Cardinal Léger: ‘Disunited Christians’ Part II

This is the second installment of the groundbreaking pastoral letter on ecumenism by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, archbishop of Montréal, written as part of the preparations for the Council. See Part I. En français.

II. The Evil of Disunity

Faced with such a situation, the Church cannot remain indifferent. Conscious of the expressed will of Christ, aware of the scandal which the disunity of Christians gives to the non-Christian world and the evil which it brings to those who are separated from it and those who have remained within it, the Church feels the urgent need to do everything within its power to help heal this wound. For disunity is an evil.

It is an evil first of all for the separated brethren who are no longer in full possession of the ordinary means of salvation. Even those who remain within the unity of the true Chrurch cannot but suffer the consequences of the separation of their brethren. Doubtless the body of Christ is not substantially affected by the division of Christians, but it remains nonetheless true that the Church, in its concrete life, is limited in the exercise of its role as witness of Christ. It is deprived of all that could be brought to it by that multitude of separated brethren who are sincerely desirous of serving God in spirit and in truth, according to their own manner of thinking, feeling and praying.

In the midst of the polemics which spring from disunity, the Church’s theological thinking itself is often exposed to the danger of concentrating too exclusively on points which are questioned thus stiffening its positions.

In the midst of the polemics which spring from disunity, the Church’s theological thinking itself is often exposed to the danger of concentrating too exclusively on points which are questioned thus stiffening its positions. In such a combination of circumstances, it will often take centuries to see the consequences of our disunity, achieve a more balanced doctrinal presentation and rediscover the values which have been left in the background.

But for us the most serious consequence of division is doubtless that the Catholic Church our Mother is, in the eyes of non-Christians, but one of the numerous Christian denominations, even though it be the most important numerically. It is because Christians present to the world the sad spectacle of their division, that the pagan world has not believed in Him whom the Father has sent, his Son Jesus Christ.1

III. The attitude of God’s People with Regard to Disunity

The Church is constantly preoccupied and anxious about the reunion of divided Christianity. Though this responsibility lies especially upon the Successor of Peter and all the Bishops, it is nonetheless true that all the members of the Church are called to play an important and essential role in the search for full unity among Christians. But how are they to fulfill this role?

Internal Renewal.

The first thing to be done concerns the life of the Church and each of its members. According to the view of Pope John XXIII, a return to unity of separated Christians is linked to the internal renewal of the Catholic Church—a renewal which he has described in his Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram as “a development of Catholic faith, a moral renewal of the Christian life of the faithful, an adaptation of ecclesiastical discipline to the needs and methods of our time.”2 This, according to the Holy Father, is the way to restore to the face of the Church all its splendour and to open to our separated brethren the avenues of reconciliation and return.3

Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, archbishop of Montréal

Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, archbishop of Montréal

What each one of us must do is draw upon the Gospel and make it the inspiration of our whole life. Our life must truly be the mirror of the charity of Christ; It must be filled with love for God and men, our brothers, on the individual and family level as well as on a social and international level. Our Christian life must he nourished by the purest fountains—the Word of God and the liturgy. Let us make our lives honest, loyal, virtuous and devoted. Let our lives he centered upon the essential realities of our faith and not upon peripheral devotions. In a word, let us ask God to transform us, an individuals and members of the Church, into Christ Jesus, the bright image of the Father.

If this renewal is to be effected in reality, it is necessary that it be based upon harmoniously balanced doctrine and rooted In the Word of God, the tradition of the Fathers and the life of God’s people, as interpreted by the Church which is the guardian of truth. Thus, our faith should he essentially centered upon the mystery of salvation, that mystery which was hidden from past centuries and fulfilled In Christ Jesus.4

Our faith, it is true, demands adhesion to a certain number of dogmas, but we must not forget that Christian faith is above all, a way of life, a living contact with the Lord. In fact, do not the dogmas themselves express vital realities?

This is the doctrine that must be presented by those who have been called by the Bishops to share in their apostolic mission. And all the faithful must align their faith with these perspectives.

…even the dogmas which our separated brethren do not share with us, such as those concerning the privileges of Mary or the successor of Peter, might cease to be an obstacle to the reconciliation of separated Christians.

Let us not allow our faith to dwell exclusively upon aspects of belief which appeal to religious emotivity, but rather seek above all to attain its central objective: the manifestation of the love of God for sinners in the death and resurrection of his Son. Placed in such perspective, even the dogmas which our separated brethren do not share with us, such as those concerning the privileges of Mary or the successor of Peter, might cease to be an obstacle to the reconciliation of separated Christians.

Charity and ecumenical dialogue.

If the wish to share in effecting the reunion of the members of Christ’s Body places upon the Catholic an obligation to renew his life and to reach a better understanding of doctrine, it also requires that he come into contact with his separated brethren. No Christian who is animated by the charity of Christ can look upon his separated brethren as strangers or enemies. He must avoid all that can hurt them and widen the trench which separates us. He must rid himself of historical and psychological prejudices. He must seek in every way to love his separated brethren as brothers in Christ.

