Reverence for Truth in Ecumenical Prayer


Icon, St. Maximus the Confessor, Surrounded by His Persecutors.

The ecumenical movement faces an ongoing lull. Hopes for a speedy restoration of full unity amongst Christians following the Second Vatican Council have simply not been fulfilled. There are only a couple of occasions in the Gospels, however, where we see that Christ prays three times for something, and one of these is his prayer in John 17:11: “may they all be one.” There is widespread recognition of the need to find fresh impetus in our response to Christ’s earnest desire for unity amongst all his followers.

I would like to draw out some lessons from the life of St. Maximus the Confessor in order to illuminate the teaching of the Church on ecumenism. The trial of Maximus before the Imperial Senate in Constantinople during AD 654 provides a fascinating example of courage in confessing the truth, in the face of intense pressure to do otherwise.1 The Byzantine Emperor, Constans II, had decreed that everyone should remain silent as to the number of wills or energies possessed by Christ. There were severe penalties for anyone who disobeyed him. Maximus had been called to account for persistently teaching that Christ possessed both a human will and a divine will.

Those who hold that Christ possesses only one will are now termed heretics, Monothelites. They can also be considered as separated brethren and, at times, were such to Maximus. The witness of St. Maximus is highly relevant to our current dilemma over how to restore unity amongst all of Christ’s followers.

The Teaching of the Church on Prayer in Common
Much of the attention in the ecumenical movement focuses on the prospects for dialogue to lead to a restoration of the bonds that lie severed between us. However, as far as the faithful at-large are concerned, ecumenical dialogue remains the preserve of experts who sit on commissions and write reports. There is an area of ecumenical activity enjoined on all of us by the Church, and this concerns prayer in common with other Christians.

The Magisterium of the Church encourages the Catholic faithful to share “spiritual activities and resources” with those from other Churches and ecclesial communities.2 Such sharing occurs when Christians from different traditions gather together to pray for unity, but it also happens when they are drawn together at a wedding, pray with each other during a pro-life vigil, or say grace together before a meal. Catholics, however, cannot simply conduct such spiritual sharing on whatever basis seems good to them at the time. In particular, the Catholic Church teaches in its norms for ecumenism:

The sharing of spiritual activities and resources, therefore, must reflect this double fact:

1) the real communion in the life of the Spirit which already exists among Christians and is expressed in their prayer and liturgical worship;

2) the incomplete character of this communion because of differences of faith and understanding which are incompatible with an unrestricted mutual sharing of spiritual endowments.3

Is it sufficient to reflect the incomplete character of our communion simply by restricting the scope of what is shared, but otherwise, by ignoring whatever divides us? Can you sit down with a Christian from another tradition and just say the Our Father together? Well, the norms of the Catholic Church go on to expand on these two principles by indicating that we need to be “made more aware of the necessity of overcoming the separations which still exist” even as we esteem and rejoice in the spiritual riches that we have in common.4 Clearly, there will be times when simply saying the Lord’s Prayer together with a separated brother or sister can make one more aware of the need to overcome the divisions that exist between us, yet this surely will not always be the case.

In my own experience, though, it is rare to find Catholics who appreciate the subtleties in the teaching of the Church that I have pointed to here. To what extent were you personally aware of the precise nature of the discipline of the Church on prayer with other Christians? People tend to find it rather disconcerting to be reminded that they are not as united as they could or should be; especially on something quite so fundamental as the teaching that Christ passed to us from his Father. Does it matter if we try to get away with reflecting on this “double fact” simply by maintaining a silence on what divides us? I would like to draw out some lessons from the life of St. Maximus in order to illuminate the theological and scriptural basis for our attempts to draw our separated brethren more fully into the one fold of Christ.

