Ecumenism, not as easy as it seems

Once more because of its (apparently) big, bad, grumpy bishop, the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch is making headlines because Bishop Antoon Hurkmans forbade the parish in Lierop, east of Eindhoven, to celebrate an “ecumenical Mass” (contradictio, right there…) in which both the local priest and Protestant minister would celebrate.

It’s one case under the banner ‘ecumenism’ that has been making the rounds again. And everyone, it seems, has come out to denounce the bishop as unchristian, legalistic, bureaucratic and strict (or other words to that effect). Anyone who actually knows Bishop Hurkmans also knows that these descriptions do not fit him at all. But why, then, does he make such harsh decisions, some may ask.

An answer to that question must include an exploration of what ecumenism actually is. Then, we must also find out what a bishop’s duties in these and other matters are as chief shepherd of a diocese.

What is ecumenism? For one thing, it expresses the desire for unity among all Christians. This answers directly to Christ’s prayer “that all may be one” (John 17:21). Ecumenism is relational; we don’t do ecumenism by ourselves. It is also a goal, since full unity has not been achieved yet. There are still many Christians outside the one Church. These are all facts that we must acknowledge. The various Churches and church communities have their differences and their own identities. We owe it to ourselves and our ecumenical partners to be open and honest about our identity. If we take ecumenism, the desire for unity, seriously, we don’t pretend that we are one when we are not. We don’t hide our differences, but recognise them and try and work towards removing them.

The Mass is the Catholic celebration of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice and sacrament. As such, we have a different understanding of it than Protestants do. These are rather fundamental differences which must be overcome before we can speak of unity.

An ecumenical celebration, like the one proposed in Lierop, is a pretense: it’s a lie. We pretend that we are one when we are not. Unity can only be celebrated when it has become fact, not before.

In the case outlined above, Bishop Hurkmans has exercised his duties of safeguarding the transmission of faith. Were priest and minister to concelebrate the Mass, both would be communicating, to their respective flocks, that there is no longer any difference between the Catholic Mass and the Protestant Last Supper. Both would be guilty of lying and misleading the faithful. All this before even considering that a layman, which the minister is, is unable to celebrate Mass. Only an ordained priest can. And the damning thing is that the priest in question should have known that very well.

Does all this mean that Protestants are not welcome in Catholic Churches and at Mass, as certain media have suggested? Of course not. There are many things that Catholics and Protestants have in common and that they can do together. Ignoring the fundamental differences between them is not one of them.

Photo credit: Roy Lazet/Eindhovens Dagblad


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