Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches

Summary of the Ninth Report, 2007-2012

Receiving one another in the name of Christ

  1. Introduction

  2. The Joint Working Group (JWG) has been a vital and effective instrument for fostering cooperation between its parent bodies, i.e. the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the World Council of Churches (WCC). Following the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council (Unitatis Redintegratio) in 1964, the JWG was established jointly by the PCPCU (then the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity) and the WCC in 1965.  Since then, the JWG has met regularly.  It provides the space where the parent bodies discuss important topics affecting their relationships, and where their representatives share the experiences of their churches and talk about their common involvement in the ecumenical movement, as both the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the WCC are committed to the goal of the visible unity of the church.

    The JWG has functioned as a worldwide working group with regional and local input. For the term from the ninth WCC assembly in 2006 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to the tenth assembly in 2013 in Busan, Korea, each parent body appointed 18 members to the JWG, selected from different regions of the world, with varied pastoral and ecumenical experiences.  The JWG met five times in plenary, led by two co-moderators.  The co-moderators, representatives of the parent bodies, co-secretaries, and the Faith and Order director and the RC consultant in the WCC mission team form an executive that meets twice a year.  The executive oversees the work of the JWG between its plenary sessions and prepares the agenda and materials for them.

    Looking at the changing ecclesial landscape at the beginning of the 21st century and the challenges the churches are confronted with in their search for visible unity and a common witness to the world, the JWG realized already at the plenary meeting in 2008 in Geneva that there was a common interest of the parent bodies in deepening the fellowship of churches in the ecumenical movement and in ecumenical formation that builds on the fruits of ecumenical dialogue, engages young people, and is inspired by the presence of migrants who challenge false self-centeredness of communities and local churches.  This was reflected in the choice of the themes for study and reflection: the studies on reception and the spiritual roots of ecumenism[1], and reflections on youth. The JWG also discussed the root causes and the impact of migration on the lives of people, communities and the churches.

  3. Growing relationships of trust

  4. The JWG has not only fostered cooperation between the two parent bodies, but also contributed to growing trust and collaboration with other churches and ecumenical partners in the one ecumenical movement.

    This is vital in the context of the rapidly changing ecclesial landscape, with the growth of Pentecostal and charismatic churches, the deep geopolitical shifts over recent decades, the devastating consequences of climate change and financial crises, conflicts concerning values and personal ethics, violence within and between different religious communities, and growing need for the accompaniment of Christian communities in conflict situations. These challenges demand that the churches renew their ecumenical commitment to a common witness and the search for the visible unity of the Church.  In all of our efforts as the JWG the unity that Christ wills for his Church has been and will remain central.

    Together, the Roman Catholic Church and WCC member churches have fostered  relationships with evangelicals, Pentecostal and charismatic churches – not least through cooperation in the Global Christian Forum, but also through many other initiatives, e.g. the Centenary of the Edinburgh World Mission Conference in 2010, participation in the WCC- facilitated Joint Consultative Group with Pentecostals, cooperation in the Conference of the Secretaries of Christian World Communions (CWCs), the Joint Committee between CWCs and WCC, and the publication of the document Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct [2] that was presented to the public by the WCC together with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

    The quality of relationships nurtured by the JWG encouraged the WCC to intensify its very valuable cooperation with the CWCs and to offer new spaces for churches and ecumenical partners beyond the WCC membership, both in reflections on ecumenism in the 21st century and in preparations for the forthcoming tenth assembly of the WCC in 2013 in Busan.  In both cases, committees were formed that include as full members a broad spectrum of churches beyond WCC membership and ecumenical partners.  In doing so, the WCC could build on the excellent cooperation with the RCC and increasingly also with Pentecostals in the Faith and Order Commission (F&O) and the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME).

