Archdiocese of Glasgow, Scotland

Adult Education 20th Novemeber 2012

November 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Adult Education

Notes from the talk given by Rev John Miller in St Peter’s hall, 20th Novemeber 2012.

Unitatis Redintegratio and  Nostra Aetate.

Decree on Ecumenism and Declaration on Relations with Other Religions

These two Documents of Vatican II are short but very significant.  I shall address the two documents separately.   But it is worthy of note that at the Council the first draft of the Decree on Ecumenism had five chapters, although in its final form it had only three.  What was in the First Draft as the fourth chapter was material that addressed the issue of the Jews, and it grew into this Declaration on [Relations with] Other Religions...

Pope John XXIII, creating part of the character of the Council, established a new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, under Augustin Cardinal Bea.  During the Council itself this new Secretariat worked hard to develop these documents in order that they might secure and guarantee so far as possible new creative relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the other Christian Churches, and with Non-Christian Religions.  And that Fourth Chapter of the First Draft became, as I have said, a completely separate document, the Declaration on Relations with Other Religions. The fifth was on Religious Freedom, and this, too, became a separate Document, the Declaration on Religious Freedom [Dignitatis Humanae].

DECREE ON ECUMENISM [Unitatis Redintegratio]

This word Ecumenical is an important one.  It’s Greek in origin.  And its basic root is the word for ‘a house’, or ‘a household’.  And the word Ecumenical really means ‘one household of the whole world’ – ‘world-wide’.  It’s really very like the word ‘Catholic’, meaning ‘universal’.

This first Document we are looking at, the ‘Decree on Ecumenism’ is urging the Catholic Church to try to see all Christians, not just the ones in the Roman Catholic Church, but ALL Christians as part of the one household.  This was a very new thought for the Roman Catholic Church.  Until January the 25th 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced his intention to call an Ecumenical Council, until that moment, the standard position of the Vatican was that the path to Ecumenical unity was for those who had left the Catholic Church to return to it.  But Pope John XXIII on that date issued a call for a complete re-consideration of that view.  He began speaking of members of other Churches as ‘our separated brethren’.  This was a new language.  Vatican II for the very first time began to speak of people in the Reformed and Lutheran and Anglican churches as Christian.  This was completely new ground.   It was the opening of a door in what previously had been a solid wall.  There was a smile where before there had been a forbidding face.

The Ecumenical Movement

It will be useful to have a little bit of history of what had been happening in the Reformed Churches prior to Vatican II.  For since 1910 the Reformed Churches had been giving expression to an ‘Ecumenical Movement.’  In this Movement a wide range of Reformed Churches linked themselves together in a determination to overcome differences and to seek their Unity in Christ.  The impetus for this movement occurred in 1910 at a Conference in Edinburgh.   No representatives from the Eastern Orthodox churches or from the Roman Catholic Church were invited, but The Edinburgh World Missionary Conference brought 1,200 people from churches and Missionary Associations from across the world and they generated a transforming energy to share in global evangelism.  They set up a ‘Continuation Committee’, and so from the Edinburgh Conference of 1910 began a series of initiatives to enable the Reformed churches to co-operate and relate as closely as possible.  Eventually, in 1948, from structures which had been formed after World War I, a World Council of Churches was established, with its Head Office in Geneva.  There were regular contacts and regular Conferences and Assemblies.  The Lund Principle, developed in Sweden in 1952 at a WCC Faith and Order ecumenical conference in the city of Lund, asks, “Should not the churches act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?”

But all the time, the Reformed Churches were aware that the Roman Catholic Church was not participating, and that so far as the Vatican was concerned the only true Ecumenism was for the Reformed Churches to return to the true Church which they had left at the Reformation.  But in the years following the Second World War a tremendous amount of profound thinking was under way in the Roman Catholic Church, symbolised by the French Worker priest movement.  So in 1959 Pope John XXIII announced that he was calling an Ecumenical Council, and although the Reformed Ecumenical Movement was not asked to participate, they and the Eastern Orthodox Churches were invited to send delegates as Observers.  Pope John XXIII had them seated in St Peter’s, across the aisle from the cardinals.  And he arranged for them to be provided with simultaneous translation of the proceedings.  And he established that Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

This Decree on Ecumenism takes extraordinary new steps:

  1. The focus is on a ‘pilgrim’ church moving toward Christ, rather than on a movement of ‘return’ to the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. The Council goes beyond the assertion that the Catholic Church is the true Church, to assert that Jesus, in His Spirit, is at work in Churches and Communities beyond the visible borders of the Catholic Church.
  3. The Council asserts that believers in Christ who are baptized are truly re-born and are truly our brothers and that God uses their worship to sanctify and save them.


