Model of an Ecumenical Initiative by Bernard Ouma SAC

St. Vincent Pallotti, the Octave of Epiphany, Model of an Ecumenical Initiative

Dear friends in Christ, if you take a little moment and permit your minds and thoughts to be fertile and imagine yourselves in the company of Pallotti together with his spiritual sons, the Seminarians at the College of Urbanianum in year 1833, or that you are present at that College every year on 6th January for about 186 years. Then you will partially respond to the question as to why I am writing this imaginary letter in form of an essay to Pallotti. Permit me a little latitude and together let us listen in our hearts to Jesus’ prayer that “all may be one.” By virtue of our consecration in the U.A.C, we undertake ecumenical initiatives in response to Christ’s wish that ‘all may be one’ (Jn 17:11-21), endeavoring to support efforts to bring about Christian unity. Our work in this field however, should be done in a spirit of respect for the working of the Holy Spirit in other Christian Communities (SAC Law 206)[1].

The Octave of Epiphany

Its origin

The nomination of Don Vincent Pallotti as the Spiritual Father at the College of Urbanianum becomes the stepping stone for the whole idea of the development of a great feast in celebration of the Catholic faith in the entire city of Rome. Allowing his interior being to be touched and guided by the Spirit that animated the celebration that was led by the seminarians who came from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds. It is not a coincidence but the proper will of God that the celebration of the Octave of Epiphany also corresponds with the celebration of the feast day of the College. Furthermore, it is not for nothing that the foundational idea transformed the habitual texture of St. Vincent Pallotti’s mind during the occasion of the celebration of the Octave of Epiphany. For this reason:

Some priests and lay people of Rome made the resolution to unite themselves in complete love. They had the zeal of increasing the spiritual and temporal means conducive to the spreading of faith and to rekindling charity. In the company of all good people they longed for the promised moment when there would be one fold and one shepherd. (oocc iv2)[2]


It is in the Church of Santo Spirito dei Napolitani that the first celebration of the Octave of Epiphany took place from 8th to 13th January 1836, a church which also occasioned the genesis of the Union of Catholic Apostolate.

Different authors talk of the finality of the Octave of Epiphany which I consider as the grounding project. Moreover, it is in this latter that the prophetic vision and project which Pallotti had in mind is categorically and explicitly expressed. We can consider it as the grounding project or the catalyst to the Ecumenical movement and project when we speak strictly within the realm of the “signs of times”. For St. Vincent Pallotti, the manifesto of the project vividly included the desire to:

  • make grow, defend and propagate the Catholic Faith;
  • revive the memory and awaken religious conscience and confidence;
  • demonstrate the richness and the beauty of the Catholic Church, her universality and her unity in the truth;
  • unite all people and nations in Christ;
  • approach the Eastern and the Western Church as an Ecumenical project;
  • facilitate the cooperation between the Diocesan clergy and Religious clergy;
  • make the Octave a place and moment of Evangelization;
  • promote the Apostolate of good press and media publication;
  • promote the Apostolate of Prayer.

The concept and origin of Ecumenism in its strict sense

The word ecumenism is derived from the Greek words oikoumenē (“the inhabited world”) and oikos (“house”) and can be traced from the commands, promises, and prayers of Jesus[3].

The one Church of Christ that manifests itself on the day of Pentecost as a community of Jewish faithful who believed in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, opened up to embrace the Greek-speaking Jews, and eventually with the hard work of St. Paul and his companions’ mission to the Gentiles developed into a world religion.  There were many local communities which existed with their specific diversities, considered themselves as members to the one Church of Christ born from the pascal mystery. During the first four centuries those Christian communities organized themselves around the Patriarchal Sees of Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem as defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451[4]. These Patriarchates existed in mutual harmony, with the Bishop of Rome recognized as the first See among them.

