Nearly a thousand years after the East-West Schism, and after 500 years of Catholic-Protestant divisions, the task of restoring unity among the thousands of Christian denominations in the world today might seem like recreating a great ancient oak tree out of sawdust.
But that would be a view external to Christianity, and certainly outside the lens of faith.
For the past three years, I’ve stood inside efforts to bring Christians back together, as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. That position sits at the nexus of over a dozen standing dialogues between Catholics and other believers, some going back over 50 years.
Along the way, friendships have been forged and theological obstacles have been overcome. It’s an experience that has taught me that Jesus did not pray in vain when he preached that his followers “all may be one” (John 17:21).
So as the world commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this Oct. 31, I would offer three observations:
First, don’t buy into the perception that the world’s Christians are at war with each other. The friendships I have experienced with Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Reformed Christians, and other followers of Jesus are true. And what I have seen and experienced has surprised me with hope at every turn. There are so many things that unite Christians, and we have cooperated in so many ways. Finding that level of cooperation and that spirit of friendship has been a great blessing.
In our society today, particularly in political discourse, there is so much acrimony in discussing issues that many people are just plain weary of the divisiveness. Another hallmark of this culture is that religion is being increasingly set aside, and yet, ironically, it is religion that drives reconciliation efforts, rather than conflict.
That might seem counterintuitive to some who see Christians, for instance, as on the front lines of a culture war. But in the realm of ecumenical dialogue, the divided Christians of the world are the ones modeling dialogue and friendship amid disagreement. They are missionaries of civility, something too few people are aware of or understand. This could really transform the abrasive, toxic cultural conversation of the United States.
Second, we Christians shouldn’t be cynical or defeatist about the differences that remain — and in some cases have grown even wider — between different denominations of Christians. Again, hot-button cultural issues provide the most visible divisions, on marriage and family issues, the role of women in church life, etc. To many, these are seen as dead ends.
But even if these are irreconcilable differences on the surface, God’s ways are not our ways. Pope Francis has shown that when we commit to encountering each other as human beings and beloved children of God first, the ground between us shrinks in often unanticipated ways. The journey of friendship begun by so many Christians in the 20th century was itself a surprise. God is not finished with us.
Which is why, lastly, I am certain that the road to restored unity among Christians will not take another 500 years. The signs are all here.
The thaw of ecumenical friendships has created thousands of rivulets beneath the surface of the vast glacier of Christian division. It may look like solid ice, but look out! A total shift could occur, seemingly without warning.
But we’ve had warnings:
Pope Francis building bridges with Pentecostals.
Pope Francis telling Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that a shared profession of faith ought to suffice for restoring full communion between our churches.
Pope Francis stating explicitly that uniformity is not the same as the unity we seek. (He actually says uniformity kills!)
All of these developments (and these are only the recent ones) should give hope that reconciliation among Christians is closer than we might think.
This drives home the importance of and the connection between friendships among different Christians and the ultimate goal of restored unity. The more we engage with one another, the closer Jesus will bring us to himself and to one another, allowing us to be special guests in each other’s homes and, ultimately, one family at one table.
All of this is the work of God, and our shared faith in that will make every difference.