March 1997

pages 24-25

Ecumenism's Slow Revival

In a country deeply scarred by ethnic strife, where Christians have been divided into warring camps, believers found new reasons for hope during a week of prayer for Christian unity.

[Roman Catholics and Orthodox, not "Christians" were "divided into warring camps" .... JP]


For the first time since the onset of bitter warfare curbed all ecumenical activities in Croatia, all of the country's Christian churches cooperated in a series of important prayer services in January.

This year's ceremonies were the culmination of a trend which began a few years ago with modest meetings, held each year in an Evangelical Protestant church in the capital city, Zagreb, to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Last year there was a minor breakthrough, with a small service held in an Orthodox church. But this year the prayer service blossomed into four major prayer vigils, hosted by each of Croatia's four largest Christian communities.

The central prayer meeting took place in a packed Catholic cathedral in Zagreb on Saturday, January 18, led by Cardinal Franjo Kuharic. He was joined by the protojerej (the senior ranking priest) of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Father Milenko Popovic; the Evangelical Bishop Vladimir Deutch; and the president of the Baptist convention, Rev. Branko Lovrec. Among the other participants were the papal nuncio in Croatia, Bishop Giulio Einaudi, two auxiliary bishops of Zagreb, the bishop of the Eastern-rite Catholic community in Croatia, the president of the Macedonian Orthodox Commune in Zagreb, and representatives of other Protestant communities.

At the beginning of the vigil members of the different denominations carried into the cathedral items which are important and common for all Christians as symbols of Christian unity: a cross, a Bible, and a candle.

For the first time in the history of both the Croatian broadcasting system and the country's ecumenical movement, this service of Prayer for Christian Unity was broadcast live by Croatian State Television. In another "first," a booklet was printed including the readings and prayers that had been chosen for the ecumenical service. The booklet was prepared by the council for ecumenism and dialogue of the Croatian Catholic bishops' conference on the basis of material provided by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches. This booklet was distributed to all accessible Croatian Catholic parishes, with suggestions on how it should be used as a guide to prayer during the church-unity octave.

More in common

"Prayer for the unity of all Christians is essentially prayer for the conversion of all Christians, so that we would be able by the Holy Spirit to change in our hearts," said Cardinal Kuharic in his homily during the prayer meeting, "and so to be reconciled deep in our hearts by the mercy of God and the redemption of Jesus Christ, to be open to each other for a conversation in sincerity, respect, and love."

Cardinal Kuharic emphasized that "ecumenism is respect for another in his faith, in his conviction, in his conscience; it is respect for the dignity of the human being." The cardinal observed that the Second Vatican Council sounded a clarion call for ecumenical activities, and expressed the hope that the week of ecumenical prayer in Zagreb would be an occasion to prepare for the oncoming millennium.

The Evangelical Bishop Deutch added his own suggestion: "We have to heal the wounds which we have inflicted on each other and received from each other in the course of history." He pointed out that the creation of a just society requires an active approach. "It is not something which will happen by itself," he cautioned; "It means not only to avoid doing damage but to do good for one's neighbor."

The Serbian Orthodox priest, Father Popovic, built his address around the theme that all Christians share a great deal in common: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Scriptures; and the Commandments. And the Baptist representative, Rev. Lovrec, used the occasion to thank God for the peace that seems finally to be coming to Croatia and neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. "There is a year of Jesus Christ in front of us, and I do not recall if ever any year has been in that way dedicated to our Savior," he said. "That directs us toward getting closer to him, and in doing that, coming closer to each other as well."

Vigils In other churches

A second prayer meeting took place on Sunday, January 19, in the Serbian Orthodox church in Zagreb. Representatives of all the country's leading Christian denominations again took part. The overall impression left by the remarks of the Christian leaders was that today in Croatia it is time to move closer in a cooperative effort to build the civilization of love. "If we leave tonight convinced that we all want to belong completely to Jesus, and to act and work as he directs us, then the movement that carries the name of ecumenism is truly a blessed one," said one Catholic participant.

Before the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ended, two other prayer vigils took place: one in the Baptist church in Zagreb, the other in the Evangelical church which began hosting these prayer sessions during the war years, during the darkest hours of the ecumenical movement.

During the preparations for the week of prayer, it was hoped that the metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church for Slovenia and Italy, who has ecclesiastical jurisdiction for that church in Croatia as well, might take part in the services. However, on the eve of the service in the Zagreb Orthodox church, the metropolitan asked to be excused, saying that he was ill. Since he had presided at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in that same church on the morning before sending his regrets, most observers suspected that the "illness" was merely a convenient excuse for his absence. And that absence in turn did not occasion much surprise; the Serbian Orthodox Church has avoided most ecumenical contacts in recent years, and indeed some Orthodox leaders have been instrumental in advancing the notion of a "Greater Serbia," which has led to much of the military aggression that has bloodied the Balkans in the l990s.

Nevertheless, the fact that the week of prayer did expand to embrace the four largest Christian denominations in CroatiaĐincluding the local representatives of the Orthodox communion Đ raises hopes that more ecumenical progress may be possible. Croatia is an unusual laboratory for ecumenical development, since it is a predominantly Catholic country bordering on the mostly Orthodox Serbia and the mixed Bosnia-Herzegovina with its large Muslim population. For Croatians, then, ecumenism is not only a matter of Christian charity, or a question of abstract theological importance; it is an intensely practical issue. Here in Croatia ecumenism means "reaching out" quite literally, to touch Orthodox neighbors in Serbia.

[Usually "to touch" with knife or bullet .... JP ]

Will the links between (Catholic) Croatia and (Orthodox) Serbia form a wall or a bridge? That question will not easily be resolved. The bitter war between Serbia and Croatia, and the desperate fighting between ethnic Serbs and Croats in their own lands and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, certainly did nothing to advance the ecumenical cause. But perhaps, optimists hope, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity could be the turning point, finally pointing the two nations down the road toward reconciliation.

Josip Stilinovic is a free-lance journalist based in Zagreb and a regular contributor to Catholic World Report.