Looking back at it I can see it now, and I can see how new it is.

But I couldn’t see it then.

I was in Rome on holiday in the summer of 1962.  As a tourist I visited St Peter’s.  Inside St Peter’s, workmen were busy building great banks of seating, like grand-stands, facing each other down both sides of the Nave.  The Cathedral guide spoke to us in his Italian English.  I thought he said, the guide, ‘This is for the Medical Council’.  ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘there’s some big Medical Council coming up here.’  Of course what he was actually saying was, ‘This is for the Vatican Council’.  That’s how ignorant of it all I was.  That’s a signal of just how separated my own Christian experience was from the Christian experience of Roman Catholics.   But when I first confessed that that had been my ignorant reaction, a priest known to many of you said that many of the Bishops and Cardinals were probably as unaware as I was of the significance of what was about to take place!

Three or four months ago I was talking to a retired Professor of Theology Bill Shaw in Edinburgh.  He told me that in 1962 as a young man of 35 he had been at Vatican II as the official Observer for the World Presbyterian Alliance.  He and the Church of England Bishop of Ripon John Moorman were the only representatives from Britain in the first two months.  (I know that in September one of your Speakers –on the Liturgy – was David Jasper, whose Father had gone as an Observer to the Council in place of Bishop Moorman.) Professor Bill Shaw said to me:

‘There were astonishing events.   There was the rebellion of the radicals at the very start, and the re-writing of all the documents.  And there was fierce debate – all in Latin!   And only the Observers had translators provided for them!

There was a little coffee shop, set up in one of the side-chapels of St Peter’s.  In the breaks in the debate we’d go for a coffee.  And great queues of Bishops would line up to speak to us, asking us what had been going on!’

Personal Experience of inter-church relations pre-Vatican II

I grew up in the West of Scotland until I was 9.  Indeed Sister Ann and I, Sister Ann may be here tonight, went to school on opposite sides of the road in Kilmarnock – opposite sides of virtually everything.  In the 1940s we at Kilmarnock Academy never spoke to the children at St Joseph’s, nor did they speak to us.  Mutually we exchanged shouts and insults and occasional stones through the railings.  I can still remember the words.  It was just how it was.

And when I first went to work in Castlemilk it was only five years since Vatican II.  Divisions were clear, and the new thinking of Vatican II still had some way to go.  On the other hand, the Ibrox Disaster gave rise to unaccustomed expressions of sorrow and sympathy.  And the troubles in Northern Ireland gave a sense of urgency to improving relations between the two Religious traditions in Castlemilk.  I remember going to see the Parish Priest at St Bartholomew’s, a legendary figure, a quite elderly Father Daniel Toy.  I remember asking him for a blessing before I left.   He dismissed the idea.  But I stood there and said I wouldn’t go till he did it.  ‘Oh, all right.’  And he gave a funny little movement of his right hand and said, ‘There you are then’!  I guess I had demanded something which his training would have forbidden.

Then came Father Duncan Kane.  He too had grown up in stern times.  But he was a keen fisherman, and one day he came to the door with a present: half a salmon.  He’d been on a day’s fishing.  What an ecumenical gesture.  He later invited me to the St Bartholomew’s Parish celebration of the Jubilee of his ordination, and I remember that at the dinner in the Hall afterwards his family told me they were astonished that so traditional a priest had moved his mind so much as to invite me.  I also remember when he had some new unbreakable glass fitted to the big church windows.  He insisted that I throw a stone at it to prove its resilience.  He shouted over to the hedge, ‘OK.  You got that?  You can come out now.’  He made as if he if he had planted a Daily Record photographer to snap the Minister throwing stones at the Chapel.

As the years progressed so did the inter-relations between the Churches and the Chapels.  Some of the local Reformed Church leaders and some of the Reformed Christian lay people held the divisions of Northern Ireland as their own.  But those words of immense significance were doing their work – we were learning to see each other as brothers and sisters.  We could be seen as ‘Separated Brothers and Sisters’, and Pope John Paul II on his visit to Scotland invited us all to follow Christ, walking ‘as pilgrims together’.  These were more than mere words.  They spoke of a new open-nests and of a family relationship.

