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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Global Day of Prayer

A few years ago a South African businessman felt a call to bring together Christians from different denominations in a time of prayer of repentance, asking the Lord to renew his Church and heal its divisions. From this came the Global Day of Prayer, which will be taking place this year on Pentecost Sunday. This movement of prayer has spread rapidly across the world and across the churches. It has even grown from beyond a single day to a series of prayer events: a 10-day preparatory time, a 90-day period of follow-up prayer, and so on. There is plenty of downloadable material from the website should anyone wish to know more, or even organize an event of their own. Check it out!

A vision for ecumenism

Those of us involved in the ecumenical movement need to take a global look at our mission. In my opinion, this vision needs to take into account a few key points:

Why bother?

The disunity found in the Christian world is a threat to the credibility of the Gospel. This realisation was what prompted the start of the ecumenical movement in the first place, flowing as it did out of the missionary movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If we are serious about accomplishing the mission Christ has given us in the world today, a concern for Christian unity has to be part of our spiritual mindset.

The standard of unity

Jesus set the bar high when, during the Last Supper, he prayed to his heavenly Father in these words:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. (John 17: 20-23)

Jesus himself first pointed out the problem of disunity with regards to the credibility of the Gospel, but notice how he does not propose unity merely as some sort of marketing tactic. Instead he sets, as the standard of Christian unity, the unity of the Persons in the Trinity! Yikes! And yet, it must be possible. Every person who has received the Holy Spirit is a child of God by that very fact, sharing in the very "DNA" of the Father and Son. So the start of the path to Christian unity is for us to be constantly renewed in the presence and action of Holy Spirit in us. And since the Holy Spirit is generally understood to be the substantial, living Love between the Father and the Son, to be fully alive in the Holy Spirit means to be living the fullness of Christian love and charity. Genuine love is both the means and the standard of Christian unity, and Jesus himself said that the world would know we were really his disciples by how we love one another.

The measure of unity

It is very significant that Jesus prayed this prayer during the Last Supper. According to Tradition, it was during this supper that Jesus instituted the sacraments of Eucharist and Holy Orders, both of which are sacraments of unity. On a personal level, Jesus already taught us that, if we know we are a cause of a lack of love with a neighbour, we need to be reconciled with that person before we offer our gift at God's altar. But this also works on the level of Church communion: we will know that unity has been achieved between Christian confessions when we can properly "approach the altar" together as well. In practical terms, inter-confessional unity can be said to be achieved when (1) the members of each church are generally permitted to receive communion in the church of the other, and (2) when the ministers of each church are allowed to substitute for each other for the same spiritual functions.

How do we get there?

The best roadmap to Christian unity, in my opinion, was the Decree on Ecumenism, published in 1964 by the Second Vatican Council. Yes, I know, this is a document coming from just one church, but consider these points: this was the largest gathering of Christian leadership *EVER* in the history of Christianity, and it included participating observers from every major Christian denomination (and who, I might add, were heavily consulted in the preparation of the Declaration). Surely the Holy Spirit was in there somewhere, and if so, we should pay close attention to what He said.

What does this roadmap contain? Read it for yourself:

The term "ecumenical movement" indicates the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity. These are: first, every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult; then, "dialogue" between competent experts from different Churches and Communities. At these meetings, which are organized in a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his Communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. In such dialogue, everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both Communions. In addition, the way is prepared for cooperation between them in the duties for the common good of humanity which are demanded by every Christian conscience; and, wherever this is allowed, there is prayer in common. Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church and accordingly to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform.

When such actions are undertaken prudently and patiently by the Catholic faithful, with the attentive guidance of their bishops, they promote justice and truth, concord and collaboration, as well as the spirit of brotherly love and unity. This is the way that, when the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning.

Notice the boldness of the second paragraph? It says that if we follow the roadmap of the first paragraph, the end result will be a common celebration of the Eucharist — the measure, as I have already pointed out, of Christian unity. That hopeful tone just sounds to me like the voice of the Holy Spirit.

So what about activities to promote ecumenism?

There is a lot more in the Declaration than the brief bit I copied, but even now we have a good place to start to look for what kinds of activities ecumenists can focus on. These would be:

  1. Promotion of mutual understanding

    All Christians are responsible before God to make sure we do not bear false witness against our neighbours. Ecumenically speaking, however, this can only be avoided if we truly get to know the perspective of the "other" (something mentioned in the Declaration in point #9). Ecumenists could help all churches "acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background" (point #9 again) by organizing conferences, symposia, festschiften, and so on.

