On November 19, 1963, the Archbishop of Strasbourg, Leon Arthur Elchinger, gave a stunning speech before the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. The bishops were generally unprepared for his words.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, never prone to hyperbole, described the “breathless hush” that came over St. Peter’s Basilica when Archbishop Elchinger delivered his intervention on the topic of ecumenism.

Archbishop Elchinger stated forcefully, “Until now we have often not dared to confess historical facts which are less than favorable to the reputation of our Church. Now the time has come … to admit and confess historical truth, even when it is bitter. Until now, when there were controversies between separated Christians, we rejected as completely false doctrines we thought erroneous. Now the time has come to recognize with greater respect that there is also a partial truth, in fact often a profound truth, in every doctrine taught by our separated brethren, which we should profess along with them.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict described this as one of the “great speeches” delivered at the Council, an intervention which served as a catalyst and clarion call for the Catholic Church to engage in serious dialogue with representatives of the Eastern Patriarchates as well as members of the Reformed Churches.

For the past 50 years, ecumenical dialogue among the churches has waxed and waned. In recent years, serious differences over neuralgic topics such as abortion, women’s ordination, and gay marriage, have had a dampening and discouraging effect on these important efforts.

The winds of change are blowing once again.

Fifty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the words of the Council Fathers still echo with a profound and prophetic power: “Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone … and leads toward that goal and perfect unity which God lovingly desires.”

During the past year, the pastoral style and personal history of Pope Francis has revived hopes that ecumenical dialogue will be renewed and revitalized, both internationally and on the local level.

Timothy George, Dean of Beeson School of Divinity, wrote a piece last June entitled, “Our Francis Too: Why We can Enthusiastically Join Arms with the Catholic Leader.”

Dean George wrote: “Francis succeeds two men of genius in his papal role. John Paul II was the liberator who stared down communism by the force of his courage and prayers. Benedict was the eminent teacher of the Catholic Church in recent history.

Francis appears now as the pastor, a shepherd who knows and loves his sheep and wants to lead them in love and humility. The new Franciscan moment is the season of the shepherd … Without forgetting the deep differences that divide us, now as never before we are called to stand and work together for the cause of Christ in a broken world.”

On December 15, 2013, I spoke at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral at the invitation of the ever gracious Bishop C. Franklin Brookhart.

To the people assembled that evening, I offered five important points of confluence that are helping to advance the cause of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. I observed:

1. Among Christians, Baptism is our common inheritance, the spiritual DNA that binds us together as members of the Christian family. Baptism is a bond that links all who have been reborn in Christ. Baptism undergirds our universal call to holiness. Baptism provides a common destiny, a path to unity and a point of departure for all Christians in our common effort to heal divisions that “have damaged the seamless robe of Christ.” Amidst our differences, Baptism compels us to join hands and hearts in prayer and praise as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to share what unites rather than what divides us.

2. We live in an ever shrinking global village, made smaller by the staggering advancements of technology and transportation. The Anglican communion’s reflection from the Lambeth 2008 stated compellingly, “Christianity is not alone as a world faith, and our modern context means that we have to enter into dialogue with other world faiths” through mutual and respective relations. Therefore we must seek to achieve a more expansive world vision that takes us beyond ecumenical dialogue into meaningful and systematic interfaith dialogue with representatives of all the great religions of the world. Those efforts must be marked by dialogue over diatribe, humility over hubris, invitation over invective, and persuasion over precept.

We must work toward common goals like securing religious freedom for all people, and renew efforts to end acts of violence and extremism that are carried out in the name of religion.

3. Our churches must all become homes for reconciliation and forgiveness, both on a personal and communal level. Samuel Cavert, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, observed, “The accent on the need for common penance and forgiveness should go far to develop a new atmosphere of ecclesiastical relations, very different from the polemical self-righteousness which often characterized discussions between Catholics and Protestants in the past.” The 1955 song, written by Sy Miller and Jill Jackson, says simply and profoundly, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

4. The Catholic Church has a cherished body of writings, which have come to be known as Catholic Social Teaching. This teaching is predicated upon the conviction that all people are fashioned in the image of God, and have transcendent nature and inherent value. Catholic Social Teaching embodies the vision of St. Augustine of Hippo: if you look deeply enough into the eyes of any person, there you will see something that is divine. The social gospel challenges the forces of unbridled capitalism and consumerism and helps focus upon a theology of solidarity, subsidiarity, community, common good and common ground, always with a preferential option for the poor. It seeks to address the underlying causes of human suffering and injustice. Catholic Social Teaching has many important commonalities with the social teachings of other faiths, and, taken together, has potential to improve the lot of the world’s poor.

5. The 16th century mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, wrote “God save us all from sourfaced saints.” If we are to attract new disciples and adherents to Christianity, we will do well to radiate the joy that comes from knowing, loving, and serving the Lord. Joy is the hallmark of gospel living, and the sign of Christianity well-lived. Pope Francis is an exemplar of joyful Christianity in action, and is helping to build bridges among Christians, non-Christians, and people of good will. We do well to follow his example.

Only hours after his election, Pope Francis sent a message to Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, personally inviting him to the Mass of Inauguration.

The Pope’s words serve as an important bellwether for the future of both ecumenical and interfaith dialogue:

“I very much hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced since the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed collaboration and at the service of a world that can be ever more harmonious with the will of the Creator.”


Published in The Montana Catholic Online, Volume 30, No. 1, January 24, 2014.