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Receiving the Holy Spirit from one another

By Theodore Gill

A leading Vatican official affirms that Catholics are "in the ecumenical movement" to find answers to questions of Christian unity, recognizing the World Council of Churches as "an essential partner".

"We are here to listen," said Bishop Brian Farrell, leader of the Vatican delegation to the 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, "and as we listen, we've got to reflect, and then respond. We are in the ecumenical movement to try to clarify the questions before us all, and to come to answers. The value of a meeting like this is that it stimulates us to want to find answers together."

This is not the first occasion that Catholics have been present at conferences sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC). In the years following the Second Vatican Council and its opening to "separated brethren" and sisters of other Christian communities, Catholics began to attend such events as observers. Soon, the Catholic Church became a full partner in the Faith and Order commission, the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism and the Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the WCC. For a decade, the WCC and the Vatican worked jointly in development and peace-making through a joint commission for society, development and peace (SODEPAX). But each relationship has experienced highs and lows.

"For us," asserts Bishop Farrell, "the World Council of Churches is an essential partner in the wider ecumenical movement. There is nowhere else where so many strands of the modern ecumenical movement have come together. But it is no secret, I think, that we have had criticisms of the WCC that are also shared by some others. When Faith and Order was central to the life of the World Council, we believe that the organization was more effective as an instrument in the quest for Christian unity. So we continue to look to the strengthening of Faith and Order as key to the life of the WCC and its member churches, as well as to the Council's understanding of other issues such as justice and peace."

The bishop, a member of the Joint Working Group and its executive committee, is secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He and his colleagues have been greatly cheered by the ecumenically-minded pronouncements made by Pope Benedict XVI since his election last month. "We are full of hope in everything we've heard regarding ecumenical relations. The pope is totally supportive. And he has been deeply involved in dialogue since he was a young theologian in Germany engaged in discussion with Lutherans, and he has been a prominent figure in dialogue with Orthodox theologians."

Arrangements are being made for the upcoming visit to Rome by WCC general secretary, Samuel Kobia, as was formally announced on Wednesday of this week. "Ever since Dr Kobia was inaugurated in his position at the beginning of last year," says Bishop Farrell, "we have been looking forward to welcoming him and presenting him to the pope. Unfortunately, this event was delayed by the ill health and finally by the death of Pope John Paul II. We were grateful that Dr Kobia attended the funeral at St Peter's. Now we are eager to spend more time with him, to make a review of our relationship, to pinpoint areas where we can work more closely."

The bishop has been encouraged by recent attempts of the WCC and many of its partners to "map the ecumenical movement". He says that he has "long been puzzled by what I call the geometry of the ecumenical movement, by how the different manifestations interconnect. What the WCC has done so far by way of mapping is a very necessary first step towards understanding, and I would like to see a broad-based event dedicated solely to analyzing the map."

Some dimensions and angles of intersection appear to change over time. The increased representation at this conference of Pentecostals as well as Catholics suggests an alteration in the ecumenical configuration. The bishop comments that Catholics and Pentecostals are coming to know each other better in many parts of the world, as in Latin America, where Pentecostal churches are thriving and the number of Catholic charismatics is also rising, despite an overall drop in Catholic membership on that continent. "The rise of Catholic charismatics is not a strategic response to Pentecostalism, but a spontaneous movement of the Holy Spirit. This may be a point of contact where dialogue can become more sensitive as each side comes to appreciate the other. This may provide a language and framework for mutual understanding."

Latin America will be the venue of the WCC's 9th Assembly, to be convened in Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2006. The Brazilian National Council of Christian Churches, which includes the Catholic church as well as Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches, will act as co-host on the campus of the Pontifical Catholic University. "Catholics will be involved for a variety of reasons," says Bishop Farrell, "and all these factors favour growing public interest in the Assembly as we draw closer to the date."

Diverting from the vocabulary of church organizations, conferences and movements, Bishop Farrell reflects, "Personal contact is all-important. This is a profound theological truth that must not be forgotten. Everything worthwhile in the church is personal. Jesus Christ became a human being, and he chose individual people as his followers. Christian communication is personal. It can't be accomplished through a printed manual alone nor by systems of mass distribution. In the end, someone has to reach out and put his hand on you and say, 'Receive the Holy Spirit!'" [908]

(*) Theodore Gill is senior editor of WCC Publications in Geneva and a minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).