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Rome to Geneva: the Ecumenical Road Not Traveled

 |  NCR Today

I couldn't help noticing that the pope's two principal guests at his recent prayer meeting were both what are popularly called "nones," the Pew survey category for those who don't belong to established religions. The sizeable jump in those numbers in the United States has many church growth people squirming. Beyond the borders, Simon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas can be added to the list.

It is well that the pope, inadvertently at least, is reaching out to the unreligious. If he makes that a steady mission, that's fine. It may teach Catholics and other Christians a few lessons in evangelism.

Meanwhile, does anyone remember the day when Catholics started talking with those "other" Christians after Vatican II fired the ecumenical engines. Years of joint discussions loosened up old stalemates and set a tone of relative congeniality where suspicion and mutual intransigence had frozen any movement toward reunification. But the wickets were sticky, the discussions long and out of public view, and the momentum slowed to a crawl before disappearing almost entirely. So just a reminder, Pope Francis, that if you ever felt like rekindling some fact-to-face good will chat with the "others," the largest coalition of them, the World Council of Churches, is just up the street in Geneva.

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The pope can't do everything, of course, and the ecumenical effort is one he may have put on the back burner because that's what everyone else seems to have done. Twenty years ago or so, the growing consensus was that the movement had run its course, having achieved about everything it could at the moment. The bickering had stopped, Catholic priests were officiating at weddings with Lutheran pastors, worshipers were visiting each other's churches, justice and peace missions became common ground, Rome had conceded that "justification by faith" was just about as important as Protestants had insisted it was, Protestants were diving into Catholic spirituality, and suggestions for a re-designed papacy as the focal point for Christian unity was appealing to many Protestants though obviously it wasn't going to happen soon.

So everyone went home tired but content in a low key way. Then differences over women's ordination, the full participation of gay and lesbian people, and sexual ethics pushed many churches farther from each other. The kettle boiled in some quarters when Pope Benedict waved a hearty welcome into Catholic clergy to Anglican priests, including the married ones, who objected most vehemently to both gay rights and female priests. That seemed to the objectors as "sheep stealing" and the old brand of "one true church" posturing that the ecumenical effort had diminished.

Whatever the setbacks, fits and starts and delays, succeeding popes have reiterated that the cause of Christian unity can't be scuttled because Jesus said it had to happen. Other priorities such as praying with Middle East enemies intervene and the Catholic church, like other churches, has messes to clean up in their own houses. The break may stir new approaches to causes of continuing division.Getting beyond the slump will require initiatives, however, and I assume the the pope will act when and where he can. He has caught the attention of the world. If he  has the impulse and the time, it would be encouraging to see him on the same platform with fellow Christians in Geneva or elsewhere to share strength and burdens. He became a friend of the rabbi in Buenos Aires and that appears to have deepened his relationship with Jews. His minimal contact with non-Catholic Christians over the years may have kept an ecumenical habit from developing. But he's a quick study and I hope, if he feels so moved, he'll move in that direction.  

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