Ecumenism and the Popes

Pope Pius XII cautiously opened the possibility of dialogue (1950).

“The Decree on Ecumenism did not fall readymade from heaven. It forms a part of the ecumenical movement which had arisen outside of the Catholic Church during the 20thcentury (UR, 1, 4) and which achieved a decisive breakthrough with the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. This movement was for a long time regarded with suspicion by the Catholic Church. But its reception by the Second Vatican Council has roots reaching back to the Catholic theology of the 19th century. Johann Adam Möhler and John Henry Newman in particular should be mentioned as forerunners and pioneers.

“The way was also prepared by the Holy See. Even prior to the Second Vatican Council the Popes fostered the Prayer for Unity and the Week of Prayer for Unity. Popes Leo XIII and Benedict XV prepared the way for openness towards ecumenism; Pope Pius XI gave express approval of the Malines Conversations with the Anglicans (1921-1926).[2]

“Pope Pius XII went a step further. In an Instruction of 1950 he expressly welcomed the ecumenical movement and attributed it to the influence of the Holy Spirit. In addition, this Pope also paved the way for the Council with a series of groundbreaking encyclicals. It would therefore be erroneous to overlook this fundamental continuity and see the Council as a radical breach with tradition and the advent of a new church.”  (PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY, CONFERENCE ON THE 40th ANNIVERSARY OF THE PROMULGATION OF THE CONCILIAR DECREE "UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIO".  (Rocca di Papa, MONDO MIGLIORE, 11,12 and 13 November 2004): INTERVENTION BY CARD. WALTER KASPER, PRESIDENT OF THE PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY, Thursday, 11 November 2004

Pope John XXIII removed the caution through calling an “ecumenical council”.  Official representatives were present during the sessions.  They did not speak, though their reactions and input were sought in informal gatherings.

Two documents of the Council in particular lead to official dialogues being established: the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1964), and the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965).

Pope Paul VI visited the Orthodox Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Constantinople in 1964 and 1967. He was the first pope since the ninth century to visit the East, labeling the Eastern Churches as sister Churches. He was also the first pope in centuries to meet the heads of various Eastern Orthodox faiths.

Paul was the first pope to receive an Anglican Archbishop of CanterburyMichael Ramsey.

In 1965, Paul VI decided on the creation of a joint working group with the World Council of Churches in order to map all possible avenues of dialogue and cooperation.  Cooperation took the form of working closely together in areas of social justice and development and Third World Issues such as hunger and poverty. On the religious side, it was agreed to share together in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, The joint working group (which yet exists and works today) was to prepare texts which were to be used by all Christians. On 19 July 1968, the meeting of the World Council of Churches took place in Uppsala, Sweden. He sent his blessing in an ecumenical manner: "May the Lord bless everything you do for the case of Christian Unity." The World Council of Churches decided on including Catholic Theologians in its committees, provided they have the backing of the Vatican.

The Lutherans were the first Christian Church offering a dialogue to the Catholic Church in September 1964 in Reykjavík, Iceland.[17] It resulted in joint study groups of several issues. The dialogue with the Methodist Church began October 1965, after its representatives officially applauded remarkable changes, friendship and cooperation of the past five years. The Reformed Churches entered four years later into a dialogue with the Catholic Church.  

Pope Benedict XVI was elected on April 19, 2005.  The very next day the newly elected Pope called the cardinals together in the Sistine Chapel to outline his vision of the papacy and the priorities of his mission.  He told the cardinals that the fostering of the unity of Christians would lie at the very pinnacle of his ministry.  Speaking of himself in the third person, the Pope went on to say that:

Peter's current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty. He is aware that good intentions do not suffice for this. Concrete gestures that enter hearts and stir consciences are essential, inspiring in everyone that inner conversion that is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress.

Pope Francis: In November, 2014, in an address to the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Pope Francis said that the “….quest for unity among Christians ‘must be an ever present concern for the Church’. 

“Ecumenical dialogue is a dialogue between those who believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ but belong to different Churches often contradicting each other in matters of faith, church structures and morals.”

He goes on to say: “…ecumenical dialogue, must be understood as a Spirit guided spiritual process and as one way in which the Church grows in insight into the once and for all revealed truth and advances towards a fuller understanding of divine truth (Dei Verbum, 8).”


Ecumenism can be seen as a contribution to the unity of the human family, pilgrims journeying alongside one another which means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face. 

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