Passing the Ecumenical Test

At the opening of Day 4 (Saturday April 5) of the World Mercy Congress plenary sessions at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome, Congress President Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria dealt with the usual housekeeping matters.

He offered a special welcome to the delegates from Lebanon. "The Christians there are in a very dire condition," Cardinal Schönborn said. He called for prayers of solidarity. The Cardinal then referred to the presentation yesterday (Friday, April 4) of Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Austria, which had stirred much interest and comment.

As pastoral heads of Austria for their respective Churches, the Cardinal and Bishop enjoy a warm and productive relationship many see as a model for ecumenical rapprochement.

Sticky Point Presents Opportunity
In his talk, Bishop Hilarion shared a teaching on God's mercy. He said Divine Mercy is so great it even places a limit on the punishment due to sin of those in hell. According to Bishop Hilarion, "hell" is actually like the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory. Obviously, it is a point of disagreement between the two Churches.

Bishop Hilarion's teaching presented an example of one of the sticky points of disagreement that can surface in the ecumenical dialogue referred to - prophetically, as it turned out - by Cardinal Phillipe Barbarin on Day 2 of the Congress (Tuesday April 3). Cardinal Barbarin said on Day 2 that such moments, and many far worse, would inevitably arise, but they present opportunities for Christians to move forward to unity. Not to do so would amount to spiritual cowardice.

Cardinal Schönborn said, "The witness [of Bishop Hilarion] has caused a few doubts in some of us." He said he holds Bishop Hilarion "in great esteem. What he said about the eternal destiny of man is not a doctrine of the [Catholic] Church. We should follow what great saints of all time have said. [We should] pray that no one should be lost. God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth. For this reason, we invoke The Divine Mercy on us all."

The unscripted comments were noteworthy in that Cardinal Schönborn did not reject or minimize the teaching of Bishop Hilarion. Cardinal Schönborn had invited Bishop Hilarion to address the Congress. The Bishop's topic had been approved for inclusion in the plenary sessions by the Congress' International Executive Committee.

The matter offered a real-life, textbook example of what Cardinan Barbarin had talked about Tuesday. Here we had the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church confronting an issue of disagreement with mutual respect, openness, and dialogue.

Cardinal Schönborn had met the moment live on the world stage, in front of the international press. In doing so, he demonstrated why so many hold him in such great regard that they think he may one day be Pope.

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