The Pope and Christian Unity

By Sullivan, Desmond | Contemporary Review, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Pope and Christian Unity


Sullivan, Desmond, Contemporary Review


There was considerable disappointment among many ecumenical Christians that the Pope did not use the occasion of his visit to Germany - where the Reformation began - to make any memorable pronouncement on Christian unity. Yet three letters did come out of Rome last year from, I think, the personal pen of John Paul II, which have astonishingly contradicted our media-controlled view of the triumphalism and superstar quality of the present Pope. Such is the potential impact of these documents that it seems that the present Pope has used his unique position to release ecumenism and lay wide open the future role and position of the historic papacy.

The three documents are: a letter on Christian unity called 'Ut Unum Sint'; a letter to the Churches of the East called 'Orientale Lumen'; and the third his famous millenium letter 'Tertio Millenio Adveniente'. (Their texts can be found in L' Osservatore Romano of 2 May, 25 May and 10 November 1995.)

While proclaiming, fearlessly, his office as successor of Peter, John Paul II has personally with gentleness and precision shattered most of the post-Reformation arguments and obstacles to Christian unity. The best way to picture this breakthrough is the image of the Bishop of Rome, in penitential stance, kneeling at the threshold of the new millenium trying to lead his own to become a church in need of reform - 'semper reformanda' - facing the rest of the churches with the plea that 'Peter' being 'once converted could confirm his brethren'. He, in the name of Peter, may once again in truth and love no longer be an obstacle to the dying wish of the Saviour 'that they may be one'.

The approach of the millenium seems to exercise his mind, for he too has not many years left. In his letter on unity he stresses that the final wish of Jesus at the Last Supper was to pray to the Father that they may be one. His life so far has not achieved much here, perhaps; this urges him to risk all to break down the barriers to unity.

Martyrdom too has a fascination for the current successor of Peter. He has himself shed his blood in an attempted assassination in 1981. He writes that martyrs, in the East and in the West, were believers in Christ; united in following his footsteps, the martyrs cannot remain divided, and he asks for the churches to have a common list of martyrs to celebrate in unity so that we will respect each other's martyrs for a change, for 'they profess together the same truth about the Cross'.

In a similar way he expresses love and veneration for the fidelity, example of Christian teaching, integrity and spiritual heritage of the Churches of the East. Recalling the many mutual exchanges of visits with those in communion with Constantinople, with Moscow, and with the Oriental churches he rejoices that this unity in faith and sacraments and friendship proves the reality of diversity within unity as a hallmark of catholicity.

Often the world-wide tours of John Paul II, as seen on television, appeared to be embarrassingly populist and almost un-Christ-like. The Pope reveals that behind all the public fuss there has been very direct and serious meeting of Christian minds. For he shows in his letter on unity that he has made it his duty to visit, in friendship and in real dialogue, the leaders of churches and other religions in every one of the countries he has visited.

It is quite touching for us in England to read, in this regard, of his visit to Canterbury in May 1982. For it was an earlier bishop of Rome who called on the young Augustine to go to that far away land and bring into the fold of Christ the Angels of those lands and to found the see of Canterbury. John Paul II recalls, with some emotion and affection, his visit to Canterbury, his prayer for unity with the Archbishop and the love and respect for 'those elements of grace and truth and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church of England'. He was, I believe, the first Bishop of Rome to visit this see founded at the request of his own predecessor.

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