  2. Organization of dialogue opportunities

    While there do exist certain "official" dialogues between the various churches, these often lack a certain focus. In many cases it is unofficial groups, like Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) or the Groupe des Dombes that are able to make the most progress in overcoming theological barriers. Eventually some sort of official decisions would need to be made by the church hierarchies regarding concrete acceptance of the results of such dialogues, but in the meantime ecumenists could contribute quite a bit by organizing "groups of theological interest", always seeking some deeper unity behind the questions which divide. The latter must always be at least possible, thanks to the basic moral principle that humans are always seeking the good, even when what we happen to be affirming at the moment might be a deficient good. What is the "particular good" that the doctrine and practice of the "other" seeks to affirm? If we look for the particular goods behind the various statements, we often find ourselves discovering a deeper unity behind the differences — even if that is simply the discovery of the basic humanity of the other, and the common quest for the fullness of life.

  3. Joint charitable action and work for social justice

    Christians are called to animate the temporal order with the Spirit of Christ, and this is a practical mission that can already be shared on a broad level by the various Christian churches. #12 of the Declaration mentions several possible areas of cooperation:

    This cooperation, which has already begun in many countries, should be developed more and more, particularly in regions where a social and technical evolution is taking place be it in a just evaluation of the dignity of the human person, the establishment of the blessings of peace, the application of Gospel principles to social life, the advancement of the arts and sciences in a truly Christian spirit, or also in the use of various remedies to relieve the afflictions of our times such as famine and natural disasters, illiteracy and poverty, housing shortage and the unequal distribution of wealth.

    With regards to work for social justice, the differences in the moral theology of the different Churches sometimes makes this hard to accomplish. Almost without exception, however, Christian churches agree that the principle of religious freedom should be respected, in that no one should ever be *coerced* with regards to religious beliefs and practice. Surely the defense of the right of freedom of conscience, under attack in many parts of the world, can be a way for Christians to work together, extending then further to pro-life work, work for economic justice, and so on.

  4. The promotion of ecumenical spirituality and common prayer

    The term "spiritual ecumenism" refers to the thirst for holiness and accompanying change of heart that comes from a genuine brush with God. And this spiritual ecumenism is, in many ways, the heart and soul of the ecumenical movement itself, because a sincere and humble desire for holiness can be easily recognized across denominational boundaries. Each community of Christians contains "hidden saints" whose greatest desire is to live in communion with God at all times, and these persons, given the chance to share their journey together, would be a powerful force for growth in unity. Ecumenists can organize "spiritual seminars" where an ecumenical spirituality is promoted, organize ecumenical retreats around particular spiritual disciplines, and even promote "field trips" between Christian communities, to give these "hidden saints" a chance to discover one another. One the connections are made, the Holy Spirit would take over from there I am sure.

One final point the Declaration made with regards to the road map is "the task of renewal and reform" in each particular church. In all honesty, I think this is an area where formal ecumenical organizations cannot really have a directive role, simply because nobody likes being told by outsiders and strangers what their problems are and how they need to change (and besides, there is just too great a risk of giving bad advice anyway). Nevertheless, there is something they can do, to act as a "catalyst" for this process of renewal and reform.

To "renew" something means, literally, to "make new something which has become old". Ecumenical organization can promote a greater study of the ancient treasures of the Christian tradition, through Patristic and historical studies, and thereby stimulate a process of renewal within the churches.

The term "reform" is something which is generally understood, but which is also generally controversial, in that it there must always be a careful discernment between true "reformation" and false "deformation". Still, even here ecumenical organizations could make a genuine contribution, by having an on-going study program of the great reformation movements in the history of the Church. What motivated them? What made some successful, and why did some seem to flop? From this could come a vision of what "reform" really is, and help members of churches discern better between true and false reform.

The final key point

Lurking behind all ecumenical activity is the question of the mission of Christ (i.e. just why *did* he come to Earth?), and behind that is the ultimate question of all: what is salvation? This is, in my honest opinion, THE KEY THEOLOGICAL QUESTION of the 21st century. Whoever is involved in ecumenism has to have a good sense of what this question means, or else we're just having fun with meetings and not really advancing the cause of the Gospel in an ecumenical manner. May the Lord bless our work for Christian unity!