Cover of Cardinal Léger's pastoral letter

Cover of Cardinal Léger's pastoral letter

On the other hand, Catholic theologians must, under the vigilance of their bishops, seek to establish a dialogue with theologians of other Christian religions. The purpose of this dialogue is not to win arguments or to convert. Those who undertake such conservations seek, in mutual understanding, to discover the positive insights in the belief of their brethren. Evidently, there can be no question of promoting indifferentism or false irenics but rather of understanding from the inside, by being as objective as possible, the position of the other in order to comply with his legitimate claims. If we have such a reverent attitude, we shall then be in a position to expect the same dispositions of our brethren and he able to present to them our own position with the assurance that it will he received in the same spirit. Veritable dialogue consists in listening, and being listened to, with a will to narrow the gap and, if possible, to reach an identity of views.

Prayer for unity.

Concern about unity brings to mind the necessity of the renewal of Christian life and of ecumenical dialogue. We must not forget, however, that the unity of Christians will he brought about not by human effort but by the power of God. We know that all we ask the Father in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ will certainly he granted to us if it be in conformity with the eternal plan of God. Now, is there in the Gospel a clearer expression of the will of God than his desire for the unity of all the disciples of Christ? It is Jesus himself who tells us of this desire in his prayer to the Father at the beginning of his Sacred Passion.5 To obtain from the Father the grace of unity, prayer is therefore the principal means and the most efficacious.

But if this prayer is to be answered, it must have certain qualities. It must be a prolongation of the very prayer of Christ, associate itself completely with it and come, as it were, from the very depths of the Heart of Jesus. All our human ambitions must be cast aside and our prayer blend with the intentions of the Lord whose ultimate objective is the unity of all Christians in one Church in some mysterious way which we do not yet understand.

Our prayer, filled with joyous hope—because we know with certitude that the Father will grant it one day—must also be humble and patient. On the human level, unity seems to be extremely difficult and remote. All impatience can only foster undue precipitation which leads to bitter disillusion.

…we are all responsible for the disunity of Christians.

Finally, besides being rooted in a great love of Christ and of our separated brethren, our prayer must be animated by repentance and sorrow, for we are all responsible for the disunity of Christians. As suggested by His Holiness, Pope John XXIII, it is not for us to make an historical investigation into these divisions, nor to try to find out “who was wrong” or “who was right”. We all share in the responsibility.6

Cardinal Léger playing golf in 1954

Cardinal Léger playing golf in 1954

The Church Unity Octave

Though we join with the Church in Christ’s prayer for unity every day at the canon of the Mass, there is a period of the year when we have the occasion to pray for that intention with particular intensity and in union with all who invoke the name of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This period is known as the Church Unity Octave which is observed from January 18th to January 25th.

Thus, during these days, the prayers of the whole world will converge on the way to the Father, asking him to bring about, according to his Will and by whatever means he wants, his eternal plan of unity. This year, moreover, we have a very special reason to join in this concerted universal supplication, for we are at the threshold of a Council one of whose principal objectives is to foster Christian reunion. To encourage the faithful and the clergy of Our diocese in their zeal for this cause, We have deemed it opportune to command that the votive Mass Pro unitate ecclesiae be celebrated as the principal Mass on Sunday, January 21, and thai the prayer of this same votive Mass be recited as the Oratio imperata, from January 18th to January 25th.

Besides joining in these liturgical prayers, all the faithful of the diocese should make every effort to pray individually and collectively for unity. Let there be organized in the churches, oratories and chapels, in the institutions of the diocese, a veritable campaign of prayer for unity. Let us often repeat with great fervour, during the octave, the prayer which the priest addresses to Jesus, the fountain of unity, a few moments before receiving his Body in Holy Communion: “Lord Jesus Christ, who have said to your Apostles: My peace I give you, my peace 1 leave unto you; do not look upon my sins, but on the faith of Thy Church, and graciously give Her peace and unity in accordance with Thy will.”

Given at Our Episcopal Residence, this thirteenth day of January 1962, on the feast of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, under Our hand and seal, and the counter signature of Our Chancellor.

+ Paul-Émile Cardinal Léger, Archbishop of Montréal.

By order of His Eminence, Pierre La Fortune, Chancellor.

© Archdiocese of Montréal. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

  1. Cf. John XVII,21.
  2. Ad Petri Cathedram, June 29, 1959
  3. Address to the Catholic Action Presidents of Italy, 1959
  4. Cf. Romans XVI, 25-26.
  5. Cf. John XVII,21.
  6. Address of His Holiness Pope John XXIII to the Pastors of Rome, January 29, 1959

One thought on “Cardinal Léger: ‘Disunited Christians’ Part II

  1. Pingback: Cardinal Léger: ‘Chrétiens Désunis’ la partie II | Conciliaria

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