Bear witness to the ecumenism of time


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January 20, 2014

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity serves as an annual reminder that we ought to listen more than we speak. As Catholics, we trust that our Church is the guarantor of revealed religious truth.

Yet, when we glance around at other churches we find truth there too, truth that we have not emphasized or that we have even ignored. We can be enriched by paying heed to the truths unveiled more fully in other Christian communities.

However, just as there is an ecumenism among Christians, so there is an ecumenism of time and history. To be catholic means to be universal. This universality stretches not only across geography and denominational boundaries, but also across the barriers of time.

If anything, it is more difficult to drink deeply of the truths of our own tradition than it is to learn from our Christian neighbours. Perhaps our greatest narrowness stems from the arrogance of the present. We don't just believe that the present age has the greatest accumulation of knowledge and wisdom of all ages; it is written deep into our bones.

The idolatry of the present is one false god that we rarely think to question. Former ages are too often seen as confined by the chains of tradition, prejudice and discrimination. That view, however, is itself a form of slavery and prejudice.

To step into the shoes of Christians of an earlier era is a difficult task, yet one that leads to wider, not narrower, vision. It is to enter into the wisdom of tradition, to see the questions with which those of centuries past struggled, to become aware of the barriers they faced in finding answers and to catch glimpses of long-forgotten resources they used in answering those tough questions.

We tend to see the Body of Christ as my parish or my diocese or even the Church of our time. Christ's Body, however, does not know the barriers of time. It includes all the baptized from the first Pentecost until the Second Coming. The Christians of today do not have priority over those from the distant past or the unknown future.

We cannot, of course, listen to the future – which would likely be mystifying to us if we could – but we can listen to the voices of the holy ones of the past. If we listen, deeply listen, those voices will offer us wisdom that can broaden our view and challenge our modern myopia.