However, when there was any threat of inner division due to heresy or schism the Bishops met in Councils to resolve it. Unfortunately, the attempt to resolve matters did not always bear complete fruit. After the Council of Chalcedon (451), which talked about and defined the unity of the person of Christ in two natures, human and divine, part of some Churches of the East like the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church broke communion with the rest of Christianity[5]. On the other hand, the See of Constantinople and the See of Rome separated from each other in 1054 due to doctrinal, cultural and political differences[6]. In the Western Church, Martin Luther began the Protestant reformation in 1517 protesting at some of the theological, moral and spiritual decay of many Christians. He spearheaded a theological reformation in the Church. This reformation movement spread further with the moral reformation initiated by Calvin and the spiritual reformation by Zwingli. Furthermore, Henry VIII in order to remarry and also to free himself from the control of Rome separated himself from the authority of papal Rome, creating a national church today known as the Anglican Church[7].

Some efforts were made at reunion after each of these divisions. However, the general tendency was as it is today that each side condemns the other and to claim that it is the ‘only true Church’[8].

The path towards the Ecumenical Movement

After the international Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910, Protestants began to use the term ecumenism to describe the gathering of missionary, evangelistic, service and unitive forces. It was among the protestant churches that the modern ecumenical movement began. Moreover, the possibility of an ecumenical approach to Christianity increased when English dissenting sects and Pietist groups in Europe began to promote evangelistic, revivalist and missionary endeavors. This, along with the simultaneous effect of the Enlightenment, broke down many of the traditional foundations that supported separate church structures. Other breakdowns in the traditional understanding of church unity led to new possibilities for experimentation in the 19th century. In addition, the separation of the church and the state signaled the need for civility and respect for religious rights. Furthermore, the sending of Protestant missionaries at the beginning of the 19th C revealed the possibilities of cooperation across denominational lines at home and brought to light the problems of competition and conflict among Christian denominations in the mission land[9].

Early 20th century ecumenism derived impetus from the convergence of three movements: the International Protestant Missionary Conference, beginning with the Edinburgh Conference (1910) and taking shape as an institution in the International Missionary Council (1921); the Faith and Order Conference on church doctrine and policy, commencing in the conference at Lausanne (1927); and the Life and Work Conferences on social and practical problems, beginning with the Stockholm Conference (1925). To this extent the World Council of Churches, a consultative and conciliar agent of ecumenism, working with national, denominational, regional and confessional bodies, was inaugurated in Amsterdam in 1948[10].

The Catholic Church in the face of Modern Ecumenism

The Catholic Church was not a direct participant in the beginnings of the modern Ecumenical Movement. However, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, the Bishops of Vatican II took major steps in this direction. Not only did they write a document on ecumenism but they stated explicitly that: “The restoration of unity among Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council (Decree on Ecumenism no.1)”[11] concerning such disunity, they also observed that “Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature” (Decree on Ecumenism no.1)[12] Consequently the decree also states that:

For although the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and all means of grace, yet its members fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should, so that the radiance of the Church’s image is less in the eyes of our separated fellow Christians and of the world at large, and the growth of God’s kingdom is delayed. All Catholics must therefore aim at Christian perfection and, each according to their own situation, play their part that the Church, bearing in her own body the lowly and dying state of Jesus, may be daily more purified and renewed, against the day when Christ will present her to Himself in all her glory without spot or wrinkle.[13]

In the progressive history of the Catholic Church during and after the Second Vatican Council, subsequent Church leaders and magisterial documents have strongly been in support of the initiative and the commitment of the Church to this noble search. In addition, the African Synods have not yet been left behind in this endeavor, for instance in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, Pope John Paul IIasserts:

“Catholics are invited to develop an ecumenical dialogue… in order that the unity for which Christ prayed may be achieved, and in order that the service to the peoples of the Continent may make the Gospel more credible in the eyes of those who are searching for God”.[14]

Consequently, the genesis of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is closely related with the Second Vatican Council. It was Pope John XXIII’s wish that the involvement of the Catholic Church in the contemporary Ecumenical Movement be one of the Council’s chief concerns[15]. In 1966, after the Council had ended, Pope Paul VI confirmed the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity as a permanent dicastery of the Holy See. In addition, Pope Paul VI approved directives published by this Council to guide ecumenical actions in different countries of the world. Among the directives was that local and national ecumenical commissions should be established[16].

