The Oberlin conference on The Nature of the Unity We Seek, which met fifty years ago, in September 1957, marked an important stage in the ecumenical movement. For the first time, the churches in North America in large numbers committed themselves to the quest for Christian unity. The composition of the conference was diverse, including delegates from several Orthodox churches and the Protestant Episcopal Church, as well as Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Adventists, and others.

The delegates heard thoughtful addresses by a brilliant array of theologians from North America, Europe, and Asia, including a sermon by the secretary-general of the World Council of Churches, Willem A. Visser ’t Hooft. After some days of discussion, the delegates came up with a “Message to the Churches,” which recommended steps toward a greater visible manifestation of the unity of the Church.

Although I had to leave the United States in June 1957 for a three-year sojourn in Europe, I can recall the interest that the scheduled Oberlin Conference aroused in the Catholic Church even before I left. My own professor and mentor in ecumenism, Fr. Gustave Weigel, S.J., took part in the conference as one of the two Catholic observers. The other was my good friend the Paulist editor of Catholic World, John B. Sheerin.

At the time, H.P. Van Dusen judged that the Oberlin Conference “cast virtually no light on the theme which the gathering was summoned to examine,” which remains theologically defensible. But, in my estimation, the conference achieved all that could reasonably have been expected of it. Large multilateral conferences of this type, gathering for the first time, cannot be expected to come up with profound new consensus statements. The delegates were effectively exposed to the complexities of the problem in the areas of faith, liturgy, and the Christian life. They became conscious of the length of the road ahead but at the same time were eager to bring their respective churches, with God’s help, as far as they could along that road.

The ecumenical movement, which had been going on for a generation in Europe, was formally launched in the United States. Oberlin stands near the beginning of a half century of thriving ecumenical activity. The impetus toward unity was strengthened, four years later, by the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches at New Delhi and then, in 1963, by the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order at Montreal. The full and official entry of the Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement came with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).