History of Catholic Ecumenism

from Pope Leo XIII to Pope John XXIII

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The Church of God, by a wondrous act of Divine Providence, was so fashioned as to become in the fulness of time an immense family which embraces all men. - Pope Pius XI, Ecclesiam Dei, Art. 1.

The "ecumenical movement" would not have to exist if all things were in accordance with God’s Will; if not for the human sins on all sides that caused division, reunion attempts would not be necessary. But these divisions do exist, and to fulfill the prayer of Jesus to his Father, men and women have striven to reunite the separated Body of Christ. Included in those who have sought reunion is the Catholic Church and her popes, especially in the century leading to Vatican II. Recognizing the great number of difficulties that exist between believers, the Church attempted a prudent path that at times was cautious and even suspicious, but always with an eye toward a return to one fold under Christ. Also, since the divisions occurred for different reasons, popes reacted accordingly. Knowing that the non-Catholic Eastern churches are indeed very close to the bosom of the Catholic Church, Rome was quick to praise them and extend a hand of reconciliation toward them. A great love for the Eastern churches is evident in the writings of many popes this century, especially Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John XXIII, and this love translated into many attempts to lessen the distance that separates East and West.

A greater distance, however, exists between Catholics and Protestants. This obvious fact was clearly stated in many ways by Rome during the first half of this century. Though still admitting of these differences, the Church in the immediate years preceding Vatican II more deeply realized the need to strive earnestly for reunion, and thus began to acknowledge the many true beliefs and virtues that Protestants possess.

Two popes especially distinguished themselves for their willingness to initiate ecumenism. Leo XIII, in regards to the East, and John XXIII, in reference to Protestants, were pioneers in encouraging official Catholic involvement with non-Catholic Christians. The culmination of these efforts was realized in Unitatis Redintegratio. This historic document of the Church introduced a new era of ecumenism within Christianity. Much of the distrust which had existed was removed by its openness toward the separated brethren. Although many commentators believe this was the first ecumenical action of the Catholic Church, a closer look reveals that the Church, including many popes, took a keen interest in ecumenical affairs even before Vatican II. The result is that this century saw popes and the entire Catholic Church attempt to follow the prayer of Jesus that "they may all be one".

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