  5. The work of the JWG 2007-2012

  6. The “ecumenical pilgrimage” of the group followed during this mandate the footsteps of Saint Paul in Damascus, Malta and Rome.  There is no better way to summarize the spirit and the work of this JWG than to refer to Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans 15:7: “Receive one another, therefore, just as Christ has received you....”  The time together always was grounded in common prayer, Bible reading, and celebration, consciously strengthening the spiritual roots of ecumenism as a shared basis for common work.

    The time for sharing information and experiences by individual JWG members and the parent bodies has been an important and fruitful element of every meeting.  The sharing provided precious spaces to monitor and discern developments concerning the parent bodies and the ecumenical movement at local, regional and international levels.  This regular and structured exchange is conducive to building trust; to nurturing a quality of relationships that also allows participants to address difficult issues with mutual respect; and to nurturing common interest in the flourishing of the one ecumenical movement.  The smaller JWG executive continued to be a very helpful instrument for the exchange of information, discussion of common concerns and the fostering of cooperation.

    The importance of receiving the results of ecumenical dialogue, thus fostering a renewed commitment to ecumenism, surfaced in many ways in the reports of JWG members and of the parent bodies.  The meetings of bishops with the PCPCU during their ad limina visits to Rome are just one example of important opportunities to draw attention to progress made in the past and to rekindle ecumenical commitment. In similar ways questions of ecumenical formation and the participation of youth continued to be included in the sharing. Migration moved centre stage in the observations of representatives from the Middle East and Asia as well as in reports by the co-moderators  The changing ecclesial landscape and cooperation in the Global Christian Forum were discussed at every meeting. Enriching experiences of interfaith dialogue and cooperation, and the difficult problems of religiously motivated violence, became ever more important in the times of sharing.

    Responding to suggestions of the previous JWG presented in the Eighth Report, inspired by the spiritual life of the group and the sharing of its members, this JWG concluded that it should make a specific contribution to the issues of reception and the spiritual roots of ecumenism from the perspective of the unique body that it is. These two texts together are meant to be mutually enriching dimensions of a holistic response to Saint Paul’s exhortation in Romans 15:7 which, therefore, was chosen as the motto for this ninth report of the JWG.

    Compared to previous JWG mandates, the group introduced a new way of working with two sub-groups that explored opportunities for stimulating cooperation in the areas of migration and youth, two issues which greatly challenge all churches. The discussion on migration needs to continue. The group working on the role of youth in the church contributed a text to this report which is included as Appendix.

C. Study documents

Reception: A Key to Ecumenical Progress (Appendix A)

The current Joint Working Group has met during the time when the ecumenical world has celebrated the centenary of the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, the event that gave birth to the modern ecumenical movement, as well as 50 years of the Second Vatican Council. These facts are reflected in the study on ecumenical reception in several ways.

The study is organized in five sections. Section I, entitled “Ecumenical reception: vital for achieving unity,” starts first by describing the fundamental importance of reception in the life of the church, giving some theological aspects involved in reception, and then, the meaning of ecumenical reception. It proceeds by inviting churches continually to receive the ecumenical movement and its results, “the achievements of a century of ecumenism,” into the life of the churches, and to build on those achievements as the ecumenical journey continues. The final part of this section sets the stage for the discussion to come by recalling that the JWG already has given much attention to ecumenical reception in the past, but asserts that the centenary is a special occasion on which to reflect more deeply on ecumenical reception and on the way a century of ecumenism has made a difference for the churches. All five sections end with “Learning points and recommendations” offered for reflection by the churches.

Section II describes the way ecumenical reception happens in the churches. After opening reflections on processes of reception, the rest of this section gives brief presentations describing the methods of ecumenical reception in fifteen Christian world communions, based on their experience and/or policy. The variety of approaches reflects differences in ecclesiology and illustrates the complexity of ecumenical reception.

