Ecumenical implications for the New Evangelisation

Christianity divided is an impediment

This article is inspired by the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to offer “an account of the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15). Fundamental questions continue to be asked by people inside and outside the Church, such as: ‘Why believe?’  ‘Jesus?’ ‘Why is the world the way it is?’ ‘What is my mission in life?’ ‘Are science and faith compatible?’ ‘What good is the Church?’  ‘What is the meaning of suffering?’ ‘Will I be okay?’ These questions challenge all Christian Churches and communities of faith. They are also the kind of questions that show the integral link between the mission of the Church and the goal of the ecumenical movement, “that all be one in Christ”. (John 17:21)


The Church’s very identity is found in its mission to evangelise. It was Pope Paul VI who first aligned evangelisation with the ecumenical movement in his letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I: “May the Holy Spirit guide us along the way of reconciliation, so that the unity of our Churches may become an ever more radiant sign of hope and consolation for all mankind”. Later, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) he wrote: “The destiny of evangelisation is certainly bound up with the witness of unity given by the Church” (n.70). 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion (1992) elaborates further this point: “The Church is not a reality closed in on herself. Rather, she is permanently open to missionary and ecumenical endeavour, for she is sent to the world to announce and witness, to make present and spread the mystery of communion which is essential to her, and to gather all people and all things into Christ, so as to be for all an ‘inseparable sacrament of unity’.” (n.4)

Pope Francis

Pope Francis made some uncompromising comments to the cardinals prior to the Conclave that elected him. He used the Italian la periferia ‘the periphery’, ‘the outskirts’, ‘the frontiers’. He said  that the Church is called boldly to break out of herself and go towards the outskirts, not only the outskirts of place but also to the outskirts and the frontiers of our existence; those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of ignorance; the outskirts of indifference, the frontiers of human wretchedness. And he added that when the Church does not break out of herself in that way she becomes self-referential and so shuts herself in.

Pope Francis urges us to reach out, rather than simply stand by with our hands in our pockets looking on. He does not want an inward-looking Church. He wants us to reach out and engage meaningfully with the kind of questions above all that people raise, to engage with contemporary culture and above all, personal witness to the risen Christ “to give an account of the hope that is within you”. This is the task of Christianity in the 21st Century.

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelli Gaudium he clearly indicates the ecumenical implications for evangelisation:


“Commitment to ecumenism responds to the prayer of the Lord Jesus that ‘they may all be one’.  The credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realise ‘the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, through joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’. (UR.4) We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another’. (EG.244) The immense number of people who have not received the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot leave us indifferent. Consequently, commitment to a unity which helps them to accept Jesus Christ can no longer be a matter of mere diplomacy or forced compliance, but rather an indispensable path to evangelisation.” (n.246)

This year the Church will mark the 50th anniversary since the promulgation of the decree on ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio (UR) on November 21, 1964. The decree reflected one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council, namely, the restoration of unity among all Christians and sets out the principles and theological basis for Catholic engagement in the ecumenical movement.

The directory

In order for these principles to be received into the life of the Church, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity published a directory, or, to give it its correct title The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (1993). Unfortunately, outside of ecumenical circles, the directory is not well-known. Why? Perhaps because one of the main concerns of the directory, ecumenical formation, is at best poorly done, or, at worst simply ignored in seminaries and theological faculties throughout the world. Indeed, many who are in ministry, lay or ordained, are unaware or oblivious of its existence!

I understand that the Pontifical Council intends updating the directory, and this is to be welcomed. Though the directory is for Catholic consumption, perhaps the time has arrived for a guest or two from other Christian traditions to be consulted in a rewrite! Fifty years on from the council surely it would be a fitting gesture to issue such an invitation? The final outcome would certainly be the richer for it.

Let it not be forgotten that one of the insights of ecumenism is that we have learned much from each other and continue to do so in the ecumenical exchange of gifts.


In conclusion: Since the council, the understanding of the Church as communion, the articulation of the mission of the Church as evangelisation, and the ecumenical movement have all been dynamic components interacting to carry out the will of Christ as expressed in John 17.

Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint (1995) said that ecumenism was no longer an option but an imperative, he put it this way, “ecumenisn…is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does”. (n.20)

The council decree, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis all emphasise that a Christianity divided is an impediment to evangelisation, and if we are going to be effective and credible in proclaiming the Gospel to the world, then we must be committed to working for the reconciliation between Christians.

Fr Kieran McDermott is Secretary of the Irish Bishops’ Conference Advisory Committee on Ecumenism; Co-Secretary of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting; Episcopal Vicar for Evangelisation and Ecumenism in the Archdiocese of Dublin and Co-Parish Priest in the Parishes of Dundrum, Ballinteer, Meadowbrook.