A Sound Basis for Christian Unity
The Byzantine Emperor had issued a decree, The Typos, that specifically enjoined his subjects to remain silent on whether Christ possessed one will or two wills. As we have seen, Maximus refused to abide by this decree. The account of his trial gives some of the reasoning he employed in coming to this stance. He was clear that silence on the truth of the wills possessed by Christ would be a denial of the faith:

… if the saving faith should be removed along with heresy for the sake of an arrangement, then the arrangement is a thorough separation from God and not a unity with God.5

Maximus indicated during his trial that the Arians had earlier enjoined this line on the Church, saying: “Let us remove the Homoousion and the Heterousion and let the churches unite.”6 The Fathers of the Church at the time, though, preferred to suffer persecution and death from the civil authorities rather than to be silent on the matter, and to allow truth to be extinguished alongside falsehood.

This might seem far more dramatic than what might be at stake in simply praying the Lord’s Prayer together with a Lutheran, say. The Magisterium, though, frequently enjoins us not to succumb to doctrinal indifferentism in ecumenical activity. The scope for Catholics to downplay their differences with other Christians was something that Pope Pius XI specifically identified as a danger in his encyclical, Mortalium Animo. Part of the challenge is to understand why the truth matters so much.

On what basis would you expect the full unity of all Christians to occur? John’s Gospel provides a clear indication that unity amongst the disciples is based on a prior communion of faith. Christ began his prayer in John 17 by speaking of how he had revealed the Father’s name to the disciples, and passed on to them the teaching that he had received himself from his Father. Throughout this prayer, Jesus manifested a keen reverence for the truth, praying that his disciples would be consecrated, or sanctified, in the truth. He prayed further: “Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us.” The word here that Christ uses with the deepest of respect for his Father, hagie, comes from the same Greek root as used for this sanctification of the disciples.

The unity that Christ enjoined on his followers is one that mirrors the unity of the Father and Son, a unity that includes an obedient reception of what has been revealed within the Godhead. Pope Benedict, writing before he was elected a Cardinal, reminded us: “… Jesus himself did not describe everyone as his brothers and sisters, but only those who were one with him in their assent to the will of the Father” (Mk 3:33-34). Our commitment to the truth is itself a participation in the very life of the Trinity. If we are to find unity, we need the same reverence for the truth that St. Maximus displayed before the Imperial Senate: “I prefer to die rather than have on my conscience that I, in any way at all, have been deficient in what concerns faith in God.”7 There is no half-way house between reverence and indifference.

As Catholics, we share with the Orthodox Churches a common understanding of the truth as something that we receive, with reverence, from the Holy Fathers, and that we, in our turn, pass on. Reverence for the truth includes a reverence for the truth in its entirety. Jesus himself made a clear link in Jn 16:12-15 between receiving the truth from the Holy Spirit, and a concern to arrive at the fullness of that truth. It is hard to see how the same reverence for the truth can be maintained when one personally seeks to reconstruct what is true, at a distance of hundreds or thousands of years, from the original revelation.

There has been a sea change in the Church, though, since the Second Vatican Council. Many Catholics now see the truth as something that each one has the right to reconstruct for himself or herself. Furthermore, in his homily to the College of Cardinals shortly before he was elected Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism” increasingly prevailing in the world today, in which ultimate goals consist “solely of one’s own ego and desires.” There are many powers in the world that can warp the pursuit of truth. This is as true today as it was at the time of Constans II in Constantinople, or Henry VIII in England. Secularity now pervades every aspect of our societies, whether through the media, schools, health systems, and so on. The norms that the Church gives to the Catholic faithful allow wide-ranging discretion in how to frame ecumenical prayer. It is naïve to expect, in today’s world, that the exercise of this discretion will be guided by reverence for truth.