Section III, the longest section, is titled “Overcoming the divisions of the past: reception promoting reconciliation.” It illustrates the way churches, through ecumenical reception, have taken some major steps toward overcoming those divisions. It starts by commenting on the new ecumenical context developed during the century of ecumenism since Edinburgh 1910, in which long separated Christians have increasingly recognized the degrees of faith they have continued to hold in common, despite centuries of division, and have begun to receive each other as Christians. With this new situation, the churches have been able to engage in dialogue and to face together the causes of separation in the past. It describes ways in which three historic areas of division have been addressed ecumenically, and significant steps towards reconciliation have been taken. The first concerns divisions in the fifth century especially following the Council of Chalcedon (451). The second concerns the schism between eastern and western Christianity following 1054. The third concerns divisions in western Christianity during and since the sixteenth century, not only of the Reformation churches from the Catholic Church, but also between Reformation churches themselves. Detailed presentations of significant steps toward reconciliation and overcoming these divisions are given, although much more needs to be done to achieve full visible unity. The final part of this section presents ways in which the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have been agents of reception.

Section IV shows that ecumenical reception also has been a struggle. Just as Part II gave concrete examples of reception processes, part IV shows concrete examples of reasons why reception processes can be a struggle.

Section V presents “Ecumenical formation: a key to ecumenical reception.” The Eighth JWG Report had stated that “greater effort is needed in the field of ecumenical formation” because “a new generation of Christians is sometimes unaware of the way things were and how much has changed in the decades since the founding of the WCC and since the Second Vatican Council.”[3] This present study has documented those changes, showing steps taken towards overcoming the divisions of the past, and the way ecumenical reception has helped foster and promote reconciliation. This section discusses the links between ecumenical formation and ecumenical reception, traces the JWG’s ongoing concern for ecumenical formation, and outlines some general principles of ecumenical formation, as well as programs and guidelines to guide it.

The Conclusion of this study, in Section VI, is “An appeal to the churches” to recognize what has been achieved during a century of ecumenism, to continually support processes of ecumenical reception, and to renew their commitment to the quest for Christian unity.

Be renewed in the Spirit. The Spiritual Roots of Ecumenism (Appendix B)

In response to the prayer of our Lord “that they may all be one…” (John 17:21) and motivated by Christ’s call for renewal of life and conversion of heart, the Joint Working Group initiated a project to reflect anew on the spiritual roots of ecumenism.  The goal was twofold: to remind Christians of the spiritual impulse that has driven the ecumenical movement from its inception, and to consider fresh ways churches can nurture these spiritual roots by offering some practical recommendations.

Following an introduction, the text is divided into eight sections: basic terms, Biblical foundations, implications for prayer and liturgical practice, examples inspired by the saints, the power of transforming encounters, practical opportunities for churches with some recommendations to the parent bodies, a concluding summary, and suggested resources for further reading.

After defining the terms “spirituality” and “ecumenism” (words that popular culture often uses without sufficient clarity), this study explores the theological basis for spiritual ecumenism; considers practices of piety, prayer, and worship that nurture these spiritual roots; highlights how God in Christ through the Holy Spirit breathes new life into Christians through examples among the saints and transforming encounters with Christians of other traditions; and offers some concrete ideas for ways in which this spiritual foundation can be appropriated more fully in local settings.

The section on the theological basis for spiritual ecumenism is developed by using prayer as the chief organizing principle, because prayer is rooted in the Christian’s relationship with the Triune God, and with how Christians understand God and God’s will for unity.  The section explores the use of prayer for unity both in personal piety and in liturgy, and it sees unity and diversity as two interconnected gifts that Christ gives the Church.  The section concludes by stressing that unity is both gift and task, and that Christians live and work in enduring hope for the final vision of the people of God in harmonious relationship.

The section on implications for prayer and liturgical practice celebrates that Christians regularly pray for each other in a variety of ways, and that this is one of the fruits of the ecumenical movement.  It specifically explores the use of ecumenical prayer cycles, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and the practice of common prayer beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, which Christian churches hold in common.

The text gives examples of the impulse toward unity inspired by martyrs, saints, and living witnesses, and highlights an initiative to explore ways that the witness of martyrs can be a force for unity.  This topic was developed jointly in a consultation by the Monastery of Bose and the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC.

