The Exchange of Gifts: Spiritual Ecumenism


If you are coming to this blog for the first time or just the first time in a while, please read Todd’s “Sixty Minute Plan” post below.

A good number of Catholics, I suspect, regard ecumenism as an unexciting institutional matter, inevitably associated with such cheerless terms as “bureaucracy,” “negotiation,” perhaps even “compromise.” But the late John Paul II, in a homily at an ecumenical celebrations of Vespers at the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2003, rightly placed stress on “spiritual ecumenism” alongside the necessity of the various bilateral and multilateral dialogues. Without spiritual ecumenism, he cautioned, any external structures of communion would be nothing more than “mechanisms without a soul.” What is “spiritual ecumenism”?

The Pope referenced his earlier apostolic letter Novo Millenio Ineunte and its discussion of a “spirituality of communion,” which implied “the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a ‘gift for me.'” We become more receptive to the Gospel through the insights of other Christians, and, in gratitude, recognize that they are “part of me,” and that we cannot possibly remain indifferent to their “joys and sufferings.” In his 2003 homily, the Holy Father suggested common prayer, listening to the Word of God in Sacred Scripture together, and the examples of recent communities of consecrated life and spiritual movements (perhaps Taizé would be one such example) to guide our path in this “spiritual ecumenism.” Of course, none of this is easy: before we can exchange gifts, we will have to overcome the temptations to competition, distrust, and jealousy.

To some extent, Catholics and Methodists have taken part in this “spiritual ecumenism.” Earlier this year, the World Methodist Council endorsed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. At the signing ceremony, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, noted, “Over the past decades, Catholics have come to respect Methodist attentiveness to the pursuit of personal and social holiness, and commitment to mission centred on the proclamation of the Gospel. We have often joined in the singing of the hymns of Charles Wesley and have appreciated the evangelical zeal which calls forth a commitment to Christian discipleship affecting all aspects of human life.”

In an editorial beginning a recent issue of Ecclesiology, dedicated to Catholic-Methodist relations, Fr Paul McPartlan of the Catholic University of America further describes this “spiritual ecumenism” between Catholics and Methodists from the perspective of an actual participant in Methodist-Catholic dialogue. The editorial clearly shows, I think, that ecumenism is about much more than institutional concerns, and that ecumenism should affect all of our spiritual lives in some fashion (one can start by singing some Charles Wesley hymns).

Here is Fr McPartlan:

In his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (1995), Pope John Paul II reiterated the Catholic Church’s irrevocable commitment to working for Christian unity and stressed that dialogue is “not simply an exchange of ideas.” “In some way,” he said, “it is always an ‘exchange of gifts'” (n. 28). “Full unity will come about when all share in the fulness of the means of salvation entrusted by Christ to his Church” (n. 86). We might say, therefore, that what will concretely mark the stages by which two churches advance towards the goal of unity will be a progressive recognition of ecclesial gifts in one another, and a progressive exchange of gifts towards a growing mutual enjoyment of them in a common ecclesial life.

The current round of international Roman Catholic-Methodist dialogue, in which I have been blessed to participate, has had a practical purpose precisely along the lines of the paragraphs above. The title of the forthcoming agreed statement is eloquent of its nature and purpose: The Grace Given You in Christ. In it, Methodists and Catholics acknowledge the gifts given by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit to one another, and give thanks for them (cf. 1 Cor 1:4), with the express purpose of promoting an exchange of gifts. The explicit desire is to acknowledge the considerable measure of agreement about the Holy Spirit, the Church, the apostolic tradition, revelation and faith, and teaching authority, achieved in the previous five rounds of the dialogue, respectively, to take that agreement a further stage forward, particularly regarding the Church, and to promote the practical expression of the degree of agreement reached.

In a very different context, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote: “The true union that you ought to seek with creatures that attract you is to be found not by going directly to them but by converging with them on God, sought in an through them” (Writings in Time of War [London: Collins, 1968], p. 143). This profound reflection serves to highlight the importance of spiritual ecumenism as the basis for all dialogue between churches. Catholic and Methodists, and Christians more widely, are in dialogue because they are atracted to one another and want to be one in Christ. Their unity will come about the closer they draw to God with thanksgiving and praise. Moreover, truly drawing closer to God cannot fail to instill ever greater generosity, because God is the God of utter generosity, who so loved the world that he gave his only Son (John 3:16). It is therefore a mark of authenticity to want to share the fruits of dialogue more widely, for an ever wider exchange of gifts.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to The Exchange of Gifts: Spiritual Ecumenism

  1. Pingback: "I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!" « Catholic Sensibility

  2. Pingback: Spiritual Ecumenism and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity « Catholic Sensibility

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