Under a dictatorship, the tendency is to succumb to power, and to attempt to unite around much less than the entire truth. The Jesuit theologian and Roman Cardinal, Hans Urs von Balthasar, characterized the thought of St. Maximus as follows: “Maximus’s example must serve as our inspiration: the ultimate and highest degree of reconciliation occurs only within the active range of clear, discerning, and decisive intelligence”; or “to gather together what was divided, or coming apart, in the relations between East and West, and to do this ‘not superficially’ but organically, ‘with real depth.'”8 Emeritus Pope Benedict, again, was absolutely clear on this point in his earlier writing on relations with our separated brethren:

Indeed, it is important not to ignore the element of separation which is inevitably part of this brotherhood, and gives it its particular quality: to ignore it is, ultimately, to become reconciled to it, and that is just what we must not do. 9

Any path that involves the pursuit of unity with other Christians and, yet, avoids squarely facing our disagreements over Christ’s revelation from his Father, will not reach its goal.

Holiness as Integral to the Pursuit of Truth
St. Maximus, furthermore, was keenly aware of the closeness between doctrine and holiness. One of the reasons he was so keen to defend the truth that Christ possessed both a human will and a divine will was because we are each called to conform our human wills to the divine will. The truths of the faith and the reality of holiness in our lives are intimately connected with each other. St. Maximus was aware of what silence would lead to: “For nothing will remain for us to worship if we annul the sayings taught by God.”10 Is the intercession of Our Lady and the saints, for instance, an optional extra, or is it not, rather, something that God has willed as a means to our holiness? If we leave aside devotion to Our Lady and the saints as an integral and beloved part of our spiritual life, is it actually possible to reach the heights of holiness?

Consecration, sanctification, occurs in the truth. Blessed John Henry Newman was only drawn into the Catholic Church as he realized what profound reaches of holiness lay within her bounds. His conversion entailed a long journey in obedience to his conscience. In part, it took the actual presence of a saint, Blessed Dominic Barberi, for Newman to realize that teachings he had previously dismissed as corruptions of revelation were, in fact, integral to holiness. And it is likely to be no different for the separated brethren that you and I personally encounter. Each of these brothers and sisters is waiting for your conversion, for my conversion. A heroic witness to the truth is one of the means by which God takes initiative in the lives of others—and his initiative is, undoubtedly, required if the sails of the ecumenical movement are to catch the wind of the Holy Spirit.

What Must Then We Do?
If we gloss over what divides us in prayer with other Christians, then the consequence of such an attempt to sidestep the truth is effectively to forsake both the pursuit of Christian unity and growth in our own spiritual lives. Under the present norms, further attention would need to be devoted to catechizing the faithful as to the means by which each of us can best engage in spiritual sharing with Christians from other churches and ecclesial communities. Consideration needs to be given to articulating realistic means by which the discipline of the Church can be lived out in today’s world. Perhaps, such consideration will result in adaptions to the norms that govern the way that Catholics relate to other Christians. We can learn from Pope St. John Paul’s encyclical, Catechesi Tradendae:

The more the Church, whether on the local or the universal level, gives catechesis a priority over other works and undertakings, the results of which would be more spectacular, the more she finds in catechesis a strengthening of her internal life as a community of believers and of her external activity as a missionary Church.

This approach is not at all in opposition to the call that Pope Francis has laid down to reach out to the peripheries.

It will thus help, by way of conclusion, to consider some practical ways in which we might respect the current norms of the Church on the paradoxical reality of our shared heritage as Christians, and the incomplete character of that sharing. Let us genuinely take to heart the teaching that prayer for Christian unity constitutes the soul of the ecumenical movement. In itself, this ensures that we give expression to a common desire for unity, and yet, recognize that we have not reached that point where we share our faith in its entirety.

The situation is more complicated when wider forms of prayer in common are considered (and I am not referring here to sharing in formal liturgical worship in other churches and ecclesial communities). It is, by no means, straightforward to respect this paradoxical reality when one personally crafts an occasion of prayer in common, and no prayer for unity is included.

One straightforward option, though, would be to alternate in some way between forms of prayer that characteristically belong to the traditions involved. If there were to be any points at which one or more of the parties was unable to participate, then they would simply remain silent. Such approaches are particularly needed where sharing is intense, as with mixed marriages. It is true that a certain asymmetry will be present in this arrangement, in that forms of prayer present within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are particularly likely to meet with objections from other Christians. However, we cannot expect ecumenism to unfold on a basis in which parity is expressed in some absolute manner.

