With Second Vatican Council the Church became definitively involved on the path of ecumenical research and listening to the Spirit of the Lord
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 12 July, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the missionary activity of the Church, focusing on ecumenism and her commitment to restoring Christian unity. "The Church's unity is expressed as fidelity to Christ, sustained and protected by Mary's maternal presence" the Pope said. Here is a translation of his address, which was the 132nd in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. The commitment to ecumenism is of primary importance for the Christian. It is in fact known that Jesus prayed at the Last Supper for the unity of his Disciples, with heartfelt intensity: "as you, Father are in me, and I in you, I pray that they may be [one] in us, that the world may believe that you sent me" (Jn 17:21).
Jesus did not hesitate to pray to the Father for his Disciples "that their unity may be complete" (Jn 17:23) in spite of the difficulties and tensions he knew they would encounter. He himself had noticed the disagreements between the Twelve even during the Last Supper, and foresaw those which were shortly to appear in the life of the Christian communities scattered throughout such a vast and varied world. Nonetheless, he prayed for the complete unity of his followers and for this end he offered the sacrifice of his own life.
Unity is, therefore, a gift of the Lord to his Church "a people gathered together by the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" as St Cyprian effectively points out (De Orat. Dom., 23, PL 4 536). Indeed, "the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 2).
In reality, in the first community that gathered after Pentecost, we see that deep unity prevailed: all "devoted themselves to the Apostles' instruction and the communal life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42); and "the community of believers were of one heart and one mind" (Acts 4:32).
Divisions among Christians already existed from the very beginning
2. Reading the pages of the Acts of the Apostles which describe the early experiences of life in the apostolic community, one is struck by the observation that this union and harmony owed much to Mary's presence (cf. Acts 1:13-14). Among the women present at the first gathering, she is the only one mentioned by named by Luke, who does not fail to describe her as "the Mother of Jesus", thus holding her up as a sign and an intimate force of koinonia. This title conferred upon her a singular position connected to her new maternity which was proclaimed by Christ on the Cross. In this text therefore it cannot be ignored that the Church's unity is expressed as fidelity to Christ, supported and protected by Mary's maternal presence.
The essential value of this unity achieved at the beginning of the Church's life, will never disappear. The Second Vatican Council repeated that: ''Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 1). It must however be observed that this original unity has suffered deep lacerations in the course of history. Love of Christ must spur his followers today to reconsider together their past, to return to the way of unity with renewed vigour.
3. The New Testament writings themselves tell us that from the very beginning of the Church's life there have been divisions among Christians. Paul speaks of discord in the Church in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 1:10-12). John complains of those who spread false teaching (cf. 2 Jn 10) or who claim the most important place in the Church (cf. 3 Jn 9-10). It was the start of a painful history, recorded in every age, with the formation of particular groups of Christians who broke away from the Catholic Church, the emergence of schisms and heresies, and the birth of "separated" Churches. These were not in communion either with the other particular Churches nor with the universal Church, constituted as "one flock" under the care of "one Shepherd", Christ (Jn 10:16), represented by one universal Vicar, the Supreme Pontiff.
Ecumenism has become the way of the Church
4. From the painful confrontation of this historical situation with the Gospel law of unity, the ecumenical movement arose, a movement which aims at restoring even visible unity among all Christians, "that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God" (Unitatis redintegratio n. 1). The Second Vatican Council gave the greatest importance to this movement, pointing out how it implies, for those who work for it, a communion of faith in the Trinity and in Christ, and a common longing for the one and universal Church (cf. ibid., n. 1). But authentic ecumenical commitment likewise requires of all Christians, motivated by a sincere desire for communion, freedom from prejudices which hinder the development of the dialogue of charity in truth.
The Council formulates a differentiated judgement on the historical evolution of the separations. "Large communities" it says, "became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church—for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 3). This was the initial moment of separation. Subsequently, the situation changed: "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers" (ibid.).
With the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed herself definitively to follow the path of ecumenical research, setting herself to listen to the Spirit of the Lord. The way of ecumenism has become the way of the Church.
Separated Churches retain their importance in mystery of salvation
5. We must note further that, according to the Council, those who are separated from the Catholic Church preserve a certain communion—incomplete but real—with her. In fact, those who believe in Christ and have received Baptism, are rightly recognized by the children of the Catholic Church "as brothers in the Lord", even if there are differences "whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church" (ibid.. n. 3). We can be united with them through several elements of great value, such as, "the written Word of God, the life of grace faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements" (ibid.). All of this is the heritage of the one Church of Christ, which "subsists in the Catholic Church" (Lumen gentium, n. 8).
Even with regard to the work of evangelization and sanctification, the Council's attitude is sincere and respectful. It affirms that the Churches and ecclesial communities are not in fact deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. "For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation". (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 3).
All this contains the impelling appeal for full unity. It is not merely a matter of gathering up all the spiritual riches scattered throughout the Christian communities, as if in so doing we might arrive at a more perfect Church, the Church God would desire for the future. Instead, it is a question of bringing about fully that Church which God already manifested in her profound reality at Pentecost. This is the goal towards which all must strive, already united in hope, prayer, conversion of heart, and as is often demanded of us in suffering which draws its value from the Cross of Christ.
L’Osservatore Romano July 19, 1995