With thankfulness to God, the members of the Roman Catholic-Polish National Catholic dialogue in the United States look back on twenty-two years of theological and canonical reflection concerning the nature of our division and the possibility of reaching full communion. Because of a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit that affected both our churches following the celebration of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and a similar renewal within the Polish National Catholic Church, our faithful have been rediscovering one another increasingly as brothers and sisters in the Lord. At this time we wish to review the progress that we have achieved over the past two decades, and reaffirm our intention to continue our efforts to achieve that unity for which Christ prayed.
Calls for a dialogue between our churches go back as far as 1966, when the Most Reverend Leon Grochowski, Prime Bishop of the Polish National Catholic Church, courageously proposed such a dialogue to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Scranton. Later, in 1980, His Holiness Pope John Paul II of blessed memory expressed the desire that the conference of bishops of the United States examine the relationship that exists with the Polish National Catholic Church and explore the possibility of dialogue. This resulted in an exchange of correspondence between the leaders of our churches that would culminate in the first meeting of an official dialogue in Passaic, New Jersey, on October 23, 1984.
In view of the fact that most of the ecumenical dialogues began in the 1960s and 1970s, the establishment of our dialogue was late in coming. This was the result of the particularly painful history of our relationship and the circumstances of the origins of the Polish National Catholic Church among ethnic Polish and other Roman Catholics in the United States at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The disputes of that time, we now realize, were more concerned with matters of church governance than points of doctrine. Nevertheless, the complicated series of events that led to our division caused much hurt and anguish even within families whose members often found themselves on opposite sides of the dispute. The consequences of those events can still be felt among us more than a century later, and must be addressed.
For this purpose, a number of highly symbolic gestures of reconciliation have taken place, perhaps most notably at the Service of Healing that was held in St. Stanislaus Polish National Catholic Cathedral in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on February 15, 1992. Leaders of our two churches, including Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy (President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity), His Grace John F. Swantek, Prime Bishop of the Polish National Catholic Church, and the two co-chairmen of the dialogue, asked for forgiveness, and pledged to work to overcome our divisions definitively. In 1997 Bishop James C. Timlin, then the Roman Catholic Co-Chairman of the dialogue, reiterated this request for forgiveness in a letter he issued on the occasion of the centenary of the organization of the Polish National Catholic Church.
Our dialogue has achieved much. For example, in a 1989 report1 summarizing the first five years of the dialogue’s progress, we affirmed our agreement on the seven sacraments of the Church, in spite of some differences in practice that do not touch upon our basic common faith. The report also examined two areas of divergence -- our understandings of the Word of God and the life to come – and discovered that here too there are broad areas of agreement. In sum, the report was able to look back over five years of dialogue and state that “we have thus far discovered no doctrinal obstacle that would impede the further growth of our churches toward that unity which we believe is Christ’s will.” A second report dealing with developments in our dialogue from 1989 to 2002 was published in 2003.2
In view of this progress, concrete steps have been taken. In response to an inquiry from the Archbishop of Baltimore, His Excellency William Keeler, then President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, His Eminence Edward Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stated in 1993 that members of the Polish National Catholic Church in the United States and Canada may receive the sacraments of Penance, Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick from Roman Catholic priests if they ask for them on their own, are properly disposed and not otherwise excluded from the sacraments in line with the provisions of canon 844 §3 of The Code of Canon Law. This was followed in 1996 by a letter by Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb, the Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, to the bishops of the United States spelling out in more detail the conditions under which Polish National Catholics may receive the aforementioned sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1998 the Polish National Catholic Church issued Guidelines for the Reception by Polish National Catholics of Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. Canon 844 §2 of The Code of Canon Law also specifies conditions under which Roman Catholics may receive the sacraments in the Polish National Catholic Church.
In light of these concrete steps towards unity, we have much for which to be thankful. Furthermore, we recognize each other’s ecclesial character and sacraments, allow a certain amount of sacramental sharing, and maintain many of the same traditions. These facts bear witness to how much we have rediscovered as our common heritage. Our mutual esteem clearly rules out inappropriate actions such as proselytism among each other’s faithful or the re-ordination of clergy who pass from one church to the other.
During our century-long division we have grown apart in ways that at first glance make reconciliation appear to be difficult. The Polish National Catholic Church, which during most of its existence was a member of the Union of Utrecht, has developed a strong sense of autonomy and the desire to preserve its distinctive traditions, including the vital role played by the laity in church governance. Even though the primacy and infallibility of the Bishop of Rome was not an issue at the time of our division, our churches today have different understandings of the Pope’s role in the Church. Another complicating factor is the presence of a significant number of former Roman Catholic priests in the ranks of the Polish National Catholic clergy. Such is the legacy of the divisions of the past that remain with us today.
At this point in our relationship, therefore, we the members of the Polish National Catholic-Roman Catholic dialogue wish to reaffirm our resolve to overcome what still divides us, and to state clearly that our goal is full communion between our churches. We wish to emphasize that “full communion” does not imply absorption or uniformity, but a unity that fully recognizes differing traditions that are consistent with our common apostolic faith. It must still be determined if any of our divergent traditions are truly church-dividing, or simply examples of legitimate diversity which, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “is in no way opposed to the Church's unity, but rather enhances her splendor and contributes greatly to the fulfillment of her mission” (Ut Unum Sint, n. 50). We plan to give further consideration to other concrete steps concerning reciprocity in regard to the sacraments, acting as godparents, and the requirement of canonical form for lawfulness only in mixed marriages. We are equally committed to a thorough examination of the theological concepts of primacy and conciliarity. This will include searching for a common understanding of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome in the Church.
As members of a commission authorized to engage in this ecumenical dialogue, our role is not to speak definitively for either of our churches. Nevertheless, we hope to propose new incremental steps that will make concrete the growing unity between us, and we wish our faithful to know of our conviction that a way can be found to overcome this regrettable division that took place among Catholics here in the United States. We know that the goal of unity is nothing less than the will of Christ for us. Therefore we ask the faithful of both our churches to join us in fervent prayer that, with a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the barriers between us will fall and we will one day soon find ourselves joined again in that perfect unity that befits the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Fall River, Massachusetts
May 17, 2006
- Journeying Together in Christ: The Report of the Polish National Catholic-Roman Catholic Dialogue (1984-1989). Edited by Stanislaus J. Brzana and Anthony M. Rysz. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1990.
- Journeying Together in Christ: The Journey Continues. The Report of the Polish National Catholic-Roman Catholic Dialogue 1989-2002. Edited by Most Rev. Robert M. Nemkovich and Most Rev. James C. Timlin. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2003.