Michelangelo Buonarroti - The Holy Family, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy, 1505.

"Holy Father,
keep them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, just as we are."
Gospel of John 17:11

"May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans 15:5-6

"I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose."
First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians 1:10

"I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, a striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."
Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians 4:1-5

"Only conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear news of you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind struggling together for the faith of the gospel."
Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians 1:27










The third Millennium is a time to restore Christian unity, as in the times of Jesus. Christian unity was the prayer of Jesus (John 17:11 and 17:21) and the plea of St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, throughout his Epistles.1

Human nature tragically led to divisions within the Church of Jesus Christ, which have primarily been those of the East and West. The Nestorians who rejected the teaching of the Council of Ephesus in 431 (on Mary as Theotokos) formed the Assyrian Church of the East. Those that rejected the teaching of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (that Jesus was one Person with two natures, Divine and human) formed the Oriental Orthodox Churches of the East. The final split in the East occurred during the Great Schism of 1054 between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic. The Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther in 1517 constituted the major division in the West. 2

This lack of Christian unity proved to be a grave impediment to bringing non-Christians into the Church. The loss of Christian unity led to the secularization of Western culture. Recognition of this problem served as an impetus toward Christian unity among the Protestants in the early twentieth century, beginning with the World Missionary Conference of Edinburgh in 1910, and the formal organization of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The call for Christian unity accelerated with the surprise announcement of Pope John XXIII for the Second Vatican Council on January 25, 1959. Pope John Paul II has made great efforts to continue the ecumenical movement throughout his Papacy.2

As we are more familiar with the Catholic approach to Christian unity, this paper will focus primarily on the ecumenical efforts of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo - Jesus gives John the Baptist drink from a Shell, El Prado, 1670.


The surprise announcement of a Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII was welcomed with open arms by all of Christianity, for the Pope called not only for "an intense spiritual cultivation" of the modern world, but also sought Christian unity. 3

His opening speech convening the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962 referred to Jesus in the Gospel of John [17:11]: "The Catholic Church, therefore, considers it her duty to work actively so that there may be fulfilled the great mystery of that unity, which Jesus Christ invoked with fervent prayer from His heavenly Father on the eve of His sacrifice." 4

The Pope then stressed the need for unity in three areas: namely, the unity of Catholics among themselves; the unity with those Christians separated from our Church, and unity in dignity for those who follow non-Christian religions.

The Second Vatican Council literally "reset the course" for the Catholic Church, a Church which had been described by some as a fortress embattled by events of the world outside. The reforms of the Council of Trent begun in 1545 were necessary following the Protestant Reformation. To coin the expression of Hans Urs von Balthazar in 1952, the time had come to "raze the bastions" of the Church. It was time for the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII, the "opening of the window" of the Church to the outside world, "a translation of the Christian message into an intellectual language understandable by the modern world." 5

The landmark Council convened from 1962 to 1965 and was attended by over 2000 Catholic Bishops and representatives from major Christian denominations from all over the world. Pope John XXIII presided over the first session in 1962 before his tragic death, but his work was ably continued by Pope Paul VI.

Sixteen documents were published throughout the Council. There were four principal Constitutions: the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium; the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum; the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium; and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. There were also nine Decrees - the Decrees on Ecumenism and the Eastern Catholic Churches; on the Missions and the Media, and five on the Clergy, Religious and Laity. There were three Declarations - on the importance of Religious Freedom, on improving relations with non-Christian religions, and the necessity of Christian Education. To help appreciate the Catholic viewpoint, this paper will briefly outline the four major Constitutions and focus on matters directly related to Christian unity.


The first document produced by the Second Vatican Council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, published on December 4, 1963. The opening sentence of the document clearly expressed the purpose of Vatican II: "This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church." 6

The most visible changes noted in the Church spring from this Constitution. The liturgy of the Mass may be said both in the traditional Latin Tridentine Mass and may also be said in the native language. The Tridentine Mass preserves the same liturgy for all nations and all ages, for it is said in Latin, the universal language for the universal Church. The Mass in the native (or vernacular) language allows the liturgy to be intelligible to the layman and helps secure their participation in the fullest. The presence of Christ in the Liturgy was emphasized. Sermons are to reflect Scripture and the prayers of the faithful are renewed. RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) was renewed, and Extreme Unction, the Sacrament once reserved for the terminally ill, is now called the Anointing of the Sick, to reflect its use for the seriously ill.


The central document to the Second Vatican Council is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium,. Lumen Gentium was promulgated by his Holiness, Pope Paul VI, in the Third year of the Council on November 21, 1964. Pope John Paul II, on World Mission Day in 1992, called Lumen Gentium the keystone of the Council's whole Magisterium, for with this document, the Council "wished to shed light on the Church's reality." Contained within Lumen Gentium are concepts that are central and form the basis for most of the other documents of Vatican II.7,8

"Christ is the Light of Humanity"
"Lumen Gentium cum sit Christus."
The opening sentence of Lumen Gentium [LG] places the Church at its very point of origin, Jesus Christ.

