Every post-conciliar Pope has emphasized, with Vatican II, that ecumenism is a necessary aspect of the Church's mission, and one involving the effort of all the faithful, clergy, and laity alike.
It was once quite common for many Catholic parishes to celebrate the week of January 18-25 (from the Feast of St. Peter's Chair at Rome to the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul) for fervent prayers to God for the Unity of Christians separated from the visible Unity of the Catholic Church. There were also fervent prayers for lapsed Catholics and for the conversion of Jews to the Christian Faith. There is no question that, in the last four decades, post-conciliar, doctrinal, and liturgical disorders, together with the spread of religious indifferentism, have resulted in the weakening, or actual loss, of Catholic identity among many professed Catholics who no longer express concern or care for the salvation of others. The grave error that has spread is that it makes no difference whether a person is an actual member of the Catholic Church or not, as long as he is sincere in his particular belief.
All this has occurred despite the Second Vatican Council's insistence that "Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only" and exhorting every Catholic to pray for an end to the historical divisions among Christians which:
"contradict the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature."
(Decree on Ecumenism §1)
Catholics are reminded further that:
Our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or communities, and Churches, are not blessed with that Unity which Jesus wished to bestow on all those who to whom he has given new birth into one body, and whom he has quickened to newness of life - that Unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the One Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God... To attain that fullness of Unity which Jesus Christ desires, the Sacred Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.
(Ibid., §3 and 4)
From the days of Blessed Pope Pius IX in the 19th century, the Popes have attempted to reach out, with great charity, to those "other sheep" separated from the One Flock committed to Peter, Chief of the Apostles. Every post-conciliar Pope has emphasized, with Vatican II, that ecumenism is a necessary aspect of the Church's mission, and one involving the effort of all the faithful, clergy, and laity alike. In his remarkable encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, Blessed Pope John Paul II noted that the Catholic Church had "committed herself irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture." For his part, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, on the day after his election to the Chair of Peter, stated that:
"In the Church of Rome, which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter's current successor takes on, as his primacy task, the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty."
Pope Francis has uttered similar sentiments in meeting Orthodox and Protestant leaders at the Vatican.
It is true that not many of us laity can be involved as specialists, diplomats, and theological experts in the various friendly theological dialogues taking place with our separated brethren, or participate in the necessary work of theological commissions on the national or international level, but surely every Catholic parish can participate in its own way to further the Church's ecumenical efforts. Why not revive the Week for Christian Unity with greater zeal and more particular focus? Each day can feature special prayers before the Blessed Sacrament for the Unity of Christians. Sermons on the Unity of the Church as, not only desired by Our Lord in Jn 11: 21-23, but actually established by him, with an indivisible Oneness, on Peter and the Apostles "that the world may believe", would be certainly more timely than ever. This calling to mind the unique character of Christ's "one and only Church," built on the Rock of Peter, would help greatly to strengthen the Catholic identity of the faithful in a time of great confusion, dissent, and disobedience.
Since the revolt against Humanae Vitae by a number of U.S. bishops, American Catholics need to have stressed their tradition of fidelity to the Successor of Peter, and the necessity of the Papacy, for a full understanding of the Church. How many converts have been profoundly affected by the words of Blessed John Henry Newman:
"We must either give up the belief in the Church as a divine institution altogether, or we must recognize it, at this day, in that communion of which the Pope is head. With him alone, and round about him, are found the prerogatives and duties which we identify with the Kingdom set up by Christ. We must take things as they are; to believe in a Church is to believe in the Pope".
(Difficulties of Anglicans, Vol. II, p. 207)
Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism provides abundant material for pastors to bring to the attention of the faithful the riches of Catholic teaching on the Church, and that among our separated brethren, "Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith" (§4). To establish indispensable bonds of friendship with non-Catholics, parishes with larger facilities could well sponsor a Day of Prayer for Christian Unity regularly, and invite Protestant and Orthodox guests to speak on doctrines held in common with the Catholic Church, with this followed by a question-and-answer session and refreshments.
Priests, in urging their flock to devote a Rosary on a regular basis for the removal of doctrinal, cultural, and psychological obstacles impeding perfect unity of faith with Protestants and Orthodox, would be invoking the powerful aid of the Immaculate Mother of the Church, who is, in truth, the Mother of all the baptized. She, who is always united with the heart of her Divine Son, and who stated "Do whatever he tells you," will assist the faithful to respond to the Church's call to pray and labor for the restoration of unity among all Christians. Priests, in generously offering Votive Masses for the Unity of the Church, would also increase consciousness of the need for Catholics to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:3) in order to grow in mutual brotherly love, and to answer the supreme appeal of Jesus that "all may be one" (Jn 17:11). The parish bulletin could also be a useful instrument for urging daily prayer for the reconciliation of those unhappily separated from the Church (including lapsed family members). Included can be those familiar prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary:
- That Our Lord Jesus be the "King of those who live in error, or whom discord keeps aloof. Bring them back to the haven of truth and to the unity of the Faith, that there may be one flock and one Shepherd."
- The renewed prayer for the conversion of Russia that was requested by the Immaculate Heart of Mary, thereby facilitating the reunion of all the Eastern Orthodox Churches who are closest to us doctrinally, sacramentally, and liturgically, would give new impetus to an ecumenical movement where theological dialogue with a disintegrating Anglican Communion has proved in vain.
The Servant of God Fr. John Hardon, S.J., who had deeply studied both Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy had once declared:
In unity there is strength. Disunity among Christians is weakness. Such divisions 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.
The humblest parish priest in the smallest parish can do much to encourage the people in the pew to take up their ecumenical role in storming heaven for grace to be granted to our separated brethren that they may enter into Catholic Unity.