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Father Muench Says...
A new spirit of ecumenism

October 17, 2012

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

I have been considering with you some of the important changes that the Second Vatican Council brought into my Catholic life and my priesthood.  One of those changes was the encouragement of ecumenism  – the relations of our Catholic Church with ministers and people of other faiths.

The Second Vatican Council discussed ecumenism and promulgated a Decree on Ecumenism in 1964.  This decree encouraged a new spirit or dialogue and prayer with other Christian faiths.  This was quite a turnaround for our Church. Ecumenism was not a strong point for Catholics in those days; in fact, it was discouraged.

Jesuit Father John O’Malley, author of What Happened at Vatican II, wrote this, “who would have thought even five years earlier that a Council of the Roman Catholic Church would address an issue as Ecumenism – and, moreover, to do so with a fundamentally positive attitude.”

Ever since those days of the Council I have had many wonderful opportunities for ecumenical prayer services, especially at times like Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is rather special joining people from my parish with people and ministers of other Churches. Many times these services are truly enjoyable – great fun.  I even grew to enjoy getting up early on Easter Sunday for the Ecumenical Sunrise Service.

I have discovered many good things from interfaith meetings and actions. Together we have developed food shelves and other ways to help the needy.  Reading some Protestant theologians has given me a deeper understanding of  many theological questions.  It has developed my openness and readiness to understand.

For us today, these ecumenical experiences are an important part of parish life.  Before the Council, many of these were discouraged by our Church.  We never considered entering a Protestant Church, never for a service.  It was just part of our life as Catholics. 

For me, there was an interesting initiation to my ecumenism  even as a young person. I had a very good friendship with a Protestant minister in our town.  He was a great guy – and, I must admit, encouraged my own vocation.  I remember him well. So, I was pleased when the Council promulgated the Decree on Ecumenism, encouraging dialogue with other Christian faiths. 

The Council challenged us all: “in Ecumenical work, Catholics must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren, praying for them, keeping them informed about the Church, making the first approaches toward them.”
Pope John XXIII considered the unity among all faiths to be one of his hopes for his council. His prayer was the prayer of Jesus – “that all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17:21)

I want to share with you this insight from “John XXIII, The Official Biography”, by Mario Benigni and Goffredo Zanchi –After reaffirming his desire to offer his life for the Church, the Council, world peace and Christian unity, he said that the secret of his entire priesthood was found in the crucifix.  Directing their attention to the one hanging on the wall in front of his bed, the pope said, “He looks at me and I speak to him.  In our long and frequent conversations during the night, the thought of the redemption of the world has appeared more urgent to me than ever: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”  These arms proclaim that he died for everyone – for everyone.  No one is rejected from his love, from his forgiveness.  But it is the world “that they may be one” that Christ has especially left as a testament to his Church.

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