A Spirit of Christian Unity

The charismatic spirit evident at the Council led to the hope and effort for Christian unity. In addition to Lumen Gentium, ecumenism - Christian unity - was also the theme of the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, which called for unity of Catholics among themselves; and the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. All three articles were published the same day, November 21, 1964.

Article 8 of Lumen Gentium opened the door for all Christian Churches to become one, when it declared that the one Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, but that many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside of its visible structure:

"This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity." [LG 8]

Lumen Gentium called all to become one "People of God." Ecumenism is further encouraged by the strong Scriptural foundation of Lumen Gentium, as the Bible, especially the New Testament, is a common bond with our brethren, the Orthodox and the Protestants.

The role of the hierarchy of the Church is defined as one of service, and collegiality of the Bishops in union with the Pope as leader is stressed. For the first time ever in the history of the Church, the role of the laity in the Church is outlined. The eschatological importance of the religious are pointed out, for they serve as models to the modern world - in a world obsessed with materialism, sex, and rebellion to authority, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are ever more striking. Mary and the communion of saints point to our ultimate hope and dream of a life eternal with our Heavenly Father, his Son Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. 9, 10


The Consitution, Dei Verbum, published November 18, 1965, begins in a beautiful way to remind us that God out of his love chose to reveal himself to us and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will, by which through Christ, man might in the Holy Spirit come to share in his divine nature.

The Council asserted unequivocally the historicity of the Gospels, and the confirmation that Tradition and Scripture form one deposit of faith, and interpretation of the Bible rests with the Magisterium or teaching office of the Church. The Council stated the following concerning inspiration and interpretation of Scripture:

"Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit," and thus teach "without error that truth" necessary for the sake of our salvation. Thus Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred Spirit in which it was written," in the light of Faith. We must be attentive "to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, keeping in mind the living tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith."

The Council stressed the importance of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church, as all the preaching in the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.


The Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, was unique in that it sprung up on the Council floor, for this was indeed the very essence of the Council - the role of the Church in the modern world. The opening lines reflect its identity with all men - "the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ." Gaudium et Spes is realistic but offers hope in the light of Christ and the dignity of man.

Part l has a similar structure to all its chapters - they lay out a specific problem, and find the solution in Jesus Christ. Part l addresses the dignity of the human person, the community of mankind, man's activity in the world, and the supportive role of the Church in the modern world. The role of the Church is to transform the world in the light of the Gospel. The two most famous quotations from Gaudium et Spes follow:

"The truth is that only in the mystery of Jesus Christ does the mystery of man take on light" (22).

"Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself" (24). 11

Part Two offers discussion of specific problems, and the need to preserve the dignity of man in the light of Christ in the following settings - marriage and the family, culture, economics, politics, and peace.


The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, is directed to the unity with our Christian brothers who are separated from us.12

The Decree on Ecumenism opens with the call for unity: "The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principle concerns of the Second Vatican Council." Noting that "Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only," Article One expresses the tragedy of the many Christian Churches that "present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ." While they all may profess to be followers of the Lord, they "differ in mind...and ways, as if Christ himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the most holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature" (UR - 1, Unitatis Redintegratio, Article One).

Definition of Ecumenism

The Introduction (Article One) of the Decree on Ecumenism then defines ecumenism as a movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians. Taking part in this movement are those who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour. The principle of unity is the Holy Spirit (UR-2).

A Change of Heart

Perhaps the most noticeable difference since Vatican II is the change of heart within the Catholic Church towards the Orthodox and Protestants. The Spirit of Vatican II has led to an openness to our separated brethren. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church" (UR-3).

Pope John Paul II, in his 1994 bestseller Crossing The Threshold of Hope, rightly observed that "the Second Vatican Council differed from earlier councils because of its particular style. It was not a defensive style. Not once in the Council documents do the words anathema sit appear. It was an ecumenical style, characterized by great openness to dialogue." 13

The Decree outlines a practical approach for the ecumenical movement to promote Christian unity. First, every effort to avoid expressions, judgements, and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness. Second, a dialogue between competent experts from different Churches should be organized in a religious spirit to explain the teaching of his Communion to bring out its distinctive features. Third, Christians can cooperate for the common good, such as the pro-life movement. Fourth, prayer in common may be allowed. Fifth, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church "to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform" (UR-4). Sixth, Catholics should "become familiar with the outlook of our separated brethren," and acquire a more accurate understanding of their respective history, doctrines, spiritual and liturgical life (UR-9). An openness to their thought may lead to our own edification. And seventh, instruction in sacred theology, history, and other branches of knowledge must be taught with due regard for the ecumenical point of view (UR-10).14

It is hoped that this approach will create a "spirit of brotherly love and unity," in order that the goal of ecumenism be attained: "all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning" (UR-4).

Spiritual Ecumenism

One aspect we cannot forget is a life of Christian witness and example to others. "Every Catholic must therefore aim at Christian perfection (UR-4)." For "there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion" (UR-7).

