The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is observed annually from January 18-25, based on the prayer of Jesus “that they all may be one” (John 17:21), culminating in the feast of the Conversion of St Paul.
The question arises in 2023 about the state of ecumenism and what precisely is meant by being ‘one’.
It seems to me that the idea of organic unity is a pipe dream and we should not waste time pursuing it; as long ago as my schooldays half a century ago, our school chaplain at Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore, said it would never happen as differences were too great.
Since then, differences between Catholics and Anglicans have become greater, due to the ordination of women. However, being ‘one’ is surely about being one in love and fellowship, not necessarily have identical beliefs or customs, and the paradox is that despite these growing differences, the co-operation has never been so good.
The co-operation is exemplified globally by the rapport between Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Both in England and Ireland, a growing fellowship can be seen in many dioceses.
However, there are still exceptions – I recall a conversation some years ago with a young English Catholic priest who essentially did not know what ecumenism meant and insisted Protestants had to turn Catholic, saying basically that he would not become Protestant.
The idea of mutual respect for differences was something he had never thought about, but the reality is Catholics will still be Catholic, Anglicans will be Anglican, Presbyterians will be Presbyterian, and so on.
Pope Francis has increased the scope of ecumenical outreach beyond the Anglicans and Orthodox by meeting, for example, with leaders of the Church of Scotland, the Salvation Army, the World Methodist Council and various Pentecostal leaders.
Engagement with the latter tradition is particularly important – some Catholics, like the priest mentioned above, think only about the relationship with Anglicans and seem totally unaware of Pentecostalism.
It is a tradition of growing size and significance in both England and Ireland, and I do feel the Catholic Church needs to put a lot more emphasis on working with Pentecostals.
There is, at times, a suspicion on both sides – a (now deceased) Catholic priest I knew told me Catholics should not even speak to Pentecostals! Equally, some Pentecostals know very little of Catholicism – I recall meeting a preacher in Liverpool whose knowledge was based entirely on conversations with homeless men.
However, Pope Francis has started to break the mould in this regard: https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2018/09/catholics-pentecostals-should-learn-from-each-other-pope-says
He has apologised for the persecution of Pentecostals by Catholics during Mussolini’s regime: https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/pope-francis-apologizes-persecution-pentecostals
It’s worth noting that a growing number of Catholics share with Pentecostals an enthusiasm for ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’, which is not to be confused with sacramental baptism.
Many scholars see Pentecostalism as the world’s fastest-growing religious movement, with about 35,000 becoming Pentecostal daily.
The largest denomination is the Assemblies of God, with over 53 million members, the largest European branch being in France, with some 40,000 members.
Like all Christian traditions, Pentecostalism has internal divisions over such matters as the ‘prosperity gospel’. Nonetheless, it would be very short-sighted for the Catholic Church to ignore the growing size of this branch of the Christian faith, a major competitor for Catholicism in Latin America and among the Latino population in the United States: https://fsspx.news/en/news-events/news/catholic-church-loses-millions-faithful-latin-america-71171
Rather than seeing each other as enemies, it would be better to have greater dialogue and co-operation between Catholics and Pentecostals, who would find they have far more in common than they believe. Very often, the problem is that each side thinks that the other holds beliefs which they don’t have, because they literally don’t talk to each other.
Declan McSweeney lives in England but is originally from Offaly. He worked for over 18 years for the now-closed Offaly Express and has also worked as a journalist in the UK.