We congratulate local ecumenist Julien Hammond on his appointment to the international dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Disciples of Christ (WCR, Nov. 4). This may well be the only time this dialogue makes news - the Disciples of Christ is a small Church and such dialogues rarely catch the public eye.
Nevertheless, ecumenical dialogues, hidden as they are, are a central facet of the Church's activity. The theologians engaged in these talks search for common ground on behalf of all members of their churches.
Even if such dialogues do not lead to formal unity among participating churches, they are part of what Blessed John Paul II called a "dialogue of conversion."
Dialogue of conversion, the late pope wrote in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, is part of the churches' search, not only for a deeper understanding of religious truth, but also for reconciliation through repentance for actions which led to disunity. It is a dialogue, not only of words, but also of hearts.
Ecumenism is essential to the very being of the Church. The Church is to reflect the communion of life in the Trinity itself, and breaks in Church unity thus bear a false witness to God. Ecumenical dialogue, however, witnesses to the unity of the Church. It strives to make whole that which is broken.
Because of this, dialogue does not occur only on an intellectual plane. It is an essentially spiritual activity in which all seek to be converted to the will of the Father.
The media is expected to tell us about the most important happenings in the world. While the media tells us about trends as well as important events, many of the trends which shape history are difficult to detect; they can be so close that we fail to see them.
There are movements, however, that are even deeper than trends, spiritual movements that shape not so much history as eternity. Ecumenical dialogues are of eternal importance even if they do not shake the foundations of history.
Ecumenists describe their dialogues as a gift exchange. One can understand this as a sharing of the strengths unique to each church. More deeply, one can understand it as a sharing of one's self among separated Christians.
Pope John Paul described this gift exchange as an indispensable part of human realization. To be human is to give of oneself so that the life of the communion, the whole body, is more complete. Yet, it is in self-giving that the giver also becomes more fully him or herself.
Ecumenical dialogues take place far from the world's attention. But that does not reduce them to insignificance. In fact, all Christians should play a part in dialogue, in restoring and strengthening Church unity.
We can do that through prayer for unity and through study that breaks down our prejudices that are a barrier to unity. It may not seem like much; in fact, it is part of a great movement that will bear fruit throughout eternity.