By Francesca Merlo
Sixty years ago, on 5 June 1960, Pope Saint John XXIII established what was then called the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.
The foundations of the Secretariat, later renamed the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), were intimately bound up with the history of the Second Vatican Council, which began just two years later.
Father Avelino González-Ferrer is part of the PCPCU’s dialogue with the Reformed churches, explained that one of the most significant early steps taken to promote Christian unity was to invite non-Catholic Observers from around the world to take part in Vatican II.
In an interview with Sister Bernadette Reis, Fr González-Ferrer says that the PCPCU has been reaching out to other Christians from its very beginnings. That hospitality has been “reciprocated” by various Christian communities, according to Fr González-Ferrer.
Other initiatives of the Pontifical Council include the publication in 1993 of the Ecumenical Directory in 1993. This directory, says Fr González-Ferrer, “was very important in laying out the ground rules for all the Episcopal conferences in the world” as well as for “promulgating the Church’s vision for ecumenical engagement and dialogue”.
Fr González-Ferrer also recalls the recently celebrated 25th anniversary of St John Paul II’s encyclical Ut unum sint, which, he says, established that ecumenism is part of the nature of the Church. “The Catholic church is ecumenical by nature; that is to say, moving towards unity, which is what Christ prayed for, of course”, says Fr González-Ferrer.
World Council of Churches
The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has also been engaging with the World Council of Churches. Fr González-Ferrer explains that although “the Catholic Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches”, it is part of the Faith and Order Commission. “Those careful engagements were all worked out in a way that today there's a very fruitful and productive relationship”, says Fr González-Ferrer.
He then recalled Pope Francis’ trip to Geneva for the anniversary of the World Council of Churches, where “everybody looked at the Pope as a point of reference with regards to Christian unity”. This is something he says we have seen recently with this epidemic, when Pope Francis gathered virtually with leaders of other denominations to pray the Lord’s Prayer. “All of that is a by-product in the fruits of these 60 years of ecumenical dialogue,” says Fr González-Ferrer.
Themes of ecumenical dialogue
Speaking of some of the themes of that ecumenical dialogue, Fr González-Ferrer explains that there is “a lot of pain in remembering all the events that led to the split and the Reformation”. He notes that we each go and approach that historical event “with our own baggage and our own perspective”.
He says there is a “purification of memory” in coming together to hear each other’s different perspectives “and that purification of memory leads to a reconciliation and that reconciliation is the bridge to unity. That's what the Gospel teaches us,” says Fr González-Ferrer.
He explains that this re-reading of history becomes theological, and “hits on something contemporary. So it isn't just kind of looking at the past but also looking at what is a contemporary theological issue that's important to both of us, in a dialogue partnership, that we can then, through that historical context, kind of look and approach that and try to resolve the theological issue.”
The Challenges of the ecumenical movement
Fr González-Ferrer says the ecumenical movement faces different challenges at different times.
He believes one of the greatest challenges today “is that the idea of unity is no longer the same vision of full visible communion, which was there in decades past”. There is always a desire for deeper relationships, he says.
In the last 60 years, what Fr González-Ferrer sees is that the Christian community has gone “from conflict to communion”. That was the same name given to a Document that came out of the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran communion on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
“This road map from conflict to communion, through the art of dialogue is something that the world needs desperately because no one is talking to each other”, whether that be in the family, in politics or even between nations, says Fr González-Ferrer.
He concludes by stressing “we are sitting on a treasure trove of information and history” and through the art of dialogue “the whole of humanity can benefit from it”.