Before speaking about disappointments it is appropriate to speak briefly on the Second Vatican Council's initiative once more to set the Church on the path of ecumenism. This path is very dear to me. I come from a country of deeply rooted ecumenical traditions, despite its reputation for being predominantly Catholic.
In the course of its millennial history, Poland has been a state made up of many nationalities, many religions-mostly Christian, but not only Christian. This tradition has been and still is the source of a positive aspect of Polish culture, namely its tolerance and openness toward people who think differently, who speak other languages, or who believe, pray,
or celebrate the same mysteries of faith in a different way. Nevertheless, throughout the history of Poland there have been concrete efforts to bring about unity. The Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596 marks the beginning of the history of the Eastern Church. Today this church is called the Catholic Church of the Byzantine-Ukrainian Rite, but at that time it was mainly the Church of the Russian and Byelorussian people.
This is meant to be a kind of introduction to my response to the opinions of some people with regard to the disappointment experienced in the ecumenical dialogue. I think that more powerful than these disappointments is the very fact that the path to Christian unity has been undertaken with renewed vigor. As we near the end of the second millennium, Christians are more deeply aware that the divisions existing between them are contrary to Christ's prayer at the Last Supper: "that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you...that the world may believe that you sent me" (cf. Jn 17:21).
Christians of different denominations and communities have been able to appreciate the truth of these words especially as a result of missionary activity, which has recently intensified, both on the part of the Catholic Church, as I noted earlier, and on the part of different Protestant Churches and communities. The people to whom missionaries proclaim Christ and His Gospel, preaching ideals of fraternity and unity, cannot help but ask questions about the unity of Christians. And they need to know which of these Churches or communities is that of Christ, since He founded only one Church-the only one capable of speaking in His name. Therefore, in a certain sense the experience of missionary activity gave rise to today's ecumenical movement.
Pope John XXIII, who was moved by God to summon the Council, used to say: "What separates us as believers in Christ is much less than what unites us." In this statement we find the heart of ecumenical thinking. The Second Vatican Council continued in the same direction, as we have seen in passages already cited from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, to which we should also add the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, and the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. These last two documents are extremely important from an ecumenical point of view.
What unites us is much greater than what separates
us: the Council documents gave a more concrete form to John XXIII's fundamental intuition. All of us, in fact, believe in the same Christ. This faith is the fundamental inheritance of the teaching of the first seven ecumenical councils, which were held in the first millennium. So there is basis for dialogue and for the growth of unity, a growth that should occur at the same rate at which we are able to overcome our divisions-divisions that to a great degree result from the idea that one can have a monopoly on truth.
These divisions are certainly opposed to what Christ had in mind. It is impossible to imagine that this Church, instituted by Christ on the foundation of the apostles and of Peter, should not be one. But we can also understand how over the centuries contact with different political and cultural climates could have led believers to interpret Christ's message with varying emphases.
Nevertheless, these different approaches to understanding and living out one's faith in Christ can, in certain cases, be complementary; they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Good will is needed in order to realize how various interpretations and ways of practicing the faith can come together and complement each other. There is also the need to determine where genuine divisions start, the point beyond which the faith is compromised. It is legitimate to affirm that the gap between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church is not very wide. On the other hand, with regard to the Churches and the communities originating in the Reformation, we must recognize that the gap is considerably wider, since several fundamental elements established by Christ were not respected.
At the same time, we must also acknowledge that difficulties of a psychological and historical nature are at times felt more deeply in the Orthodox Churches than in some Protestant communities. This is why personal contacts are so important. I grow more convinced of this every time I meet leaders of these Churches, whether in Rome or during visits to various parts of the world. The very fact that we are able to come together and pray is very significant. Some years ago this was absolutely unthinkable.
In this regard, I must mention several visits I made that had particular importance from an ecumenical point of view-for example, those to Great Britain and to Scandinavia. In general, we can observe that subjective difficulties are greater in those countries where the division first arose. Therefore, with regard to Protestantism, these difficulties are felt far more in Germany and in Switzerland than, for example, in North America or in Africa. I will never forget the statement I heard during an ecumenical gathering with representatives of the Protestant community in Cameroon: "We know we are divided, but we do not know why."
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In Europe the situation is quite different. Nevertheless, one can see much evidence of a growing desire to work for Christian unity.
Clearly, the disappointments to which you referred were bound to arise in the case of individuals or groups that viewed the problem of Christian unity in too casual and superficial a way. Many enthusiastic people, sustained by great optimism, were ready to believe that the Second Vatican Council had already resolved the problem. But the Council only opened the road to unity, committing first of all the Catholic Church; but that road itself is a process, which must gradually overcome many obstacles-whether of a doctrinal or a cultural or a social nature-that have accumulated over the course of centuries. It is necessary, therefore, to rid ourselves of stereotypes, of old habits. And above all, it is necessary to recognize the unity that already exists.
Much has been accomplished along these lines. At various levels the ecumenical dialogue continues to develop and is bearing much good fruit. A number of theological commissions are going about their work in a spirit of cooperation. Anyone who follows these matters closely cannot help but sense the presence of the Holy Spirit. However, no one really believes that the way toward unity is short or free of obstacles. Above all else, much prayer is needed, as well as great commitment to the task of profound conversion, which can only be brought about by common prayer and joint efforts on behalf of justice, peace, and the shaping of the temporal order ever more fully in accordance with Christian values, on behalf of everything that the mission of Christians in the world demands.
In our century in particular, events have taken place that clash profoundly with the truth of the Gospel. I allude above all to the two World Wars and to the concentration and extermination camps. Paradoxically, these events may have reinforced ecumenical consciousness among divided Christians. In this regard, the extermination of the Jews certainly had a special role. It placed before both the Church and Christianity the issue of the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments. The Second Vatican Council's Declaration Nostra Aetate is the result of
the Catholic Church's reflections on this relationship. The Council contributed greatly to the development of the awareness that the children of Israel are our "elder brothers." This development was the result
of dialogue, ecumenical dialogue in particular. In
the Catholic Church it is significant that dialogue with the Jews takes place in the Pontifical Council
for Promoting Christian Unity, which is also concerned with the dialogue among the various Christian communities.
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Taking all this into consideration, it is difficult not to acknowledge that the Catholic Church has enthusiastically embraced ecumenism in all its complexity and carries it out day after day with great seriousness. Naturally, real unity is not and cannot be the fruit of human forces alone. The true protagonist remains the Holy Spirit, who must determine, even from the human point of view, when the process of unity has developed sufficiently.
When will this happen? It is not easy to predict. In any case, in light of the coming of the third millennium, Christians have noted that while the Church was undivided during the first millennium, the second was marked by many profound divisions to the East and West, which today need to be mended.
By the year 2000 we need to be more united, more willing to advance along the path toward the unity for which Christ prayed on the eve of His Passion. This unity is enormously precious. In a certain sense, the future of the world is at stake. The future of the Kingdom of God in the world is at stake. Human weaknesses and prejudices cannot destroy God's plan for the world and for humanity. If we appreciate this, we can look to the future with a certain optimism. We can trust that "the one who began this good work in us will bring it to completion" (cf. Phil 1:6).