Pope Benedict XVI on Interchurch Families: ‘laboratories of unity’

The following text appeared in One in Christ, vol.41, no.2, April 2006, pp.85-87.

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Poland in May 2006 was the occasion for the first major papal reference to interchurch families since Pope John Paul II addressed the partners in interchurch marriages during his visit to Britain in 1982.

York, 1982
Pope John Paul was speaking in the course of his address to families during the Mass he celebrated at York that included the Renewal of Marriage Vows. He spoke directly to interchurch families: ‘In your country, there are many marriages between Catholics and other baptised Christians. To these families I say: You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity. Express that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love. Together invite the Holy Spirit of love into your hearts and into your homes. He will help you to grow in trust and understanding.’ These words have been an encouragement to interchurch families ever since.

Warsaw, 2006
A quarter of a century later Pope Benedict did not speak directly to the spouses, but rather to the church communities, whom he urged to care for interchurch spouses and their children. He was addressing representatives of the seven churches who belong to the Polish Ecumenical Council in the course of a service for unity held at the Lutheran church of the Most Holy Trinity on 25 May. These are the Polish Orthodox, the Old Catholic, the Polish Catholic, the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Evangelical Reformed, Methodists and Baptists. The Council is currently engaged in working with the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference on guidelines for the pastoral care of interchurch families, and Pope Benedict wanted to encourage them in this.

He did so in the context of an address that was a re-affirmation of his own commitment to unity. After his return to Rome, reflecting on his visit to Poland, he spoke of the meeting in the Lutheran church of the Most Holy Trinity. ‘On that occasion, together with representatives of the different churches and ecclesial communities that live in Poland, I confirmed my clear decision to consider my commitment to the restoration of full and visible unity among Christians as an authentic priority of my ministry.’

The Warsaw text
The passage of the papal text that refers to interchurch families is as follows: ‘The second question to which I want to refer concerns married life and family life. We know that among Christian communities, called to witness to love, the family occupies a special place. In today's world, in which international and intercultural relations are multiplying, it happens increasingly often that young people from different traditions, different religions, or different Christian denominations, decide to start a family. For the young people themselves and for those dear to them, it is often a difficult decision that brings with it various dangers concerning both perseverance in the faith and the future structuring of the family, the creation of an atmosphere of unity in the family and of suitable conditions for the spiritual growth of the children.

Nevertheless, thanks to the spread of ecumenical dialogue on a larger scale, the decision can lead to the formation of a practical laboratory of unity. For this to happen there is a need for mutual good will, understanding and maturity in faith of both parties, and also of the communities from which they come. I would like to express my appreciation for the Bilateral Commission of the Council for Ecumenical Issues of the Polish episcopal conference and of the Polish Council for Ecumenism, which have begun to draft a document presenting common Christian teaching on marriage and family life and establishing principles acceptable to all for contracting interdenominational marriages, indicating a common program of pastoral care for such marriages. To all of you I express the wish that in this delicate area reciprocal trust and co-operation between the churches may grow, fully respecting the rights and responsibility of the spouses for the faith formation of their own family and the education of their children.’

‘Laboratories of unity’
In speaking of ‘the formation of a practical laboratory of unity’, the Pope uses a phrase that has been used by interchurch families themselves, but not very often. They have talked of being bridges, seeds of unity, signs of unity, catalysts for unity. The phrase ‘laboratoire de l’unité’ was used by French-speaking foyers mixtes, and found its way into the Message of the First World Gathering of Interchurch Families held at Geneva in 1998, hosted by French and Swiss families. It has not often been repeated. The phrase ‘laboratorio ecumenico’ has however been applied to an Italian Catholic-Waldensian couple. It does not translate easily into English, nor into German. A German interchurch family has suggested translating it by ‘Experimentierfeld’. This reminds someone familiar with ecumenical developments in England of the ‘Areas of Ecumenical Experiment’ recognised by the churches. Later they were called Local Ecumenical Projects, and later again Local Ecumenical Partnerships.

Pope Benedict’s original address was given in Polish; the English translation above is that of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. The Vatican Information Service however gave ‘the formation of a practical workshop of unity’ rather than ‘a laboratory of unity’. Whichever translation one prefers, the meaning is clear. An interchurch family is a microcosm of the whole movement for promoting Christian unity. It lives with particular intensity, as Pope John Paul II said, ‘the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity’. In it things happen that cannot yet happen on the scale of the church communities as a whole. But what happens in laboratories and workshops is intended to have a larger reference, to show what could happen more widely. For this to be effective, however, the wider communities must trust the process and attend to it in both a supportive and a constructively critical way.

It is indicative of what has happened over the past quarter of a century that with reference to interchurch families Pope Benedict asks not only the two partners themselves, but ‘also the communities from which they come’ to show ‘mutual good will, understanding and maturity in faith’. This is required if interchurch families are to become laboratories or workshops of unity, able to contribute their experience to the life of their churches as these endeavour to respond to the call to become visibly one. It is not enough for the partners to be working away at this; the churches themselves need to study their experience, listen to what they say, and enter into dialogue with them. They will not always be right in their affirmations, but they have been given a unique experience that can only be fruitful for their churches if they are able to share it.

The Edmonton International Conference of Interchurch Families held in 2001 asked for ‘pastoral understanding’ of interchurch families that goes beyond ‘pastoral care’ seen as a top-down exercise. It means entering into dialogue with interchurch families about their needs and potential. It means ‘full respect for the rights and responsibilities of the spouses for the faith formation of their own family and the education of their children’, to quote Pope Benedict again. Interchurch families will be greatly encouraged by his words.

Ruth Reardon

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IFIR Volume 5.2, November 2006