Ecumenism of the Spirit

In his 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, “that they may be one” (Matt 17:21), St. Pope John Paul II asks the question, “How much further must we travel until that blessed day when full unity in faith will be attained and we can celebrate in peace the Holy Eucharist of the Lord?” (Ut Unum Sint [UUS], 77). The road to full unity made manifest by a common celebration of the Lord’s Supper will be long, perhaps even as long as the road to Christ’s second coming when on that day all true followers of Christ will be invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). Nevertheless, in obedience to Christ, all of Jesus’ disciples should pursue Christian unity now. Pope John Paul exhorts the faithful to continue on the path of spiritual ecumenism. Spiritual ecumenism is the “change of heart and holiness of life [brought about by a deeper union with each member of the Trinity], along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians [and] should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement” (UUS, 21).

In his book Pentecost and Parousia, Peter Hocken describes a dimension of spiritual ecumenism that he identifies as “ecumenism of the Spirit.” Hocken explains: “The term ‘spiritual ecumenism’ points primarily to approaches to Christian unity that give priority to spiritual principles, whereas the term ‘ecumenism of the Spirit’ focuses on the initiatives and the leadings of the Holy Spirit that Christians seek to obey and follow” (Pentecost and Parousia, p. 91).   In Ut Unum Sint Pope John Paul II appears to point us not only in the direction of spiritual ecumenism but also in the way of ecumenism by the Spirit. “Where there is a sincere desire to follow Christ, the Spirit is often able to pour out his grace in extraordinary ways…. [God can] overcome the obstacles inherited from the past and will lead Communities along his paths to where he wills: to the visible koinonia which is both praise of his glory and service of his plan of salvation” (UUS, 85). Ecumenism of the Spirit offers the smoothest and most joyful path forward to visible, deeply spiritual Christian unity. 

Believers who receive an experience of the love of God often testify of unexpected transformations in their priorities, desires, and behaviors. The gift of ecumenism of the Spirit is present in the Body of Christ when Christian unity is the unexpected fruit of experiencing God’s love through the power of the Holy Spirit. Historically, in times of Holy Spirit extraordinary visitation, beginning with the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the Spirit has wrought unity among his people in ways and in levels far surpassing the unity achieved through human efforts, even those efforts sought with prayer and divine leading. Often the most visible Christian unity comes as an unanticipated consequence of a greater good, namely a deeper indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the individual members of a community. This Christocentric indwelling of the Spirit (Christocentric because the Spirit testifies about Jesus, see John 15:26) leads us to the great truth put into words by Pope John XXIII: “What unites us is much greater than what divides us.” When the Spirit comes in power, this reality is not only an observation of the intellect; it is a revelation of the Spirit in our spirits. The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus (see John 16:14), and this same Spirit, abiding in us, unites us in Christ. As Pope John Paul II writes, “The bonds of fraternal koinonia must be forged before God and in Christ Jesus” (UUS, 82). The Spirit living in us forges those bonds. 

Prayer is the most essential ingredient of ecumenism of the Spirit. Pope John Paul speaks of a “dialogue of conversion” with the Father, led by the Holy Spirit. John Paul describes this dialogue as a “completely interior spiritual space in which Christ, by the power of the Spirit” leads us all to examine ourselves before the Father (UUS, 82). The Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). Effective prayer for Christian unity means entering this dialogue with the Father by allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us in prayer as he wills. The Holy Spirit leads believers to a life of holiness, grounded in a reconciled relationship with the Father and with one another (see Ephesians 2:16). St. Paul then urges us to maintain “the unity of the Spirit” by walking “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2-3). Only the Holy Spirit residing in our hearts can transform us in the interior life so that our actions conform to St. Paul’s words.  The Holy Spirit can swiftly and readily accomplish in us those things that we long and strive for in our pilgrimage toward eternal life. 

Our way forward toward Christian unity, therefore, relies on the work of the Spirit in us and our openness to allow him to work. I suggest that ecumenism of the Spirit is the foundation of spiritual ecumenism, and that it is most effective when believers earnestly seek a life of fullness in the Holy Spirit. For those who welcome the Holy Spirit in their personal lives, communities and churches, the Spirit will transform them into the image of Christ (II Cor 3:18), and he himself will create unity. Can the Holy Spirit attain vibrant unity among his people even in the absence of full ecclesial unity? History and experience answer, “Yes!” The path forward to unity then, should prioritize not only efforts in theological and practical unity attempting to overcome divisions of the past, but also spiritual ecumenism and more specifically, an ecumenism of the Spirit. Let the Holy Spirit lead the way! And may we do our part by pursuing a deeper indwelling of the Spirit and a love for Christ that will inevitably produce unity among all his believers. 


By Adriana Gonzalez