The first steps towards inter-confessionnal ecumenism
In the interwar period several initiatives enabled constructive inter-confessionnal discussions.
For instance, in 1936 Abbot Paul Couturier initiated and organised a Week of Universal prayer for unity, which was not about criticising the separated Churches, but demanding universality. To strengthen the initiative he founded the Dombes Group in 1937. Its aim was to reflect on contentious doctrinal points, such as the Eucharist or the authority of ministries, to find paths of convergence.
The Dominican Father Yves Congar (1904-1995), who took part in the activities of the French Federation of Christian Students Associations, was very early on involved in reflecting on ecumenism and inter-confessional obstacles. In his book, published in 1937 Christians disunited, he developed a thesis that immediately stood out – according to him, if the Catholic Church was the only place of visible unity, it could only be proved by reforming and understanding what Luther’s Reformation meant.
Father Congar was one of the theologians chosen by Pope John XXIII to write the preparatory materials of Vatican II works.
The fraternal Community in Taizé was founded by pastors Roger Schütze (1915-2005) and Max Thurian (1921-1996) in a small village of the Saône et Loire region (not far from the Cluny Abbey) in 1944. It multiplied inter-confessionnal initiatives towards the Catholic Church. First they sought involvement with the local Catholic parishes, taking part in various community-based actions, agricultural cooperative, health centre, etc.
Upon the opening of the Vatican II council, the community intensified contacts with Council fathers and Roman authorities, and even established some brothers in Rome.
After Vatican II, common projects
It was obviously after Vatican II council, to which all bishops were summoned, that new prospects opened up. It was announced by John XXIII in 1959 after the Week of universal prayer for Unity, through a message to which the other communities responded. Soon after they were asked to send observers. One of them was Pastor Hébert Roux (1908-1980) who represented the universal Reformed Alliance.
In 1961 the Vatican set up a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity under the responsibility of two men of openness and dialogue, namely Cardinal Béa (1881-1968), assisted by Cardinal Willebrands (1909-2006). Thereupon two very significant events took place:
- In 1964 a solemn meeting between Paul VI and the ecumenical Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras was organised; a prelude to lifting the anathemas ( in 1965) that had provoked the 1054 schism,.
- In 1966 the meeting of Paul VI and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey began a dialogue between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church, which wasn’t possible since the 1534 schism caused by Henry the VIIIth.
A rich collaborative progression was launched:
- In 1966 the first step was taken with the creation of the mixed work Group (Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox).
- In 1968 during the Assembly of the ecumenical Council of Churches in Uppsala (Sweden) Jesuit father Roberto Tucci (1921-2015), later made a cardinal, was allowed to make a public speech in a personal capacity: Ecumenical movement, ecumenical Council of Churches and Roman Catholic Church.
- In 1975 the Roman Catholic Church accepted to take full part in the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC. From the collaboration was issued the publication of the document Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry at the Lima conference in 1982.
- Dialogues were organised within Justice and Peace commissions jointly composed in France by the Bishops Conference and the French Protestant Federation.
- The Roman Catholic Church also engaged in a dialogue with the universal Lutheran Federation, and it resulted first in the Declaration on Justification (1999) and then From conflict to communion (2013).
- All the collaborations within local parishes should also be noted: ecumenical groups, exchange of pulpits during the week of prayer for Christian unity, better acknowledgement of mixed marriages.
However the problem of the authority given to ecclesial institutions remain difficult to solve as the Roman Catholic Church and representatives of Protestant and Orthodox Churches have rather divergent views on the subject.
Progress in the tour
- BOEGNER Marc, L’exigence œcuménique, Albin Michel, Paris, 1968
The Dombes Group
The Dombes Group is a gathering of Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran theologians involved in doctrinal and spiritual reflection, and seeks ways of merging and reconciling Churches. It was created in 1937. It used to meet at the Cistercian Abbey of the Dombes near Lyon, France. Its name was kept.
The World Council of Churches
The World Council of Churches has its headquarters in Geneva, and gathers over 300 different churches, be they Protestant, Anglican, or Orthodox, from over 140 countries. Though they are all strongly committed to their particularities they wished to work together to be ostensibly united in their fidelity to Christ the Lord and Saviour beyond their differences. The organisation financed by member Churches launches and develops reflection, expertise and mutual aid missions on different levels, i.e. local, national and cultural areas.
Marc Boegner (1881-1970)
Marc Boegner was a pastor with outstanding charisma, and a prominent figure in contemporary French Protestantism. He also acknowledged its various tendencies, and very early accepted big responsibilities. During the 1939-1945 war he fought against discrimination notably towards the Jews in the name of the French Protestant Federation. Throughout his life his “ecumenical demand” made him a pioneer in Christian churches unification strivings.
The Taizé community
This Protestant community was founded by Pastor Roger Schutz in 1944. It became an ecumenical meeting place for young people from all over the world who seek both meaning for their lives and a commitment.
The Catholic reforming movements in 17th century France
The 17th century saw the rise of various movements attempting to reform the Catholic Church from within while avoiding any break-away. Such movements aimed partly at countering the influence in France of the Protestant reformation.
Ecumenism manifests itself at various levels and in different ways (meetings, agreements, joint actions) and involves partners of various Christian faiths, often on a bilateral basis.
The present notice recalls some important dates for ecumenism, and then gives three examples of progress between Christians since the early 20th century, namely the Dombes Group assembling Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant theologians, the community in Taizé – where ecumenical young people from all over the world meet-, the ecumenical translation of the Bible into French.
The Catholic Church is not a member of the Christian Ecumenical Council (CEC) but takes part in some projects. The relationship has not always been simple, but significant progress has been made thanks to concerted actions between European Churches and to joint declarations between Lutherans and Catholics, including the one before the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.