As some of you know, Father Willy and I cycled ‘as pilgrims together’ all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats in the first days of January 2000, to bring in the New Millennium.  It was a revelation to me to travel through the length of Britain with Willy, with Sister Mary Ross taking my wife Mary in a support vehicle for some of the journey, and to see how the Reformation had supplanted the old Church, and consigned its continuing life to a separate track.  I had a new recognition of the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Church from much of the main stream of local and national communal life.

It was a great step forward that these centuries of estrangement and hostility were being modified, and that we were learning to speak to one another in a friendly and civil fashion.  But the matters which had divided the Church in the Sixteenth Century had not disappeared.  At some point the new conversations would have to confront them.  And let me add a word on the topic of exclusion.  I think you will know that I have been made to feel at home here in these Tuesday evenings over the years, for which I am fraternally grateful.  Yet I am aware that when I hear you speaking of this or that as part of the ‘Catholic’ Faith, you use the word ‘Catholic’ where I would use ‘Christian’.  ‘Part of the Christian Faith.’  But when you use ‘Catholic Faith’, I am excluded.  You don’t mean to exclude me.   But when you analyse the meaning of it, I AM excluded.  It shows up particularly clearly in relation to the Eucharist, the sacrament of Holy Communion.  I recite the Apostles Creed, and ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church’ and think of myself as part of it.  But at the Eucharist, at the heart of the church’s relationship with Christ, I am excluded.

However here’s another story.  In 2005 when excavations were being dug for the foundations of a new building in Albion Street in Glasgow’s City centre the workmen came upon the remains of the 15th Century Franciscan Monastery.  The bones from fourteen burials were uncovered, human remains of former religious, or their benefactors.  Arrangements were made for these bones to be placed in caskets, for a Requiem Mass to be celebrated in St Andrew’s Cathedral, and for the caskets to be interred in the cemetery in Caledonia Road.  In that year I was the Moderator of the Glasgow Presbytery of the Church of Scotland, and so I went to see the Archbishop.  I said to him, ‘Mario, your Grace, these are my bones too, as they come from the years when we were not divided.  I would like to have a part in the Service where they are being prepared for re-burial.’  And Mario followed my reasoning, and I read one of the Bible passages in the Service.

The Decree on Ecumenism continues to present the means of closer relationships between the separated brothers and sisters.  It continues to have an internal dynamic of its own, drawing the family closer.



Throughout the months and years of the Council the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity worked hard on producing this document.  Pope John XXIII wanted a statement about the Jews, and he had discussed and approved the first outline before he died on June 3 1963.  A number of Bishops argued that Christian-Jewish relations were outside the scope of Ecumenism.  Others from the East wanted no mention of the Jews at all, for fear that Arab countries would see it as endorsing the State of Israel, and the Arab governments would make the Christians in their countries suffer for it.  But Cardinal Bea’s Secretariat worked on a text which was released to the Press and was discussed at length.  The key element in the document was that it put an end to the view – held by some Christians throughout the Church centuries – that the Jews were ‘deicides’ – God-killers.

The Christian Churches carry a burden of guilt for the vicious nature of anti-Semitism.  As the country whose leaders crucified Christ, Israel became the target of Christian Hatred, and the Jews suffered repeated persecution, as individuals and as representatives of their religion.  Pogroms in Eastern Europe were matched by Jews being expelled from one Western European country after another.  An Edict of Expulsion of all Jews from England was passed in 1290, and was in force for 350 years.  This was matched across Europe.  Pope John XXIII wanted this prejudice ended.

The first draft of the text banished all talk of the Jews as ‘deicides’.  But when the Council returned to discuss this issue, the text had been changed and the bit about the Jews not being God-killers had disappeared.  There followed three days of discussions which finally brought a text which prohibited any use of Scripture to justify hatred or persecution of Jews.  And the document makes it quite clear that while some Jewish leaders ensured the crucifixion of Christ, Christ himself came from the Jews, and now I quote, ‘and from the Jewish people sprang the apostles, the Church’s foundation stones, as well as most of the disciples who proclaimed Christ to the World.’  And the document clearly stated that Christians and Jews share a common spiritual inheritance.

