Daniel Olsen

Revisiting Pope John Paul II’s call to dialogue 25 years later

June 3, 2020

One hundred years after the birth of St. John Paul II, we rightly look back on the many ways that the late pontiff enriched the church and the world. One such contribution was to the ecumenical movement, that is, the pursuit of unity among followers of Christ.

Twenty-five years ago, on May 25, 1995, John Paul II issued the encyclical “Ut unum sint: On the Commitment to Ecumenism.” Throughout the text, John Paul II supports the call of the Second Vatican Council to prioritize the movement for Christian unity.

He writes that seeking the unity that Christ desires for the church is a duty and responsibility of every Christian because of their baptism. Commitment to the quest for unity is shared by all the baptized, not just theological experts. “Everyone, regardless of their role in the church or level of education, can make a valuable contribution, in a hidden and profound way” (70).

Building on Vatican II, John Paul II argues that Christian division remains a significant stumbling block for evangelization. “It is obvious that the lack of unity among Christians contradicts the truth which Christians have the mission to spread and, consequently, it gravely damages their witness” (98).

Since the ability of Christians to spread the Good News is so closely tied to ecumenism, he upholds this commitment as “a duty of the Christian conscience” (8). Seeking unity among Christians is not optional for Catholics. Furthermore, “Ecumenism … is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does” (20).

This organic and pervasive quality of ecumenism has begun to take root in many places in the world. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, we’ve expanded our efforts at creation care in relationship with our Christian partners. Not only is there an annual Vespers for the Care of Creation in Glenview with our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters, but an ecumenical group of Christians was recently formed to explore how we can together care for the earth and all its inhabitants.

These ecumenical efforts are but two examples of many in Chicago heeding John Paul II’s call to make the pursuit of Christian unity an integral part of all the church is and does.

Reading “Ut unum sint,” one is struck by how often the late pontiff uses the word “dialogue.” For John Paul II, dialogue is a necessary way that one comes to understand oneself, particularly as a member of the wider human community.

Rather than give priority to the cognitive, thinking dimension of dialogue, he argues that dialogue implies a lived quality. Echoing a phrase from the Second Vatican Council, he finds that “dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some ways it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’” (28).

This approach gives us the opportunity to begin by discerning gifts in others, rather than seeking out their flaws. A first condition for true dialogue, then, is to move from seeing someone as an adversary to seeing them as a dialogue partner who has something valuable to share. 

During this time of pandemic and heightened political polarization, it is important to recall this understanding of dialogue as a gift exchange between partners. Social media platforms did not exist in 1995. These contemporary communication tools allow people to quickly and profoundly amplify political, religious and racial polarization.

Yet these tools can be used to proclaim anew the church’s vision of authentic dialogue. This approach can further the reconciliation we so desperately need during this time of widespread loss and isolation. For, as John Paul asks, “How indeed can we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation without at the same time being committed to working for reconciliation between Christians?” (98).




  • ecumenism