I do, however, believe that if we encounter a situation in which sincere prayer in common is being offered up in a manner that fails to respect all of the teaching of the Church, then we should simply remain prayerfully silent. A silence that is undertaken in a spirit of charity will speak eloquently. In order to exercise such charity, we need converted hearts and holy lives; we need spiritual ecumenism.

St. Maximus the Confessor had his right hand cut off, and his tongue ripped out, as punishment for speaking against the decree of the Emperor. His courage might seem like ancient history to us, but nonetheless, it reminds us that God calls us to confess our faith. It might not seem that the approach advocated in this article will generate the desired new impetus for the restoration of unity amongst Christians. St. Maximus’s witness, though, provided a huge stimulus towards the reconciliation between East and West that occurred at the Council of Constantinople within 25 years of his death, as the political compromises of the intervening years crumbled in the face of his witness to the truth. The restoration of our separated brethren to the unity of the Church is something that is beyond our own attainment—it can only come about in response to the (earnest) divine initiative. Prayer together will only contribute towards this goal if we bring to it a reverence for revealed truth. We are called to enter into the life of the Trinity as we, in our turn, witness to that teaching which Christ received from his Father. St. Maximus the Confessor, Pray for us.


Dr. Peter Kahn completed this article on reverence for truth in ecumenical prayer while attending an academic conference in Istanbul, Turkey (the former Constantinople).


  1. Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings (1985) trans. G. Berthold, Paulist Press, New York.
  2. Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (1993) Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, Vatican City, 102.
  3. Ibid., 104.
  4. Ibid., 104d.
  5. Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings (1985) trans. G. Berthold, Paulist Press, New York, p. 20.
  6. Ibid., p. 20.
  7. Ibid. p. 23.
  8. Von Balthasar, H.U. (2003). Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe according to Maximus the Confessor. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, p. 56.
  9. Pope Benedict XVI (1993). The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, p. 91.
  10. Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings (1985) trans. G. Berthold, Paulist Press, New York, p. 20.
Dr. Peter Kahn About Dr. Peter Kahn

Dr. Peter Kahn has written a range of booklets for the Catholic Truth Society, London, including “Passing on Faith to Your Children” and “Facing Difficulties in Christian Family Life.” He earlier edited the Catholic Student Guide (Family Publications, 2006). Peter lives in Warrington, UK, with his wife Alison, and their seven sons.


  1. Thank you for this article, Dr. Kahn. As you point out, unity among believers is a matter of ultimate importance. In His prayer to the Father, Jesus links clearly the relationship of authentic, supernatural oneness in the Church, to the divinely intended mission of the Church: to make disciples. He prayed,
    “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us,…” for a particular intended result that would follow: “that the world may believe that you sent me.”

    This is the mission of the Church; for this we were sent, for this we exist: to evangelize, to bring the world into believing in Christ Jesus. Yet evangelization is deeply inhibited, the mission is defeated from within, by the disunity that judges us. We are not one! How then can the world believe? Denominations stand in judgment against Christianity, and even the “one” holy catholic and apostolic Church is divided within. The institutional Church is divided deeply among the members, a situation that continues to worsen as adult catechesis and faith formation continue to be ignored by Church leadership.

    Unity that is supernatural, unity that convicts and attracts the world, is possible only in the power and work of the Holy Spirit – whose gentle voice is not heard, these days, by many both inside and outside of the institutional Church. He alone can “convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation.” (Jn 16:8) Such supernatural light within can break through a hardened heart and bring repentance, conversion, saving faith and life. Such renewal must begin inside the Church, if it is ever to reach beyond the boundaries of Catholicism to the scattered world of denominations and religions, and to the darker world beyond.

    Are we listening? His people have been exhorted, urged, for many centuries, “If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts.” Are we listening?