Confession and non-Catholics

I once had a Protestant woman become quite upset when she was told by a Catholic priest that, while he would be very happy to hear her sins and to pray with her, he could not offer her absolution. A number of her Catholic friends, while less upset, did wonder why this was so. As it turns out, there are nuances to the question that need to be addressed.

Preliminary point #1: There are times when a priest can't offer absolution to Catholics!

In order for a sacramental confession to be valid, a person has to come offering both contrition and conversion.

Contrition is a looking back at the sins and being sorry for them — if a person is not sorry, it isn't really a confession. Usually people coming to confession are contrite — after all, they are there — but sometimes we encounter situations where contrition is absent, such as with a person who is "forced" to go to confession by their parents, even though they don't feel sorry at all. It just isn't a real confession, so we can't offer the absolution.

Conversion, on the other hand, is a looking forward — it means that they promise to amend their life, such that they would not do it over again even if the exact same circumstances were present. Often enough we are presented with situations where contrition exists, but the person (while terribly sorry) states that they'd do it again if they "had" to. This is problematic as it shows a lack of faith, but more importantly it shows a lack of a willingness to "pick up your cross" and follow Jesus. Most often, though, the lack of conversion comes when a person refuses to change some objective element of their life that is contrary to Christian discipleship. For example, for a person who is in an irregular marriage (whether formal or "common-law") one of the elements of their conversion is to bring that marriage into line with Jesus' teaching on marriage. Until that is done, absolution can't be given. Obviously this is sometimes met with tremendous anger, usually stemming from past hurts, and a priest has to be very careful how the situation is addressed so as to respect pastoral charity, but it can't be done at the expense of truth.

It is important to also note that certain canonical penalties prevent a priest from offering absolution at that moment. A person who has been excommunicated has to have that excommunication lifted before sacramental absolution can be given. Sometimes that can be done by the priest himself — I, for example, have the faculty to lift excommunications for people who have performed or had abortions. And any priest can absolve any penalty when the person is in danger of death. But generally, when a person is under a canonical penalty, it needs to be removed first by some prior steps — contact with the diocesan bishop, for example. In such a case a priest would help the person through this process, and then joyfully be able to give the sacramental absolution at the end.

Preliminary point #2: The person has to be validly baptized

The expression "non-Catholics" is a bit broad, as it includes both non-Christians and non-Catholic Christians. The sacrament of Reconciliation pre-supposes the sacrament of Baptism, which is really the sacrament par-excellence for the forgiveness of the point that in the early Church the sacrament of Reconciliation was called the "second baptism", because all it does is renew the baptismal grace.

This does not mean that the Church does not offer forgiveness to non-baptized persons! It's just that the means of offering that forgiveness is different — it is through offering Baptism, not sacramental absolution. And I would always be willing to sit and talk with someone, baptized or not, who had something weighing on their conscience, and to pray with them. Again, it is a question of pastoral charity.

Preliminary point #3: The "objective element" of the sacrament

We need to recognize that confession is a sacrament, and as such it is a bit special when compared to many other prayers of the Church (such as blessings). Every sacrament has an outward sign (such as the words of absolution) and an inward grace (the healing of one's relationship with God). But every sacrament also has an intermediate element between these two things that we call the res et sacramentum. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, for example, the outward sign is the words of the Eucharistic Prayer, the inward grace is the grace received in Holy Communion, and the objective element between them is....the Body and Blood of Christ itself, sitting on the altar after the consecration and before the reception of communion. It is "objectively" there, and remains so even if not all the Eucharist is consumed (that's why we have locked tabernacles in church).

Each sacrament has it's own "objective element". For the Eucharist this is easy to figure out — it's right before our eyes — but what is it for Reconciliation? It is the healing of our relationship with the Church. The outward sign is our confession + absolution, which reconciles us with the Church, which then reconciles us to God in a manner par excellence, because the Church is also identified with the Body of Christ. This is one of the reasons why priests are ministers of the sacrament of Reconciliation. It's not because we're nice guys and good listeners — I wish we always were! — but because through our ordination we are able to represent the Church to the penitent because we have been configured to Christ, the Head of the Church, and we act in his name.

