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This article was published in the January 1999 issue of The Journal.

A Witness to Ecumenism

Participants at the Geneva World Gathering of Interchurch Families were very grateful to Bishop Pierre Duprey, General Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, for coming to Geneva to share with them his ecumenical testimony. He graciously interrupted his participation as an observer at the Lambeth Conference of the Bishops of the Anglican Communion to fly to Geneva to address the Gathering on 24th July, before returning again to Canterbury. Before the Second Vatican Council Fr Pierre Duprey was involved in ecumenical work when he was at the White Fathers’ Seminary of St Anne’s in Jerusalem. During and since the Council he has been engaged in the work of the Secretariat (later the Pontifical Council) for Promoting Christian Unity. The conference was privileged to be able to hear the testimony of someone who has had responsibility for relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and other churches over such a long period. What follows is a summary made from notes taken of his address, which was given in French without a full text.

I want to explain how we work – the spirit in which we work – at the Pontifical Council. It was an organism born with the Second Vatican Council, as one of the means by which Pope John XXIII could carry out his intention of promoting Christian unity. The conciliar Decree on Ecumenism speaks of conversion of heart and of the renewal of Christian communities (you can’t promote unity between corpses!). That is the authentic spirit of unity in the Roman Catholic Church.

An irrevocable commitment to Christian unity

It is a spirit which Pope John Paul II has made clear that he shares right from the very beginning of his pontificate. A small incident will illustrate this. After his consecration the Pope was scheduled to meet the leaders of other churches who had come to Rome for the ceremony at a certain time; the Pontifical Council was to prepare the reception. As soon as he heard that there was a problem – some of the leaders were not able to stay in Rome until Tuesday because they had other pressing engagements – Pope John Paul instantly decided: "I’ll meet them on Sunday afternoon". It was an early indication of the strong personal commitment to the deepening of relationships with other churches which has marked his pontificate.

The task of the Pontifical Council is to make the commitment of the Catholic Church to the one ecumenical movement irreversible – in persons, in communities, in the church. This has been written in to canon law in the 1983 Code: It pertains especially to the entire College of Bishops and to the Apostolic See to foster and direct among Catholics the ecumenical movement, the purpose of which is the restoration of unity between all Christians which, by the will of Christ, the Church is bound to promote. It is a matter likewise for Bishops and, in accordance with the law, for Episcopal Conferences, to promote this same unity (can.755). The fact that this is actually written in to the Code can make a difference to those who are not personally very enthusiastic about the ecumenical movement.

The Ecumenical Directory

An important task of the Pontifical Council was the preparation of the 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. In first place comes a chapter on why Catholics should be in the ecumenical movement – because personal conviction is central to it. Some people only wanted us to produce norms, but we knew it was of immense importance to explain why the Catholic Church is committed to Christian unity.

We are very committed to this with the World Council of Churches. The Ecumenical Directory goes on to talk about practical collaboration, and this is very important too. There may be too many documents around but it can be useful to get commitments written down on paper. The really essential thing of course is to work on the mentality of the bishops and the clergy. The ecumenical dimension of theological education needs urgently to be developed.

Ut Unum Sint

When Pope John Paul II said he wanted to issue an encyclical on ecumenism we reminded him that we had already produced the Directory. "No, that’s not enough for me", was the reply: "I really want to express my own personal conviction about unity. I want to say frankly that I have a personal conviction that as Bishop of Rome I have a special role in the service of unity and want other churches to help me reflect on it. We must find a way of making the papacy a service of unity for all the churches."

There have been many valued replies to the encyclical. We were beginning to prepare a meeting at which they could be studied together by representatives of other churches and world communions; sadly the staff-member of the Pontifical Council who was preparing this meeting has died from cancer. It was he (a German) who worked very hard on the Roman Catholic/Lutheran declaration which has just been accepted. We believe that we have come to a fundamental agreement on the question of justification by faith, a question which was at the root of the Reformation, by going back to the reality, re-examining the technical language which was used at the time of the Reformation. It is in no sense simply a verbal agreement. But now it has to be received by Catholics and Lutherans who have been educated against one another, as it were.