The Decree on Ecumenism calls this change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name, spiritual ecumenism(UR-8), a phrase echoed by Pope John Paul II, in his March 25, 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (Article 21.1). The Pope continues - "Love gives rise to the desire for unity, even in those who have never been aware of the need for it. Love builds communion between individuals and between Communities" [Ut Unum Sint (UUS), Article 21.2.8 15


The Decree on Ecumenism presents important guidelines in dialogue with our separated brethren. While it is essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety, "nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded." (UR-11) Pope John Paul II strongly addresses this issue in his encyclical- "the unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God, who is Truth" (UUS-18).

The Decree on Ecumenism emphasizes that in dialogue with separated brethren Catholic theologians should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith (UR-11).

Another important consideration is that there may be differences in theological expression of doctrine (UR-17), particularly seen with the separated Churches of the East. However, the Decree concludes that in such cases, these various theological expressions are to be considered often as "mutually complementary rather than conflicting" (UR-17). An example where this concept may apply is the Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed.

Pope John Paul II greeting the crowd in St. Peter Square, Rome.


Our beloved Pope John Paul II, who died April 2, 2005, continued the work of Christian unity begun with Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps one of the most dynamic Popes ever, he travelled to every continent and utilized all forms of modern communication in spreading the message of Jesus Christ. His message, first evident in his contribution to the Vatican II document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world, has been consistent, that the answer to man's dignity and very identity in the modern world rests in Jesus Christ.

The 1995 Encyclical Ut Unum Sint

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, "That all may be one," addresses the common bonds among all Christians, both with our Orthodox and Protestant brethren. He emphasizes our common bonds of unity in faith in Jesus Christ, Baptism, Scripture, and prayer, especially the Lord's prayer, the Our Father.

He also directly addresses those areas of study before a true consensus of faith can be achieved: "(1) the relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God; (2) the Eucharist, as the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, an offering of praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and Real Presence of Christ and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit; (3) Ordination, as a Sacrament, to the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate; (4) the Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him, understood as a responsibility and an authority exercised in the name of Christ for teaching and safeguarding the faith; (5) the Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ's disciples and for all humanity" (UUS 79).


The Council in the Decree on Ecumenism concluded that its objective - the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Jesus Christ - "transcends human powers and gifts, and placed its hope on the Blessed Trinity" (UR-24).

The call for Christian unity was a watershed event for the Catholic Church, and could not have been more timely. While Christians have fought among themselves for centuries over theological differences, secular humanism and materialism have swept the globe, and threaten to eradicate religion itself, especially among the young. This is a time we Christians must be united in our spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of secularism and atheism.

The Second Vatican Council extended a hand to all of our brothers in Christ. As we approach the new millennium, we must continue this effort, and as Pope John Paul II urges us in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the "Church should invoke the Holy Spirit with ever greater insistence, imploring from him the grace of Christian unity." We must pray for unity, for "unity is a gift of the Holy Spirit."16

Finally, we would all be wise to follow the advice of St. Paul:

Mend your ways, encourage one another, live in harmony,
and the God of love and peace will be with you all.
Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians 13:11


1 The Navarre Bible Old Testament Series and New Testament. Four Courts Press, Dublin, Ireland, 2001-2005
2 Dawson, Christopher. Christianity and European Culture. Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson, edited by Gerald Russello, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D. C., page 178, 1998.
3 Bokenkotter, Thomas. Concise History of the Catholic Church. Image Books Doubleday, New York, pp. 214-228 and 284-294, 1990.
4 Pope John XXIII. Announcement of Second Vatican Council, January 25, 1959. Vatican II Council Daybook, Volume 1, Session 1, October 11 - December 8, 1962. National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, D. C., pages 1-2, 1965.
5 Pope John XXIII. Opening Speech of Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962. Vatican II Council Daybook , Volume 1, Session 1, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, D. C., pages 25-29, 1965.
6 von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Razing the Bastions. Originally published in 1952 in Germany. Communio Books, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, page 10, 1993.
7 The Second Vatican Council, Austin Flannery (ed), Dominican Publications, Dublin, Ireland, 1998.
8 Pope John Paul II, On Lumen Gentium, L'Osservatore Romano, page 6, January 6, 1993, from Schreck A: The Teachings of Vatican II - Theology 604, Class Lectures and Notes (Handout #13), Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 1998.
9 Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal and Messori, Vittorio. The Ratzinger Report. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, pages 46-48, 155-166, 1986.
10 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, US Catholic Conference, Washington, D. C., Articles 781-786, 2000.
11 Gaudium et Spes, The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Article 22 and 24. Pauline Books & Media, Boston, 7 December 1965.
12 Unitatis Redintegratio - The Decree on Ecumenism, 21 November, 1964. Vatican Council II, Austin Flannery (ed), Dominican Publications, Dublin, Ireland, pages 452-470, 1998.
13 Pope John Paul II. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. AA Knopf, New York, pages 159-162, 1994.
14 Schreck, Alan. The Catholic Challenge. Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, pages 197-214, 1991.
15 Pope John Paul II. The encyclical Ut Unum Sint , March 25, 1995, in J Michael Miller (ed): The Encyclicals of John Paul II. Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, Indiana, pages 914-976, 1996.
16 Pope John Paul II. The Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Articles 33-34. Pauline Books & Media, Boston, November 10, 1994.