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Catholic Ecumenism In Russia

by John A. Hardon, S.J.

The need for ecumenism goes back to the first century of Christianity. Within a generation of Christ's establishment of the Church by His death on the cross, there were divisions among His followers. One letter of St. Paul after another is eloquent witness to the growing dissension among those who call themselves Christians.

Among these divisions, the first in magnitude and consequences was the separation of the Eastern Christians from union with the Bishop of Rome.

What needs to be stressed is that the Eastern Christian Churches, who call themselves Orthodox, are indeed orthodox because they maintained the integrity of the Faith through centuries of conflict with heresies. There were the Nestorians, named after their founder Nestorius who claimed that Christ was really two distinct persons, one human and the other Divine. There were the monophysites who went to the other extreme of claiming that Christ had only a Divine and not also a human nature. Both these early heresies were condemned by general councils.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches call themselves orthodox precisely because they firmly believe that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that His mother Mary is Theotokos, the Mother of God. They have retained the seven sacraments instituted by Christ and believed in the necessity of grace for salvation, denied by the Pelagians and recognized that we have a true human will, contrary to the teachings of the Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin. The Orthodox have retained the episcopal succession from the Apostles; they have the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Real Presence, and the sacraments of Confession, Anointing, the Priesthood, and Matrimony. They administer the sacrament of Confirmation, normally right after Baptism, and they have a tender devotion to the saints especially the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Grave Need For Ecumenism Today

Never before in Christian history has there been more desperate need for the ecumenical movement. It is not only that divisions in Christendom have multiplied almost beyond counting. It is the sad fact that there is such widespread de-Christianization of once Christian cultures in the modern world. In unity there is strength. Disunity is weakness. The divisions among Christian peoples in our day have become an open prey to the enemies of Christ. They capitalize on dissensions among Christians to weaken the impact of Christ's teaching on human culture.

That is why for the first time in conciliar history, the Second Vatican Council issued a formal decree on ecumenism. This document is not well known. It needs to be understood accurately and applied with apostolic zeal. Otherwise the divisions among Christian believers will not only continue but intensify and become one of the principal tools of the anti-Christian forces that are so active in the twentieth century.

We have no doubt that God's grace is very active in our world. This grace is especially needed to reunify a dismembered Christian world. So many once believing Christians have become mesmerized, especially through the media, by the prevalent secularism which dominates government policy, the legal and medical professions, the field of education, and especially the means of social communication.

Christ's prayer to His heavenly Father at the Last Supper has never been more urgently needed to be answered than today, "Father, may they be one in us as you are in me and I am in You, so that the world may believe that it was You who sent me" (Jn 17:32). In other words, unity among Christians is a witness to Christ's Divinity. The world needs this witness if it is to believe in Jesus Christ as the Divine Redeemer.

Catholic and Orthodox Ecumenism

The Second Vatican Council is the most outspoken and outgoing council in Catholic history in urging the reunion with the Eastern Christians separated from Rome.

Nothing should be demanded of separated Eastern Christians who come to Catholic unity under the influence of the grace of the Holy Spirit than what the simple profession of the Catholic Faith requires. Since a valid priesthood has been preserved among them, Eastern clerics who come to Catholic unity may exercise their own orders in accordance with the regulations laid down by the competent authority.

Eastern Christians who are separated in good faith from the Catholic Church, if they are rightly disposed and make such requests of their own accord, may be given the sacraments of Penance, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick. Moreover, Catholics who may ask for those same sacraments from non-Catholic ministers in whose church there are valid sacraments, as often as necessary or true spiritual benefit recommends, and access to a Catholic priest is physically or morally impossible.

Not satisfied with these concessions, the Vatican Council encourages a common sharing in sacred functions where this practice would be spiritually beneficial between Catholics and their separated Eastern brethren.

All of the above illustrates the limits to which the Catholic Church is willing to go in order to foster Christlike unity between the faithful united with the Bishop of Rome and Eastern Christians who are still separated from the See of Peter.

True And False Ecumenism

Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics have sincerely initiated relationships with the churches separated from Rome without taking into full account the doctrinal foundations on which true ecumenism must be based. True ecumenism is the Christian unity that Christ Himself revealed. It is the unity which is not merely verbal but real. It is the unity which preserves all the essential elements of faith and morality prescribed by the Savior for those who are to be His followers in truth and not only in name.

True unity necessarily requires a clear and deep understanding of the premises of belief and practice required by the founder of the Church who died on the Cross because He refused to compromise with the truth. True unity is certainly animated by a deep Christian love. But this love must be founded on the truth which the Roman Catholic Church has preserved for twenty centuries and for which millions of her followers have shed their blood.

True unity is impossible without union with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter on whom Christ promised to build His Church.

How To Promote True Christian Unity

The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a large section of its teaching to the promotion of true Christian unity. It identifies certain features of this ecumenical apostolate which are especially pertinent to professed Roman Catholics.

Among these responsibilities is first of all, a permanent renewal of the Church herself in the greater fidelity to her vocation. Such renewal is the driving force of the movement toward unity.

The Catholic faithful must strive for a conversion of heart, in order to "live holier lives according to the Gospel" (Decree on Ecumenism, 7,3). Why is this conversion so important? Because it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ's gift which causes divisions.

Prayer in common is strongly encouraged because "change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement and merits the name, spiritual ecumenism."

The Catholic faithful should be ecumenically formed, especially the priests. This means understanding what the non-Catholic Christians believe and how to cooperate with them in the promotion of authentic unity.

Theologians of the Catholic Church should engage in dialogue with their counterparts in Christian churches which are not in communion with the Holy See. Moreover, prudent meetings among Christians of the different churches and communities is recommended.

Finally, collaboration among Christians in meeting the needs of mankind is almost a formula for promoting authentic Christ-like ecumenism.

Since the beginnings of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has been zealous in fostering Christian unity, with special concern for a re-unification of the Catholic Church with the Eastern Orthodox churches throughout the world. He sees the riches of spiritual depth among the Orthodox and is especially hopeful because of their strong devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. He never tires making overtures to the leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy in order to restore that unity with the See of Peter which is in the heart of authentic ecumenism.

Father Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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