Often enough I hear the story "I don't need to confess my sins to a priest because I can confess them to God directly". Well of course you can express sorrow to God directly, and I hope people do in fact do this — and do it often. But the problem is this: when we sin, it's not only God we offend. First of all, there is the person whom we have directly sinned against — in general we have to say we're sorry to them, too. But beyond this, whenever we sin we also sin against all Christians, because in our sin we discredit the good name of the gospel. I've experienced this personally with the clergy abuse crisis in the U.S. While only a small minority of priests are guilty of these crimes, all priests fall under a cloud of suspicion because of it. Those abusers have not only hurt their victims, they have hurt their fellow priests — the hard-working (and, might I add, innocent) ones — in the process. In fact, they have hurt all Catholics, by hurting (in the process) the credibility of the Catholic Church as a carrier of the Gospel. How many ordinary Catholics found it just a little bit harder to profess their faith to their neighbours as a result of all of this? More than a few, I imagine.

This being said, I am not waiting for an apology from all those priests. This is not because I don't think they want to offer one, but because I recognize that it would be impractical to require them to personally apologize to all Catholic priests — much less to all Catholics. But this doesn't bother me, because I believe in the power of the sacrament of Reconciliation. In it Christ, the Head of the Church, speaks on behalf of the members to reconcile the sinful members once again to his Body. In going to confession, a person is not just "speaking to God" or "speaking to God through the priest", but is speaking to the whole of the Church — those alive today, and even those who have gone on ahead of us in purgatory or heaven. And the priest, acting in persona Christi capitis, reconciles that person to the Church as well as to the Lord. This is something that "confessing to God directly" cannot accomplish. It is a genuine "objective element" for the sacrament of Reconciliation.

So why can't the priest offer absolution to non-Catholic Christians?

By now the answer to this question should be obvious. A non-Catholic Christian, by definition, is not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The sacrament of Reconciliation is about restoring a person to communion to God through restoring them to the full communion of the Church. You can't restore a person to the full communion of the Church if, by their membership elsewhere, they are indicating that they don't want to live in full communion. Ergo, you can't offer them absolution. If they want sacramental absolution, they should also by definition want to be Catholic. If they don't, then sacramental absolution isn't for them — it just wouldn't make sense.

To be honest, some of our recent catechesis on the sacrament of Reconciliation hasn't helped us any in this understanding. In recent years we've tried to get away from a "judicial" view of the sacrament and present a more pastoral view, which unfortunately sometimes winds up looking like a merely therapeutic encounter. "Why should I confess my sins to a priest and not to God directly?" is often met with the answer "Because it's good to actually vocalize your sins to another human being, and the priest is bound by a special obligation of secrecy." This is true as far as it goes, and I've used the answer myself, but it *is* incomplete. Because I've known Protestants who've heard this answer and said to themselves "Hey, that's a good point, I'll go to the Catholic priest myself", and they come away quite confused (or even hurt). This can create confusion even in the minds of our Catholics, so we need to be a bit more complete in our explanations.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. Although non-Catholic Christians are not in full communion with the Catholic Church (otherwise, they'd be Catholics), thanks to the fact that they are baptized they are not totally out of communion either. This allows us to offer sacramental absolution in certain limited circumstances.

Members of the Eastern Orthodox churches share the same sacramental life as the Catholic Church, and their faith is almost identical in the core elements. Because we are so closely related, the rules for offering them absolution are as follows:

Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of the eastern Churches not in full communion with the catholic Church, if they spontaneously ask for them and are properly disposed. The same applies to members of other Churches which the Apostolic See judges to be in the same position as the aforesaid eastern Churches so far as the sacraments are concerned. (Code of Canon Law, canon 844.3)

Regarding the members of the Protestant churches, the rules are a bit more stringent:

If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgment of the diocesan Bishop or of the Episcopal Conference, there is some other grave and pressing need, catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously ask for them, provided that they demonstrate the catholic faith in respect of these sacraments and are properly disposed. (Code of Canon Law, canon 844.4)

In other words, unless the diocesan Bishop and/or Episcopal Conference has specifically outlined certain circumstances in which absolution can be given, the only time a Catholic priest can offer absolution on his own initiative is when the penitent is in danger of death AND the other requirements mentioned in 844.4 are also in place.

