What It Takes to Help Ecumenism Along

Interview With Father J. Puglisi, Minister General of Franciscans of the Atonement

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 25, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Father James Puglisi, director of Rome's Pro Unione Center, recalls the words of his professor, Yves Congar, on ecumenism.



The famous theologian used to say: "We can pass through the door of ecumenism only on our knees."

Thus, prayer is the condition for Christian unity, explains the priest, who is minister general of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, in this interview with ZENIT.

Q: Is there any particular sign to celebrate this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with more optimism than ever?

Father Puglisi: Yes. I think that in many respects we can see more collaboration among Christians because of the world situation in which the churches live.

What Cardinal Kasper has called a "dialogue of life" is clearly seen as going forward as Christians to respond to situations such as the recent natural disaster in Southeast Asia, to the situation of Christians in Iraq, the Holy Land and places like Sudan.

These represent human needs that the Gospel calls us to witness to with charity. There has been a tremendous outpouring of charity, regardless of denomination or religion. This is how the spirit of the beatitudes counters the spirit of the world, as seen and understood in Johannine terms.

On the theological level we must admit that things are moving more slowly, and we might say cautiously.

We have arrived at a critical point in our discussions and dialogues where we need to stop and evaluate both from the point of view of theory -- theological agreements -- and practice -- how these realities and agreements are being lived out in practice.

This is where what is said in Acts and taken up by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" -- namely, that we should not impose anything more than that required by the Scriptures -- needs to be considered and sorted out.

This demands patience, study, reflection and, most especially, prayer. Père Congar always told us in his class that "We can pass through the door of ecumenism only on our knees."

Immediately, the image of the door at the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls comes to mind, when three church leaders were on their knees, in supplication, knocking at the door/gate that is Christ. This, in fact, is the reason for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Q: From your particular point of view, why is there still hostility toward ecumenism?

Father Puglisi: The "hostility" that we observe is more like fear. What we are dealing with at this time is a request for systemic change, [a] conversion of churches and their structures including the Catholic Church.

We know that historically the structures of the Church have evolved according to the needs, the challenge, that the world put to the Church which, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, had to respond to these in each generation. This is how the Church fulfilled its role in society.

In many ways the Church was also drawn in to adopting structures from the secular world in which it lived. The Code of Canon Law of 1917, I think, is an example of this fact whereby the constitutional monarchies were a model in society and the "perfect society"; the Church obviously adopted the "perfect" model.

But this was rooted in positivistic laws and not sacramental norms. An example is that the code moved from the right of election of the bishop, to the right of nomination by the supreme authority. All the canons of the early Church state that the one who presides over the Church must be elected by the Church.

All of these changes illustrate a growing chasm between the baptized and those who were ordained: an opposition between clergy and laity was gradually established whereby the laity was disqualified religiously from participating in the structures of the Church and the clergy was gradually separated from the People of God and placed above the Church so that they could act upon the Church.

The Second Vatican Council reoriented this by the changes it made in the dogmatic constitution on the Church, "Lumen Gentium," whereby the ministry is located within the Church and not above the Church.

This is the meaning of the modifications made to the original "schema de Ecclesia" that began with the hierarchy but ends up in "Lumen Gentium" with the presentation of the Church as a Trinitarian reality seen as the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

At the service of this ecclesial reality is the ordained ministry located in the heart of the Church. Reference to the Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4, becomes important since it is here that we see the different charisms given to the Church so that the saints may be in the condition to fulfill their mission in the world.

As long as we maintain a rigid division and separation -- and we might say opposition -- between clergy and laity, then the process of secularization will continue to progress rapidly in a world which is in rapid social and cultural change. The Gospel needs to be spoken to each generation, to each culture, in terms and with symbols that can articulate its very message to each culture for the life of the world.

Q: John Paul II is an ecumenical Pope. But we don't have lots of ecumenical bishops or believers. Why?

Father Puglisi: This is an interesting question and one that is very delicate. It might mean that there has not been a real acceptance of Vatican II and its implications, by the both bodies you mentioned.

Once again I think that it could be expressed in terms of theory and practice. Obviously, Pope John Paul II, following in continuity from John XXIII and Paul VI, has really tried to set the pace for the Church's ecumenical engagement as was desired by the Council Fathers at the time of the Council. He has stated as much in "Ut Unum Sint" and in every pastoral visit he has made, without exception.

