The World

Ecumenism, the path to peace

The cause of peace and the cause of Christian unity appear together in this year's Week of Prayer, especially in the case of Ukraine: a Ukrainian delegation is coming to Rome to participate in the Week. But it is also happening in South Sudan and in other dimensions of ecumenism.

Andrea Gagliarducci-January 23, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes
The Pope and the President of South Sudan

The Pope with the president of South Sudan in 2019 (OSV News photo/Vatican Media).

The presence in Rome of the Pan-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, on the occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, is news that should not be underestimated. In fact, in the context of the war in UkraineThis independent association of religious organizations, not financed by the government, has an important weight.

Since the time of the annexation of Crimea and the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass and Luhansk, the crises that are an integral part of the war that broke out a year ago, this organization, which represents 95 % of Ukraine's religious denominations, has been present on the ground, helped the population, and worked with the government to bring the laws into line with the nation's religious sentiment.

His visit, therefore, is an important event, which tinges the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with a new, but not unknown nuance in the ecumenical dialogue: the search for peace.

This seems to be a characteristic of Pope Francis. For some time now, the Pope has been scheduling a "ecumenical journey"He will travel with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to South Sudan. He will do so from February 3-5, after in 2019, when the trip seemed imminent, the Pope summoned South Sudanese leaders to the Vatican for a spiritual retreat. And on that occasion Justin Welby was there.

And even more recently, the Pope has made a humanitarian appeal for an end to the Azerbaijani blockade on the Lachin corridor, the only road leading from Yerevan to the Nagorno Karabakh capital, Stepanekart, and the only source of livelihood. An appeal that also responded to a specific request from the Catholics Karekin II, head of the Apostolic Church ArmeniaPope Francis is always in contact with him and, by the way, was in the Vatican when the last Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh began.

Ecumenism and war in Ukraine

Certainly, ecumenical engagement seems to be even more crucial in the case of the war in Ukraine. It should not be forgotten that Russia felt that it had definitely lost control over Ukraine when Patriarch Bartholomew accepted the birth of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It was 2018. Until then, Ukraine was considered canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Bartholomew's decision produced the so-called "Orthodox schism", and led to the decision of the Moscow Patriarchate to abandon all the tables co-chaired by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Moscow, however, has always maintained a relationship with Rome, which remained constant until the outbreak of the war.

There were even plans for a second meeting between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis, and everything was set to take place in Jerusalem in June. But the meeting did not take place, nor was its preparation made official. It was then Pope Francis who revealed the whole affair in an interview, among other things also revealing details about the video conference he had held with Patriarch Kirill on March 6. On that occasion, the Pope recounted that he had told Kirill not to be an "altar boy of the State."

Moscow did not take it well. After Jerusalem, there was the possibility of a meeting in Kazakhstan during the Meeting of World Leaders and Religions: Pope Francis would have attended, and Kirill as well. But Kirill withdrew his presence shortly before the event, and Francis was only able to meet in Astana with Metropolitan Antonij, head of Moscow's Department of Foreign Relations.

Is it really institutional ice? Much will depend on how the visit of the Pan-Ukrainian Council of Churches develops. Because among the members of the Council is also Metropolitan Onufry, who heads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and for the first time will come to the Vatican in this capacity. The details will make the difference.

In any case, it is now clear that peace in Ukraine also depends on ecumenical dialogue and, above all, on how conflicts between sister Churches are resolved. The Council is an example of how it is possible to work together. War makes everything much more difficult.

So much so that Cardinal Koch, who heads the Dicastery for Christian Unity, did not fail to condemn the position of the Moscow Patriarchate in support of the war. According to the cardinal, who spoke in an interview with the German Catholic daily "Die Tagespost"The religious unity of Ukrainians and Russians, which arose from the baptism of Prince Vladimir in 988, "is today cruelly refuted: if Russians and Ukrainians were born from the same baptismal bath, but the Russians today attack the Ukrainians and wage war, then unity is denied. In my opinion, it is heresy that the Patriarch dares to legitimize the brutal and absurd war in Ukraine for pseudo-religious reasons."

The ecumenical situation

Cardinal Koch's words immediately seemed unusually harsh. Among other things, because they came at a particularly favorable moment in the dialogue, on several fronts.

Indeed, the Vatican's Ecumenical Dicastery had taken many steps forward over the course of the past year in publishing a joint Catholic-Orthodox document on synodality and primacy in the second millennium. The document, which should be almost ready, represents a further step in the understanding of primacy among the Christian Churches, the real heart of the matter when it comes to the ecumenical divide. 

In addition, work is being done on a joint Catholic-Protestant document, the provisional title of which is "On the Way to a Common Understanding of the Churches. Comparisons, Deepenings, Perspectives". Finally, Catholics and Anglicans are working on a joint document reflecting on the common heritage based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas.

The documents are not just an exercise in style. They represent important points of arrival in the dialogue, which make it possible to iron out theological differences and continue to advance on the path towards Christian unity.

A difficult path, but one that seems to be taking decisive steps. The goal is set for 2025, when the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, the first and last ecumenical council of the undivided Church, will be celebrated. By a happy coincidence, in that year Catholic Easter (calculated on the basis of the Gregorian calendar) and Orthodox Easter (which follows the Julian calendar) will fall on the same day.

The idea of setting a common date for Easter as a point of departure or arrival has often been discussed. The circumstance of 2025 could be an important moment for reflection. In 2025, the Fourth European Ecumenical Assembly should also take place, which will be an appointment to take into account in order to assess the ecumenical situation in Europe.

Between now and 2025 there are only two years left, and one can only hope that the seeds sown in these years can grow. Pope Francis has often spoken of an ecumenism of blood. Certainly there is a practical ecumenism that leads the different Christian confessions to work together for the common good. These are actions that provide examples of unity, but they do not succeed in formalizing it. It is precisely a theological awareness that is needed. And this is the one to which we should especially aspire.

Ecumenism for reconciliation among peoples

Pope Francis' trip to South Sudan will be a case in point. In the young African nation, the Ecumenical Council of Churches is energetically carrying out field work, including diplomatic work. The hospitals are Christian, the schools are Christian, the institutions that support themselves are Christian, in the face of a State that has not yet managed to structure itself.

It is no coincidence that the Pope wanted the trip to be ecumenical, thus also giving a clear signal to the nation's leaders. But it is also a signal to the world: peace can be pursued by cooperating together, walking together, even if we are theologically divided.

Ecumenical reconciliation is thus essential for true reconciliation among peoples. Thus, the theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity takes on an even greater significance. Ecumenical peace serves to rewrite history without prejudice, hatred and resentment, but with the awareness of knowing how to look at the reasons of others. It is, in short, an antidote to the "culture of cancellation," which rewrites history leaving aside religions. It happens with the narratives of the Ukrainian war, for example. Thus, the ecumenical path becomes a true path of reconciliation between peoples. It is true today more than ever: ecumenism is the path to peace.

The authorAndrea Gagliarducci

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