What about Catholics receiving absolution in another church? This is also quite restricted, even more so than for non-Catholics to receive absolution in the Catholic Church. But this is quite normal, if you think about it. After all, what jurisdiction could a non-Catholic minister possibly have to reconcile a person to the Catholic Church? I can see the argument if all the minister did was reconcile the person to God, but their function is also to reconcile them to the Catholic could they possibly do that, when they aren't a minister of that Church, or (in many cases) their ordination as priests isn't even recognized as valid? So the response Canon Law gives is the follows:

Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ's faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid. (Code of Canon Law, canon 844.2)

In other words, we can (in certain limited circumstances) receive these sacraments from Orthodox — but they generally won't offer them anyway — and we absolutely cannot receive them from Protestants, including Anglicans/Episcopalians. The irony is, to do so would be a sin!

An ecumenical gathering

I have a strong person devotion to the ecumenism and the ecumenical movement. I really believe — however foolish it might seem at time — that the Holy Spirit is guiding Christians into greater unity with one another. I accept without hesitation the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism. But it is becoming increasingly obvious to any reasonable observer that the initial enthusiasm of the ecumenical movement has given way to a "winter of ecumenism" that is increasingly looking more and more like a deep freeze colder than the temperature outside. Consider these facts:

  • Apart from our relations with the Assyrian Church of the East, the Roman Catholic/Orthodox dialogues are at a standstill. Nothing concrete has happened for at least 15 years.
  • The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has been suspended, in the wake of the decision of the ECUSA to ordain Gene Robinson as bishop.
  • The dialogues with the Lutheran World Federation produced a brilliant Joint Declaration on Justification, which (it would seem) in the end didn't really resolve the controversy on this critically important Reformation doctrine. Case in point: it doesn't seem to have helped our dialogues with other Protestant churches all that much.
  • ...and so on

So what do we do? Well, I can't speak for the other communities of Christians, but I have a few ideas for us Catholics:

  1. We need to place prayer at the centre of our ecumenical work. Personally, I sometimes pray a modified version of the Divine Liturgy that I call the "Office for Christian Unity". It gives me a chance to reflect on our foundational texts on ecumenism, and to recognize it is all in the hands of the Lord.
  2. We Catholics need to re-read the aforementioned Decree on Ecumenism. The Holy Spirit guided the production of this document, and it contains a fairly simple game plan for ecumenism within its few paragraphs. The problem is not that the program in the Decree hasn't worked, but that it hasn't really been fully tried.
  3. We need to figure out who we are talking to, and make sure they have authority for something. Official ecumenical agreements are like international treaties: where there is no authority to back up the treaty, why sign it? So, for example, while we do need to have some international coordinating body for Anglican-RC dialogue, the real ecumenism is going to happen on the level of the national churches of the Anglican Communion.
  4. Related to the previous point, we need to make sure that our dialogue partner agrees with the following philosophical positions: (1) that there is only one Truth, and (2) it is possible for human beings to attain genuine knowledge of this Truth. We waste our time when we have ecumenical partners who are only interested in dialogue without resolution, in a "process of reflection" without ever arriving at any conclusion, or who have basically given themselves over to some kind of post-modern agnosticism about Truth. Real ecumenism is about reconstruction, not deconstruction.
  5. We need to have a clear and articulate teaching on salvation, and use that as our starting point in all theological discussions. All Christian theology ultimately comes down to soteriology, because Christ came to save us. There is no point in discussing church structure, liturgy, Mary, etc., if we can't have a common soteriological reference point with our dialogue partner, because sooner or later a difference will get in the way. How do you get to heaven? Does sin matter? What about the Second Coming? This is important stuff, stuff that motivates people to become Christian, to stay Christian, and to evangelize — which means it matters when a Christian from one denomination is trying to figure out if a Christian from another denomination is really "one of us". The less clear this is, the less confidence there will be that ecumenical discussions mean something in the first place.
  6. I am of the opinion that dialogue needs to be broadened beyond the hierarchs and the professional ecumenists. Various organizations for Catholic ministries should have an "ecumenical office" to dialogue with their counterpart organizations in other churches, possibly even having joint conferences etc. The professional ecumenists can then, first and foremost, offer their services to help these intermediate organizations talk to each other.

Any other thoughts?