In the Pontifical Council we realise that it is a real sacrifice for the bishops round the world to send good people to us, people they would have wanted to keep in their own dioceses. But we need a really good team, and one which works well together, if we are to fulfil our role in the church.

Collaboration with the World Council of Churches

The first General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (from 1948) was Pastor Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, and the first Secretary of the Pontifical Council (when it was formed in 1960 as the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity) was Mgr Johannes Willebrands. They were both Dutchmen, and they were friends. Willebrands consulted Visser ‘t Hooft about inviting delegated observers to the Second Vatican Council, which in the event had the profound experience of living with observers from other churches who shared in the whole life of the Council.

Our collaboration with the World Council of Churches is highly developed. The Roman Catholic Church is a full member of the Faith and Order Commission, with thirty active representatives. I give two examples of our commitment to working with the World Council. We have been closely involved in work on the "Common Understanding and Vision" of the ecumenical movement, and our comments have been well received by the WCC. We are sending 25 consultant-observers to the eighth assembly of the World Council of Churches which meets in Harare, Zimbabwe in December 1998. The Roman Catholic Church is committed to all occasions of dialogue which may arise. We are in contact also with other Christians who are not members of the World Council.

The Eastern Churches

We see the Orthodox and Oriental Churches as sister-churches with whom we are in almost complete communion; they have the same sacramental structure as the Roman Catholic Church. I have spent much time personally in relations with the Orthodox Churches, and with the Oriental Churches from whom we have been separated since the fifth century, the Syrians, the Armenians, the Ethiopians, the Malankara Churches of India, and the Assyrian Church. All this work is very slow. People are very much afraid to change a situation which has lasted for many centuries.

Accept the rhythm

Dialogue aims at changing mentalities. We have to accept that there are situations which block us from sharing full communion at present. We cannot act "as if" there is nothing which divides us. The ecumenical movement is the work of the Holy Spirit. There is a sacrifice asked of us – that we have to accept its rhythm. The churches do not yet agree on the things which are essential in our movement towards unity. Progress is very slow, but it is sure. Sharing and expressing our common faith is an indispensable basis.

I was very happy teaching in St Anne’s Seminary in Jerusalem. I loved my Arab students there. Then I had a telephone call on 15th January 1963. I was summoned to Rome to become under-secretary of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity "for a time". I have stayed there ever since.

Following this address groups prepared questions and brought them back to Bishop Duprey. We summarise here what he replied on various topics.

Education of the clergy

In the Pontifical Council we are constantly asking ourselves, like you, why priests don’t know what has been said about ecumenism. We were born with Vatican II, so we have a strong sense of the local churches. We propose Ecumenical Directories to Episcopal Conferences; we accept invitations from local churches to take part in ecumenical meetings; we have invited the Secretaries and Presidents of Ecumenical Commissions to Rome five times – at the last meeting 69 Episcopal Conferences were represented. We publish a bulletin four times a year; we publish official documents; but we know ourselves there is still a problem.

Eucharistic sharing and differences of interpretation

The clergy have difficulties due to their different theological formation; you can help them sometimes by pointing out what they may have overlooked – but you have to do it carefully; often parish priests are isolated, they need support and warmth and collaboration, more human closeness. The 1993 Directory invited local Episcopal Conferences to make their own Directories, with their own application of the general norms; we do not ask that they be sent to us to agree before publication.

Mixed marriages a gift for ecumenism?

You can help us by getting the churches to realize how scandalous divisions are. You really feel this; to be apart at the eucharist is against nature. More people need to become deeply aware of this. Non-acceptance of a situation is part of the process for remedying it. A gift perhaps, but a gift which comes out of a situation which is fundamentally wrong.

The rhythm of ecumenism

I’m not for a slow rhythm – if tomorrow all Christians were united, it would still be twenty centuries late. But we have to take account of the need for a fundamental change in attitudes – we need the reception of what has already been agreed in the ecumenical dialogues. This cannot be imposed; people need to be convinced: this is a New Testament insight. But I am an optimist. Optimism is a psychological consequence of hope, which is a theological virtue. But why put a limit to what God can do? Why put a limit to the reception of what God can do? Our hope in God must engender optimism.