The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumentism (Unitatis Redintegratio) is in a plain sense, about ecumenism. But, it’s also filled with encouraging gems to inspire and enliven our participation in evangelization. It represents an outlook that is outwardly postured, mission-focused, not maintenance-focused. In no particular order, my ten favorites…
#1 Keeping It In Perspective
When the fastest growing local church in your area isn’t a Catholic one, it’s easy to start complaining about their “performance-like worship,” “shallow preaching,” and people who love their great coffee bar.
But this is a temptation to earthly competition, not mission. The Church writes that other Christians are to be “embrace[d] as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect” (para. 3). Running one’s mouth in complaint against a growing non-Catholic church doesn’t make us more mission-focused, (and it can become an unhealthy distraction).
#2 It’s Christ’s, Not “Ours”
The Church reflects:
“some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.” (para. 3)
We can’t own God. When we see God’s gifts working outside the visible elements of the Catholic Church, we’re moved to a trust that in God’s time these gifts indeed do “lead back to Christ,” a unity of His, not our making.
#3 It’s all Connected
Separated Churches and Communities, “have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church” (para. 3).
Thanks be to God, even in our human sins of division, the “fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church” overflows and extends beyond the “visible” Catholic Church. This is why it’s true that there is “no salvation outside of the Church”–because the means of salvation which exist beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church are still connected to the one Church.
#4 Our First Duty
Speaking of Catholics, the Church says that our, “primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles.” When we fail to make this “honest appraisal” of ourselves, “the radiance of the Church’s image is less clear in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, at the growth of God’s kingdom is delayed” (para. 4).
This is no easy task. There are many customs, habits, and elements of Catholic life that are quite popular, yet do not make our witness to others clear. I recently had a lively conversation with a group of Catholic educators about saying, “I pray to St. so-and-so…” and how, objectively, to any outsider hearing this, it literally sounds as if we are treating a human saint as God. Might we be clearer in our language that we’re asking a particular Saint for intercessory prayers versus “praying to them.” It doesn’t change what we’re doing–it simply bears witness more clearly to what we believe.
#5 Let Us Live in Freedom and Charity
Advice on preferences made in legitimate Christian freedom, within the realm of orthodoxy:
“All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all, according to the gifts they have received enjoy a proper freedom, in their various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in their different liturgical rites, and even in their theological elaborations of revealed truth. In all things let charity prevail. If they are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever better expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church.” (para. 5)
I think of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where he advises them that on many of the matters they are divided, there are multiple “right” choices a faithful believer could make (1 Cor 10:31). The same for us today–where the Church gives multiple options, who are we to criticize others for choosing the option that’s not our top preference?
#6 Be Prepared to be Enriched
An outlook that “we” probably have it better than “them,” and thus can’t/won’t/shouldn’t learn anything from our separated brothers and sisters is simply not Catholic. The Church teaches:
“Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.” (para. 5)
#7 Words Matter
How we say what we believe impacts the way it is received. Changing the way we speak and communicate in order to better share the deposit of faith isn’t “watering things down,” it’s being mission-focused. As the Church explains:
Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated – to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself – these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.” (para. 6)
When we choose words that are not stumbling-blocks for our separated brothers and sisters, or even non-believers, we are communicating great and profound truths of the faith in a way that prepares for their acceptance, not rejection.
#8 Our Bond is Supernatural
As we think of the many who are baptized by not living a life of discipleship, we become more mission-focused when we recall that we are already joined, that Christ has already brought us together in a real way, “a sacramental bond of unity which links all who have been reborn by it” (para. 22).
This means we can’t simply be a “maintenance-focused” ministry, inwardly concerned, and planning to “keep ourselves growing” to the neglect of those around us. We have a missionary call to the world, including those who have been baptized, who are filled with God’s life and Spirit, and yet are in need of accompaniment to start or continue their journey as disciples of Jesus.
#9 An Attitude of Gracious Thanksgiving
The Church teaches:
“Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.” (para. 5)
This means we don’t need to be shocked or apologetic when we prudently adopt practical techniques for missionary renewal and evangelism from our separated brothers and sisters.
#10 Maintenance Isn’t an Okay Option
Sometimes in parishes or ministries we can think that only “extraordinary” groups are called to truly be mission-focused…the rest of us, well, um, we’re just treading water to maintain what we’ve got. But the Church makes the bold claim that “divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her” meaning that “the Church herself finds it more difficult to express in actual life her full catholicity in all her bearings” due to such divisions (para. 5). In practice, this tells us that being maintenance-focused when it comes to renewing our parishes as places of evangelical outreach, even to the baptized, isn’t an “okay” option. It’s a sad option in that it actually prevents the Church from attaining her full beauty. This is what inspires a missionary-parish, the profound realization that when we whom Jesus died for are together, the full “catholicity” of the Church is all the more beautiful for the world to behold.