In “the power of transforming encounters,” the study explores ways that encounters with Christians from other traditions have been an inspiration that have propelled a deepened commitment to the quest for Christian unity.

The final section of the text offers practical recommendations to churches for ways that the spiritual roots of ecumenism can be manifested more fully.  The text is grouped into five categories: (1) opportunities to pray together--placing more emphasis on ways participants can engage with each other during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, finding fresh ways to use the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle, encouraging ecumenical Bible study, and focusing on the impact of prayers for unity in liturgical settings; (2) opportunities for ecumenical witness—making use of ecumenical visitations to place a human face on the ecumenical movement, recognizing the power of witnessing by ecumenical leaders, and finding ways to foster ecumenical exposure to the young who have demonstrated some interest in ecumenism; (3) opportunities to offer ecumenical hospitality—on occasions of rites of passage, through attention to preparatory planning to show ecumenical hospitality, and by considering an intentional effort to involve Christians from different traditions in educational travel, focusing on the spiritual roots of ecumenism; (4) opportunities for programmatic engagement—through shared Bible study, careful attention to the ecumenical impulse underlying joint mission projects and other initiatives of community engagement; and (5) opportunities for ecumenical education—encouraging academic staff to draw intentionally and explicitly on the spiritual roots of ecumenism.  Of particular note is the JWG recommendation that educational travel should be used as a means to involve Christians from different traditions in encounters dedicated to promoting dialogue and an exchange of spiritual gifts.

The Church in the Life of Youth and Youth in the Life of the Church (Appendix C)

The Church is an important part of young people’s lives and their participation in the Church is an essential element of the life of the Church. The absence of youth in church communities threatens the vitality of the Church.

Because young people are one of the most dynamic sectors in every society and are at a crucial time in their lives, the Church has to find appropriate and creative ways to lead them to Jesus Christ. The churches need to stimulate discussions with and among young people in order to understand their experience and the richness of their faith. The contemporary world presents many challenges and at the same time opportunities to young people. They are exposed to the pressures of an increasingly global society. The JWG invites churches to be aware of the consequences of these pressures and the inevitable frustrations to which they can give rise. Young people live in the midst of the proliferation of information and communication technologies.  These have a considerable impact on their lives, sometimes with negative consequences, affecting their relations, interests, priorities, passions and lifestyles. Communications technologies also offer positive opportunities that enable young people to communicate, network, and cooperate, giving a sense of global solidarity and motivation to work for church and society. Moreover, young people search for personal spiritual experiences and a relationship with God.

The challenges young people face have an impact on the way that they participate in the Church. Young people can be active members of parishes and congregations and youth organizations. Some may feel that the Church does not respond to their aspirations and modes of expression and, therefore, they may remain passive observers. This can lead to an uneasiness and sense of distance from the life of the Church. Therefore, the JWG invites churches to understand and respond to the complex reality experienced by youth, and to be open to their needs and expectations as a key to develop, maintain, and nurture their sense of belonging to the Church.

The actions of young people in promoting Christian unity have been noticeable throughout the history of ecumenism. The JWG invites the churches to develop new ways of engaging young people in the work of ecumenism and to reflect on their perceptions of youth. It is necessary to appreciate young people in promoting Christian unity and to move beyond seeing them as passive recipients, but rather, as partners whose input is heard and valued.

For that reason the JWG opened a channel of communication with young people through specific resources that can be used in different places and churches. The three areas explored by the Resources for Youth are: 1) Believing (faith); 2) Belonging to the Church (baptism); 3) Living one’s faith (discipleship). Each area was dealt with from three different perspectives: the Word of God, the early Christian witnesses, and the Church today. The resource materials were tested among Christian student groups, parish and congregational groups, as well as in schools. The collected responses addressed the role of faith in the lives of young people; explored what it means to belong to the Christian tradition and the role of the Church; and considered interaction with Christians from different traditions. The JWG encourages churches to use that tool as a starting point in young people’s reflections on their own Christian traditions. The responses indicated that young people expect the Church to be active and involved in the contemporary world. The feedback shows that young people are open to different Christian traditions but are not aware of the role they could play in promoting Christian unity. The JWG encourages churches to consider how young people can participate more consciously and actively in ecumenical strategies for collaboration.