I find it interesting how his ecumenical stance is one of the last to be latched onto, while his statements on morality are always being cited.

Given his ecumenical -- and we could also say interreligious -- engagement, one would expect his diocese to be a real example for others of ecumenical and interreligious engagement. This needs to be verified.

What I have been able to witness, unfortunately, is that when economic decisions have to be taken, one of the first offices or figures in the diocesan curias that disappears, is the ecumenical office or commission.

Or the other example is that the person who is charged with this important role has three other jobs to perform or has no preparation or formation to carry out the task entrusted to him.

I guess we need to really ask ourselves, how committed are we to the ecumenical imperative which is at the heart of the mission and life of Jesus and linked so intimately to the Church's missionary role in the world. The very life of the Gospel depends on this!

John Paul II has recognized this and has committed himself to this path in his attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Lord. We need to ask, have others done so, too? Isn't this the commitment we -- i.e., all Christians -- make in our baptism?

Many proclaim their loyalty to the magisterium of John Paul II, but do they in all of his teachings? A real question for us Catholics to reflect upon in this Week of Prayer.

Q: Is the relationship with Orthodoxy easier, at this particular stage?

Father Puglisi: I am not a real expert on the relations with the Orthodox. I can only say that when we speak of the Orthodox we generalize, just as when others speak of Catholics.

I believe that it depends on which Orthodox you are speaking about. I believe that we can see some progress in our relationships with some of the Orthodox and not so much with others.

In a certain respect we have to accept some of the blame, but we cannot be allowed to be badgered either.

The fault lies in the fact that it is true in some countries that our bishops have not stopped some overzealous Catholic groups and movements from "moving in on" the Orthodox and treating them as if they were not even Christians. There have been abuses that we need to recognize and take responsibility for.

At the same time there are instances of real, authentic Christian care, and collaboration with the Orthodox in their attempt to recover from the effects of the socialist/communist regimes that they were forced to live under for such a long period of time.

Unless we have experienced this, I do not think we can imagine the devastating effects that this has had on the culture, the psychology of people, and their defense mechanisms.

Just because there has been some reaction from some Orthodox -- usually Church leaders, monks and clerics -- it doesn't mean that all Orthodox, from every Orthodox country, have the same feelings and reactions to Western Christians and Catholics in particular.

Regarding the Churches in communion with Rome, it is really best that someone else deal with this question, which is a complex one, theologically and historically and geographically, because these unions did not come about for the same reasons in each case and in each place.

Q: Is the founder's message for this Week of Prayer still valid? Why?

Father Puglisi: Father Paul Watson's original message for the Week of Prayer -- called the Chair of Unity Octave when he began it in 1908 -- is still valid today.

The problem is that his original message was transformed when it was taken over by the Church and later extended to the whole Catholic Church because there was not an ecclesiology at work, at least not a "communion ecclesiology" as articulated by Vatican II.

Father Paul prayed that all churches would be united around the Chair of Peter, not in submission to the Chair of Peter but around it.

Obviously this vision came from the Oxford Movement which revived an ecclesiology of the early Church, which is an ecclesiology of communion. "United but not absorbed" was the formulation of the Malines Conversations. This was the original message.

I believe that our view today, even though expressed with different terms, is more or less the same. We all believe that we need to belong to one Eucharistic fellowship, or "koinonia"; this is the goal of the search for Christian unity. How this will happen depends on how the Spirit moves us and reveals to us the way on which we need to be engaged.

Unity is in the final analysis a gift from the Triune God and the mode of existence within the Trinity, in whose image we are all created.

Our prayer prepares us to first see the gift when it is offered to us and then to seize the offer and accept the gift and be transformed by it.

In other words, we will, like Francis of Assisi, be conformed to the very seraphic love of the Godhead and hence changed. This is the divesting of each of ourselves, individually and ecclesially, that will take place.

If we believe that it is of the Spirit and the Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, then we will be conformed to the very Truth that is the unity of the Godhead in its essential diversity.

Indeed, this is difficult for our minds to grasp because it is the very mystery that our hearts desire.

We will not fully be able to grasp this mystery until we have been assumed or rather consumed by the mystery itself and our diversity is made one in the flame of God's love.