Cardinal Bea recognised in an address to the Council that anti-Jewish ideas in Christian history had helped Nazism in Germany.  When it came to votes, on the proposition that the Jews are not to be regarded as repudiated or cursed by God, of 2,080 voting 1,821 affirmed the proposition, 241 were negative, and 14 votes were invalid.  On the proposition concerning universal brotherhood and the exclusion of all discrimination, of 2,128 votes cast 2,064 were affirmative, 58 negative, and 6 invalid.

I remember hearing that Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winning author, had himself petitioned the Pope on the subject of the Good Friday Prayers.  In the litany of prayers for different categories of people the liturgy included prayers ‘For the perfidious Jews’.  For all other groups prayed for, the celebrant offered the prayer with genuflection.  For the perfidious Jews alone there was no genuflection.  Wiesel apparently brought this to the Holy Father’s attention, and Pope John XXIII determined to ensure a change in the Church’s mind about the place of the Jews.

Because of its history in the negotiations within the Council and its Committees, this matter of the Jews is of great significance.  But in the Declaration it forms only two-fifths of the text.  And it is not what one encounters first in the document.  Bishops from Europe and the United States, where the situation of Jews impinged so heavily and sorely on history, were sharply aware of the need to clarify true Christian attitudes towards the Jews.  But bishops of the most densely populated parts of the world, where Jews were few, presented their urgent pre-occupations with other great religions.  Vatican II, bringing together people from across the world, widened the horizons of many.  The resulting document gives a world-wide view of these other major religions.

I understand that there has been some criticism of this Document on the grounds that it weakens the difference between Catholicism, between Christianity indeed, and all other religions.  Some have said that it encourages ‘indifferentism’ – namely an acceptance of the view that there are other paths to salvation, not just the Christian one.    And this open-ness to the value of other religions might discourage missionary vocations.

The Document looks with a kindly eye on all these other religions in these terms:

  1. ‘In Hinduism men contemplate the divine mystery and express it though an unspent fruitfulness of myths and through searching philosophical enquiry.’
  2. ‘Buddhism in its multiple forms acknowledges the radical insufficiency of the shifting world.’

‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions.’

  1. ‘Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem.  They adore one God,, living and enduring merciful and all-powerful, maker of heaven and earth.  Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding.’  [did I hear the word, ‘Crusades’?]

This is a truly astonishing opening of doors of understanding, surely unparalleled in history.  It’s a lot to take in in one Session!

Perhaps the best I can do in drawing to a close is to tell you of an event in which I had a part in 2002.  In the aftermath of the terror events of 9/11, Pope John Paul II called representatives of Christian Churches and representatives of other religions, to join for a Day of Prayer for Peace in the World.  I happened to be Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly at that time, and an invitation came for the Moderator.  I spent three nights in the Vatican.  On the second day we left for Assisi on the Papal train.  Escorted by helicopters, the train travelled serenely though the countryside, with children waving at every bridge and level-crossing in every village and town.

The entire piazza below the Basilica of St Francis was temporarily roofed over with sheeting, and perhaps 8,000 seats were in rows.  It was January 24th, and windy, and drizzling rain.  At the head of the Piazza was a huge, wide stage.  In the centre a large gold-coloured chair for Pope John Paul II;  in a line from his right a row of chairs for the leaders of the world’s churches, and to his left a line of chairs for leaders of other world religions.  Included in the array of other great world religions were Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Janinism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, was a priest from a traditional African native religion.  There followed a series of speeches from the Churches and from the other religions, all acknowledging that God has one family, the whole human family, and that his gift to us all is the gift of peace.

After these statements of faith the participants all made their way to places to pray.   Cardinal Ratzinger had apparently prevailed over Pope John Paul II’s original intention for everyone to pray together.  The directions were for the Christian Churches all to meet together, to pray together, but there were nine other special areas designated for other groupings of leaders and peoples to say their prayers separately.

In a great crushing crowd the Christians made their way, jostling and pushing, into the Lower Basilica of St Francis, and after Pope John Paul II had said the first prayer it fell to me to say the second one.

I tell you this, partly of course, just to show off.  But really because it was yet again an amazing enterprise, this outward expression of mutual acceptance of each other’s significance in the human drama.  It was an existential presentation of the attitude displayed in that epoch-making Document of Vatican II, the Declaration on Relations with Other Religions.

Now we just have to make it work in Pollokshields, and in Pakistan, in Chechnya, Bosnia, Nigeria, and a thousand other places.


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