IV. Prospects for the future (2013 – 2020)

The trust that is built through the structured and sustained form of cooperation of the parent bodies through the JWG is an important contribution to the coherence of the one ecumenical movement and the continuing search for the visible unity of the church.  The JWG has been a space for open and constructive exchange, facilitating cooperation between different aspects of the life and work of the parent bodies, interpreting developments in both of the parent bodies and the wider ecumenical movement, and addressing common challenges and sensitive issues in an atmosphere of spiritual communion and friendship in Christ.  Along with this ongoing cooperation, relationships between different programmatic areas of the WCC and the relevant dicasteries of the Roman Curia developed further during this period.

All these functions should  remain central to any future JWG, independent of the size of the group or the duration of its mandate.  Preparing for the 2012 WCC Central Committee meeting and the forthcoming assembly, the WCC governance group is reviewing all WCC related commissions and advisory groups regarding size, frequency of meetings and working methodologies, with the tendency to encourage the formation of smaller and at the same time more flexible bodies.  The parent bodies will discuss these matters further and  come up with a jointly developed proposal for the future.

Grateful for the opportunity of working together during this mandate, the JWG offers the following recommendations:

  • Some of the insights of the consultation at the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the JWG have proven to be relevant beyond the present mandate.  The next JWG will surely benefit if the first two plenary sessions again are organized in Rome and Geneva.  More detailed and better knowledge of the two parent bodies by all members of the group will lead to a clearer understanding both of the tasks and the potential of the group.
  • One  concrete proposal for follow-up comes from the study group on The Spiritual Roots of Ecumenism. The group recommends exploring the possibility of a pilot project with the WCC Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum and the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People on pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
  • The JWG did not conclude its discussion on migration. The importance of the issue for the churches merits fostering collaboration between the parent bodies on this issue.
  • It will be necessary for the next JWG to reflect on new forms of working together, assessing and responding to the continually evolving global and ecclesial context.  The JWG needs to feel the pulse of the ecumenical movement continuously, taking stock of the state of ecumenical relations, identifying strengths and weaknesses in actual ecumenical relations, setting priorities with measurable goals, and monitoring progress to determine whether goals have been seriously and consistently pursued.
  • It was underlined that the Joint Working Group should not duplicate the work of the Faith and Order Commission. The Joint Working Group has a role to play in providing reflection on the ecumenical dimension of issues, and must decide whether it can make a particular contribution in a given area, perhaps more often by asking a specialized body to undertake a study than by organizing a study on its own.
  • It might be good for the next mandate to explore other creative possibilities in response to the core mandate of the JWG.  This might also strengthen the group for “being a challenge to the parent bodies by proposing new steps and programmes.”  The following questions build on the work done so far, but also point to other tasks:
  • How could the JWG function more practically as an agent of reception and a promoter of the spiritual rootedness of ecumenism?
  • How can the new presence of diverse Christian communities in a given place as the result of migration become an enriching opportunity for the deepening of ecumenical relations in the context of a changing ecclesial landscape?
  • In which ways can the JWG continue to encourage better and growing ecumenical cooperation and participation of young people, for instance in universities and at occasions like the World Youth Day?
  • What can the parent bodies do together to foster inter-religious dialogue and cooperation?
  • Are there more effective possibilities of strengthening relationships with those Christians who keep a distance from the ecumenical movement?

[1] Cf. also the two publications by H.E. Cardinal Walter Kasper. (2009) Harvesting the Fruits: Basic aspects of Christian faith in ecumenical dialogue. Continuum International Publishing Group, London/New York; (2007; first printing in 2006) A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism. New City Press, New York.


[3] Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches: Eighth report 1999-200.5 (2005)  Geneva: WCC Publications, p. 29.