As a way of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday a little early the Saint Ignatius community came together last Wednesday in the Fr. Sullivan Gymnasium in a liturgy of prayer and fellowship. As a way of extending that sense of communal gratitude, the prayer service had a distinctly ecumenical flavor and brought to the forefront the wide ethnic, cultural, and religious experiences of the Saint Ignatius family.
The prayers and songs told a story of our school that is often overlooked – we are a group of people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and who each bring something unique and important to the Saint Ignatius table. It is easy for outsiders to look around and see a generic horde of so-called “white” middle-class kids with a smattering of “others” who are there seemingly to make up the numbers. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when looked at through truly Catholic eyes.
Catholic ecumenism has a quite distinctive outlook, and one that doesn’t necessarily mesh with either the secular vision of things or that of other religious groups. The word ecumenism (or ecumenical) comes from the Ancient Greek term for “the inhabited world” (οἰκουμένη), and its original theological use associated it with a specific group of Church councils. An Ecumenical Council is a worldwide council of bishops whose job is to clarify Church teachings in the important areas of faith and morals. From Nicea in 325 to Vatican II in the early 1960s, the Catholic Church recognizes twenty-one such councils, sharing the first seven of these with the Orthodox East.
In the post-Vatican II lexicon, the term ecumenism refers to the Church’s reaching out to those throughout the inhabited world who are not presently in union with the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis. The Council of Sts. John XXIII and Paul VI issued two documents that spelled out the Church’s teaching on ecumenism as it relates to both those who are baptized (Unitatis Redintegratio or Decree on Ecumenism) and those who are not (Nostra Aetate or Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions).
These documents encouraged dialogue with our non-Catholic sisters and brothers, highlighting that the Church “rejects nothing that is good and holy in these traditions.” Yet, the end-game is neither “just” dialogue nor the blending of religious beliefs and practices known as syncretism. No, the ultimate goal, given by Jesus Himself at the Last Supper, is unity:
“As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world…I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
Now there are those – especially in the West and even among many Catholics – who will find more than a hint of triumphalism in the Church’s approach to ecumenism. Rather than stopping at a “live and let live” policy towards non-Catholics, the Church wants all to be one as the Father and the Son are one. But one man’s faithful missionary activity is another man’s coercive proselytizing, and considering the checkered past of our missionary activity one can understand and must pay attention to these voices of caution.
Yet, because Jesus told His disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” the Church has no choice but to follow His directive.
And so the question becomes not whether we should be missionaries, but how we should be missionaries.
At Saint Ignatius we take Catholic ecumenism seriously, and strive to offer an ecumenical approach that gets to the root of the original term. For, ecumenism has at its core the word οἶκος (oikos): family. We at Saint Ignatius are a family, and we are a family that cherishes what every member of our oikos brings to school each day. And in that same spirit, our ecumenical prayer service gave us the opportunity to celebrate and give thanks for the wonderful and varied gifts that those of different religious backgrounds bring to our oikos.
So as we approach this Thanksgiving holiday, what better prayer could we have than that families, with their many and often deeply-rooted differences, celebrate the importance of oikos, and especially the oikos that finds its unity in the True and Eternal Oikos in Heaven.