What is Ecumenism?

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Guidelines for Ecumenism : Towards an Ecumenical Life-Style

(Commission for Ecumenism and Dialogue, Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India, 2000)


The term “Ecumenism” has been used for almost a century to denote a movement for the unity of all Christians in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Vatican II itself hailed this movement as growing ‘through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”. The attaiment of unity is the dedire of all Christians because, even though we are divided, we all confess our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and are committed to the one mission of proclaiming the Gospel message to the whole world. The present article explores the meaning of ecumenism and the various visions for unity.

Unity of Humankind

            Ecumenism is a word that derives from oikumene, a Greek adjective (or rather a feminine passive participle) meaning “inhabited” and refering to the whole inhabited earth (ge), conceived as a home (oikos). Although this document speaks primarily of the relationship berweenChristianChurches, we must keep in mind throughout that the unity of the Churches is at the service of the unity of humankind of which the Churches, like Jesus their founder, are servants. Furthermore, the human race is entrusted with the stewarship of all creation, so that the “integrity of creation” falls also within the ultimate scope of ecumenism.

Froms of Unity

            In their search Christians do not yet have clearly in mind what kind of unity the Christian Churches should seek. In the past many Chatholics used to conceive unity simply as a “return” of all Christians or Churches to the obedience of the Roman Pontiff. This from is an outmoded model. Any connotation of absorption of one Church into another would betray the ecumenical spirit. We must also avoid the talk of “restoring unity”, as if ecumenism was primarily a nostalgia for the past, an imagined ancient unity which in reality was never fully realised. Today some Christians would be satisfied with a mere mutural recognition of diversity and a mutural sharing in the eucharist. Others seek organic unity in which several Churches come to an agreement on faith, sacraments and ministry, and enter into a new organisation that embraces all.

            Others speak of a fellowship that is able to accommodate diverse hostorical denominations and spiritual traditions, in which, however, unity is expressed in a central core of faith, a common sacramental life entered into at baptism and celebrated by a shared eucharist, and the mutural recognition of ministries.

            To these some want to add the aspect of the conciliar fellowship, where the unity of the Churches is expressed also in occasional meetings of representatives of the Churches, either episcopal or including the laity. (Various approximations to this model would be the World Council of Churches, or the Roman Catholic Episcopal Conferences, or the Orthodox experience of the Sobornost, or “the principle of spiritual unity and religious community based on free commitment to a tradition of catholicity interpreted through ecumenical coucils [of the Eastern Orthodox Church]”). This is essentially a federalist model, but may be thought for as a growing communion, for the koinonia fo the Church is both a gift and a calling, and it is based on hope which is about the reality we do not yet see. It presupposes the common experience of being reconciled to God in Christ, trust, dialogue, and growing cooperation.

Fresh Vision of Unity

            Unity belongs to the mystery of the Church. It has to be revealed to us fully in the course of history. Today Christians are encouraged to pray and work and suffer for Church unity “as Christ wants it, and in the way he wants it,” as the Unity Prayer often puts it.

            The divisions in the Church are a sign of her sinfulness and her constant need of redemption and reform. Historically they were often due to personality clashes and lack of the spirit of dialogue. The ecclesial effects of this lack of love developed gradually partly due to one-sided perceptions of the Christian mystery, partly to misunderstandings of theological language, and partly to historical reasons which have largely lost their relevance.

            The ecumenical movement is sensitive to the scandal of Christian divisions and to its negative repercussions on the unity of the human family and the integrity of creation. It is therefore committed to reconsider the causes of these divisions through dialogue and mutural collaboration, so that a fresh vision of unity may emerge and all Churches be united.


DIALOGUE?, Resource manual for CATHOLICS IN ASIA, 2001, p.121.

Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

Federation of Asian bishop’s conferences

Editor Edmund Chia, FSC