Furthermore, after Pope Paul VI, his successor Pope John Paul II, continued with the ecumenical task which he had left. Consequently, in the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus dated 28th June 1988, Pope John Paul II changed the Secretariat of Promotion of Christian Unity, into the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU).

Moreover, whenever Pope John Paul II went for his pastoral visits, he inevitably met with the religious leaders of that country, becoming a sign and apostle of unity. In addition in 1995 the Pope promulgated the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One) with the purpose of keeping the Catholic Church firm on the endeavor towards full and a realistic Christian unity.

He plainly taught that the movement promoting Christian unity is an “organic part of the Church’s life and work”[17].

These teachings were reaffirmed by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Before becoming Roman Pontiff, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he played a decisive role in the writing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed in October 1999 by the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation[18].

Another essential element that demonstrates the Church’s commitment to ecumenism is her participation in the ecumenical dialogue. Following the Second Vatican Council, scores of  international and national commissions were formed to channel the activity of ecumenical dialogue. For the most part, these dialogues have been conducted on a bilateral basis, that is engaging two churches or confessional families at a time.  The Catholic Church has been an active participant in such dialogue, serving as one of the partners in over a third of them[19]. However, there is still much to be done with regard to the Church’s participation in these Ecumenical dialogues. Furthermore, in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus, Pope Benedict XVI reminds the Church in Africa of the importance of this dialogue as a tool towards reconciliation when he states:

… I want to make it clear that the path to reconciliation must first pass through the communion of Christ’s disciples. A divided Christianity remains a scandal, since it de facto contradicts the will of the Divine Master (cf. Jn 17:21). Ecumenical dialogue therefore seeks to direct our common journey towards Christian unity, as we listen assiduously to the Word of God, faithful to fraternal communion, the breaking of bread and the prayers (cf. Act 2:42). [20]

Some of the obstacles to this dialogue

In spite of the challenges of drawing closer to our “separated brethren,” the Catholic Church cannot avoid the call to enter onto the journey of trying to work for Christian unity. Because it is Christ himself who calls us to this noble task: “There should be one flock and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). Some of these obstacles include: inadequate knowledge and understanding of the beliefs and practices of other ecclesial communities and Churches, leading to a lack of appreciation for their significance and even at times to misrepresentation. Another challenge is socio-political factors or some burdens and oppression of the past. Thirdly, a wrong understanding of the meaning of terms used, such as, conversion and baptism. In addition, self-sufficiency and lack of openness leading to defensive or aggressive attitudes hinders the possibility of dialogue. Suspicion about the motive of the others in the dialogue and a polemic spirit when expressing doctrinal convictions is also an obstacle to this dialogue. Moreover, certain features of the present religious climate such as; growing materialism, religious indifference and multiplication of religious sects which create confusion is another challenge.

The importance of the Ecumenical Directory to the Catholic Church

For De Mey, it is important to understand the prefix ‘re’ in ‘redintegatio’ in the correct way. One does not plead for a return to the Roman Catholic Church, but appeals to the common effort among all Christians to reach a new goal, namely, unity among Christians[21].

Furthermore, the Church provides a directory which is addressed first to the Bishops of the Catholic Church and through them, to all the faithful and to members of other Churches and ecclesial bodies who, “it is hoped,” will find it useful. The Directory first reaffirms the commitment of the Catholic Church to ecumenism based on the principles of the Second Vatican Council, and emphasizes the duty of all Christians to work and pray that division be healed and overcome[22]. In addition, the directory also describes the structure, beginning with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, diocesan officers and other personnel within the Catholic Church, that are mandated with promoting ecumenism. On the other hand, it also provides the aims and methods of inspiring Catholics, especially those engaged in pastoral work, with an ecumenical outlook. Consequently, it identifies categories of people who are to be formed, as well as theological faculties, catechetical institutes, and other centers that must accept the responsibility for this formation[23]. In addition, it expands on the communion that exists among Christians on the basis of their common baptism.

In conclusion, after all is said and done one can simply ask him or herself that, if Pallotti were present here and now could he be pleased with our efforts towards this noble and distinguished project that he envisioned in the Church? The response is with you. Because throughout history any individual who wants to change any element in the prerequisite institution in society is always reminded to change himself or herself first. And this was the conviction and the legacy that Pallotti worked on. In his footsteps, let us make it our desire to change oneself first since any change you desire or make begins with you and calls for self-introspection. In hope and with confidence that the spirit of Pallotti is alive and kicking within the parameters of the signs of the times, we should simultaneously take a step forward in this journey, primarily with the help of concrete spiritual resources. First and foremost, our commitment should be to an ongoing conversion and to evangelization under the umbrella of reviving faith and rekindling charity which is our essential goal and mission in discipleship. It is a challenging task but not impossible. We need conviction and prayer coupled with efforts since anybody who engages in something that requires effort must make efforts themselves. The journey was initiated, it can be done and we are the people to do it.


Benedict XVI, Pope. Africae Munus Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Vaticana: Libreria Editrice, 2011

De Mey, Peter and Adelbert. Editors “Johannes Willebrands and the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions”, in The Ecumenical Legacy of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands(1909-2006),  Leuven:Peeters,2012

Ecumenism in Kenya: Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of Kenya Nairobi: Publication Africa, 2005  

John Paul II, Pope. The Church in Africa Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa Nairobi: Pauline Publications Africa,

John Paul II, Pope. Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint On commitment to Ecumenism (Vaticana: Libreria Editrice,1995

The Law of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, Piazza s. Vincenzo Pallotti, 204, 00186 Roma

M.A Brown, E. Duff, etc, “Ecumenical Movement” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed Vol 5 New York: Gale Group,2003

Rahner, Karl. Editor, Encyclopedia of Theology A Concise Sacrementum Mundi Wellwood: Burns and Oates, 1993

Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1964

Union of Catholic Apostolate Community Prayers.

Benard Ouma, SAC,


[1] The Law of the Society of Catholic Apostolate, Piazza s. Vincenzo Pallotti,204, 00186 Roma

[2] Union of Catholic Apostolate Community Prayers pg79 Reflection A

[3] Karl Rahner editor, Encyclopedia of Theology A Concise Sacramentum Mundi (Wellwood: Burns and Oates, 1993) pg 419

[4] Ecumenism in Kenya: Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of Kenya (Nairobi: Publication Africa,2005) pg 4

[5] Ibid,pg4

[6] Rahner, pg 419

[7] Ecumenism in Kenya,pg5

[8] Ecumenism in Kenya,pg5

[9] Ibid,pg5

[10] Ibid,pg5

[11] Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1964) no,1


[13] Ibid,no,4

[14] Pope John Paul II The Church in Africa Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa (Nairobi: Pauline Publications Africa,) pg49-50

[15] M.A Brown, E. Duff, etc, “Ecumenical Movement” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed Vol 5 (New York: Gale Group,2003) pg74

[16] Ecumenism in Kenya,pg5

[17]Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint On commitment to Ecumenism (Vaticana: Libreria Editrice,1995) no,1

[18] Ecumenism in Kenya,pg6

[19] Brown, pg66

[20] Pope Benedict XVI, Africae Munus Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. (Vaticana: Libreria Editrice, 2011) no,89

[21] Peter De Mey, “Johannes Willebrands and the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical  Questions”, in  The Ecumenical Legacy of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands(1909-2006), edited by Adelbert and Peter De Mey (Leuven:Peeters,2012) Pg59

[22] Brown, pg 74

[23] Ibid,74