Catholic bishops have been reminded that ecumenical work is not an option but an obligatory part of episcopal ministry. The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum is a new “guidebook” produced by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity that gives the bishops both a series of practical recommendations to improve ecumenical relations in their own dioceses and a ‘crib sheet’ of the ecumenical thinking of the Church, from the Second Vatican Council to the present day. It has been published with the endorsement of Pope Francis.

It points out that Roman Catholic canon law decrees that it is a bishop’s responsibility to foster ecumenism and urges Catholics “to lay aside the polemical language and prejudices of the past”.

The document – officially called a vade mecum (handbook) reminds the Church that: “the bishop cannot consider the promotion of the ecumenical cause as one more task in his varied ministry, one that could and should be deferred in view of other, apparently more important, priorities. The bishop’s ecumenical engagement is not an optional dimension of his ministry but a duty and obligation”.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the council and Bishop Brian Farrell, its secretary, write in the forward that: “An ecumenical vade mecum is offered as an aid to diocesan and eparchial bishops to help them better understand and fulfil their ecumenical responsibility. The genesis of this vade mecum began with a request from a plenary assembly of this Pontifical Council. The text was developed by the Council’s officials in consultation with experts and with the agreement of the relevant dicasteries of the Roman Curia. We are now happy to publish it with the blessing of the Holy Father Pope Francis”.

The vade mecum reminds bishops that since the Second Vatican Council the search for unity has been seen as intrinsic to the nature of the Church and that continuing divisions are scandalous, and contradicts Christ’s will for the Church.  Church unity is not the only the concern of theologians and church leaders engaged in dialogue, but concerns everyone, the document says.

It also highlights the importance of the bishop’s role in promoting unity in his diocese and directing and guiding ecumenical initiatives. The Ecumenical Directory, first published in 1993, encouraged bishops to appoint a diocesan ecumenical officer and this new document reminds bishops of this responsibility, together with the appointment of an ecumenical commission to encourage better relationships with other denominations. There is an emphasis on hospitality too, with the recommendation that ecumenical guests should be invited to attend major moments in the church calendar.

This hospitality also needs to be expressed in the way Catholics engage with other Christians, says the vade mecum: “ The virtue of charity demands that Catholics avoid polemical presentations of Christian history and theology and, in particular, that they avoid misrepresenting the positions of other Christians. Rather, formators informed by an attitude of charity will always seek to emphasise the Christian faith that we share with others and to present the theological differences that divide us with balance and accuracy. In this way the work of formation helps to remove obstacles to dialogue”. It also urges  “an appropriately humble attitude” among Catholics to appreciate what God is bringing about in other Churches.

A particular importance is also given to ecumenical formation of seminarians training for the Catholic priesthood, who should study a course specifically on ecumenism.

Ecumenism, according to the document, can be expressed in many ways, not least through joint prayer services, being involved in significant liturgical celebrations, and participating in ecumenical organisations’ events.

There is also a special mention for what are sometimes called mixed marriages but the document calls “interchurch marriages”.

“Interchurch marriages should not be regarded as problems for they are often a privileged place where the unity of Christians is built. However, pastors cannot be indifferent to the pain of Christian division which is experienced in the context of these families, perhaps more sharply than in any other context. The pastoral care of interchurch families, from the initial preparation of the couple for marriage to pastoral accompaniment as the couple have children and the children themselves prepare for sacraments, should be a concern at both the diocesan and regional level. A special effort should be made to engage these families in the ecumenical activities of parish and diocese”, it says.

However, there is little here to offer hope of any breakthrough on shared Communion. Instead the document says that it remains an area of “significant tension”. It does point out, though, that the bishop can decide when access to the sacraments of Communion, reconciliation and anointing can be open to other Christians who share a common baptism.

The document has warm words to say to encourage practical ecumenism – Christians working together to alleviate suffering and to bear witness to Christ. “The experience of bishops in many parts of the world is that co-operation between Christian communities in service of the poor is a driving force in promoting the desire for Christian unity”, it says.

“As disciples of Christ, schooled by the Scriptures and Christian tradition, we are compelled to act to uphold the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of creation, in the sure hope that God is bringing the whole of creation into the fullness of his Kingdom.

Our common service manifests before the world, therefore, our shared faith, and our witness is more powerful for being united”.

The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum can be read in full at: