terminology: Catholics refer to the “orders” within Catholicism (Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits) as the “religious life”). Since Vatican II it has become increasingly common for religious to speak about their movements as having a particular charism which is to be preserved and cultivated for the good of the whole Church.  Vatican II didn’t specifically apply the term “charism” to religious life in this way, but Perfectae Caritatis §1 speaks of the various gifts (variis donis) that are evident in the variety of forms of religious life, and also exhorts the religious to preserve the “spirit of founders.” Subsequently, however, both Paul VI and John Paul II used the term specifically in relation to the religious life.  See Evangelica testificatio §11, 12; Mutuae relationes §11, 13; Redemptionis donum §15.

Surprisingly, there has been little in-depth critical theological reflection done on the implications of applying the biblical idea of charisms to religious life. The most extensive treatment can be found in a short book by John Lozano, a Claretian Father and theologian, entitled Foundresses, Founders, and their Religious Orders (1983). Lozano’s discussion of the role of religious life as charismatic reforming movement comports well with the more general framework provided by Snyder and Sullivan, that is, viewing charisms as an enlivening force which renews the institutional life of the Church, like “lava” pushing against the “hard crust” of established institutions.

But when these charisms erupt at the surface, from the interior where the Spirit of Pentecost is burning like lava, they must necessarily push against the hard crust which has been hardening for centuries.  The People of God are not just a charismatic reality (although they are a charismatic reality essentially), but also an institutional entity.  The Church has its firm structures and its ministers, people whom God certainly helps in their care for his people, but people who are likewise conditioned by a certain mentality (61).

However, Lozano specifically gives attention to how such charismatic activity becomes itself institutionalized in religious families, and specifically to the question of how a charism can be said to be “transmitted” via such an institution – a question which has not received sufficient attention. It should be noted, however, that Rahner does deal with this question in The Dynamic Element in the Church (58-62), as discussed in a previous post. Lozano argues that, strictly speaking, a charism cannot be transmitted, but must come directly from God.

The charism, as we have said, always comes directly from the Lord.  It is not given by the Church, by any member of the Church (including founders and foundresses), or by the religious community  The Lord, by means of his Spirit, gives it to each individual… (76)

In a broader sense, however, the charism is transmitted by the particular religious institute in that the community becomes a context where that particular charism is cultivated, deepened, and actualized by the stable structures (i.e., the rule, constitutions, spiritual theology and practices) of the institute.

The gift received by the father or mother, and directly from God by their followers, is collectively cultivated, proposed in spiritual doctrine to new generations, deepened and actualized.  Its principle elements, the aim of the Institute or the “primordial concern” of the community, are described in the Constitutions, the form of life and spiritual environment are also described in them, as a point of consideration and source of light and nourishment for successive generations.  In this less proper sense, the charism is transmitted (76).

Religious join a particular institute, then, “because we realize that our vocation essentially coincides with that of its members and with the aims which this institution pursues” (75).

The picture that emerges from this perspective, then, is that of a vocational diversity in the church, evidenced in the various movements of reform and renewal which have at their root a particular charism.  The fruitfulness, functionality, and vitality of the movements depends on their continual interpretation and actualization of that charism in their own institutional structures.

This in fact became the basis for a program of renewal of the religious life after Vatican II. Perfectae Caritatis §2b speaks of this in terms of “loyal recognition” and “safekeeping” of “the spirit of the founders,” which give the various communities “their own special character and purpose.” Elizabeth McDonough summarizes the relevant papal documents relating to this renewal, and drawing upon them, identifies a set of presuppositions which underlie this perspective. If religious communities are in fact based upon a particular charism given to the Church, then existing communities must ask themselves a) if they indeed have a charism; b) if they know what their charism is; and c) if they are prepared to strive to live accordingly.  If their answer to any of those questions is in the negative, the religious community will not survive. (McDonough, “Charisms and Religious Life,” in The Church and the Consecrated Life, 135).

How much of this thinking could be transferred to protestant reform movements?  Can we speak, for example, of  a Methodist charism, or a Salvation Army charism, or a Christian and Missionary Alliance charism?  I think, historically speaking, we can easily make the case that these movements all started out in a way similar to a Catholic order: they were not trying to be “churches,” but instead trying to live out a very specific vocation within the Church.   They brought their particular charism to the Church, and the reaction was, as Lozano describes it, somewhat volcanic.  But do these groups remain focused on their founding charism today?  Is this still a helpful way to understand their place in the universal Church?  To what extent can an independent protestant movement sustain a focus on a particular charism, once it starts to take on “churchly” functions (one or two generations down the road)?