Faithful Witnesses

 — May 22, 200722 mai 2007

There is more to expound and comment on, regarding chapter one, the last section, of A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism (HSE). This section is entitled Witnesses to the Word of God (nn. 19-25) and offers remarkable teaching and encouragement.

The section begins by stating a principle: “The Word of God comes to us both through sacred Scripture and through the living witness of the Church, including men and women who have carefully and devoutly listened to the Word of God, have faithfully lived it and courageously given witness to it.” It is the Word as written and witnessed to in existential human lives, by God’s grace, that will be a source of faithfulness for Christians, leading them to fuller communion.

“Growing communion among Christians can only flow from following Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. The Virgin Mary, the saints and the martyrs in all ages of history have inspired and sustained Christians in walking as Christ’s disciples.” (19)

Christ himself, unique and first Witness

Christ is first identified as “the faithful witness” (Rev. 1: 4-5) to the mystery of reconciliation and unity, through his entire life and mission. It is by looking at Christ long and hard that the Christian faithful will learn the ways of communion in discipleship: “The Spirit therefore calls all the faithful to place themselves before Christ and to learn from him how to forge bonds of communion in true discipleship. Only when keeping their eyes on Christ and listening to him will they find the light and the strength needed to continue the long and arduous pilgrimage of unity.” (20b)

HSE then lays out nine instances and/or teachings in which the reconciling power of the Gospel can be seen and heard throughout Christ’s entire life. (*)

The section ends with four concrete « Together, Christians can… » suggestions.

Mary, the Mother of God

Some reflections on the Blessed Mother (22-23) lead into a section which also includes the witness of martyrs and saints related to discipleship and growth in unity.

Regarding Mary, HSE first quotes the late Pope John Paul II: “Why should we not all together look to her as our common Mother, who prays for the unity of God’s family and who ‘precedes’ us all at the head of the long line of witnesses of faith in the one Lord, the Son of God, who was conceived in her virginal womb by the power of the Holy Spirit?” (Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Mater, n. 30) The text thereafter moves to address the issue of devotion to Mary vs the unique mediation of Christ: “Devotion to Mary, if rightly understood, does not obscure or diminish the unique mediation of Christ, but rather, shows its power and richness; Christ is the one and only Mediator between God and humankind (I Tim 2 :5). What the Catholic Church believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary in turn illumines its faith in Christ.” (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 487.)

This HSE reflexion may be somewhat challenging, in varying ways, to some fellow-Christians of the protestant, evangelical and Anglican (somewhat) traditions. Serious theological dialogue has been going on for some decades now between various churches regarding the meaning of Mary, and the place of proper devotion to her, in the life of the Church(es). There is good reason to hope here. (HSE, in its Bibliography of Ecumenical Documents, pp. 91-96, points (p. 95) to three such ecumenical documents published recently and whose themes are Mary and the communion of saints). At the end of this section, five « Together, Christians can… » are proposed which, if activated, and by God’s grace, might lead to increasing clarification and greater convergence among the churches in this area.

Martyrs and Witnesses unto Death

Another quotation from Pope John Paul II leads into this brief section: “I have already remarked, and with deep joy, how an imperfect but real communion is preserved and is growing at many levels of ecclesial life. I now add that this communion is already perfect in what we all consider the highest point of the life of grace, martyria unto death, the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood, and by that sacrifice brings near those who once were far off (cf. Eph. 2 :13) (Encyclical Letter, On Commitment to Ecumenism, 1995, n. 84) Keeping the memorial of those faithful who witnessed to the faith unto death has been an integral part of the Church’s life throughout the centuries. “Even in recent times, under the brutal pressure of different ideologies or political regimes, numerous Christians of all traditions have suffered persecution and death for their fidelity to Chriust and to the Church.” And John Paul II adds, in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, “Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs. The communion sanctorum speaks louder than the things that divide us.” (24)

Four « Together, Christians can… » suggestions close this section. They all aim at encouraging Christians together to keep alive the memory of all faithful witnesses-unto-death, “reminding everyone that the shedding of blood is a common inheritance of all Christian traditions…” (24b)


Two extensive quotations from the HSE text, at this point, illustrate the richness of Christian discipleship-unto-sainthood, and its potential to gently lead divided churches and their faithful to greater fellowship-in-reconciliation:

(1) “When we speak of a common heritage, we must acknowledge as part of it not only the institutions, rites, means of salvation and the traditions which all the communities have preserved and by which they have been shaped, but first and foremost this reality of holiness.” (John Paul II, On Commitment to Ecumenism, n. 84) Why not allow such a statement to shake and pierce our hearts?! “And for their sakes (said Jesus) I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (Jn. 17 :19)

(2) “The saints are also a source of hope in the quest for Christrian unity. In various ways, holiness is a sign of Christ’s victory over the divisive forces of sin and evil. Holiness of life is the first healing ointment, given by the Holy Spirit, to be applied on the wounds of disunity. During the history of the Church, saintly persons have been among the primary artisans of reconciliation and restored communion.” (25a) One of the four « Together’s » given at the close of the section reads “commemorate ecumenically those local saints who were instrumental in the original spreading of the Gospel in a particular region, possibly by exchanging delegations or attending each other’s worship.” (25b) Many examples of recognized saints, in the history of the Church, are listed in footnotes on p. 39.

Personal conclusion

In perusing and meditating somewhat the whole of HSE Chapter 1 (Deepening Christian Faith), I was struck time and time again at the depth of common Christian faith and life that churches, in fact, share, as a common heritage of incredible value… if only we would bother to come together, at all levels of our varied church life, intentionally and humbly, asking questions and talking, digging a bit… The cost: ecclesial/institutional conversion of the churches.

Come, Holy Spirit !

(to be continued)

(*) One slight negative note: I was surprised not to read here a reference to the famous saying from the Sermon on the Mount: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5 : 23-24)

Posted: May 22, 2007 • Permanent link:
Categories: Reconciliation & unityIn this article: Bernard de Margerie, spiritual ecumenism, Walter Kasper
Transmis : 22 mai 2007 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : Reconciliation & unityDans cet article : Bernard de Margerie, spiritual ecumenism, Walter Kasper

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