January 15, 2016
Over the past decade I have been privileged to participate in, to plan and to help in planning many ecumenical and interreligious gatherings at the local level in our Archdiocese. When I think back over these experiences, and some of the “successes” and “failures” that we’ve lived as a result of them, the following points emerge for me as distilled wisdom (“best practices”) of practical ecumenism at the grass roots:
One of the perennial questions asked of ecumenists is “How do you measure success?”
Illustration: I was once interviewed by a reporter who expressed amazement at how few people had turned out for an interfaith event that I had helped to coordinate. She commented that the event didn’t appear to be too successful. I responded that attendance at events was just one of the ways to measure the success of what ecumenists do. Are people in our respective communities interacting positively with one another? Are local faith leaders showing concern for one another or inviting their respective community members to reach out to their neighbours? Is there a decrease of animosity or (heaven forbid) violence perpetrated toward the members of disparate communities? Are we praying for one another and supporting one another’s initiatives? These are all very important and tangible measures of a successful ecumenical/interfaith ministry. (Albeit it is always nice to see a good turnout at planned events as well.)
The critics shall be with you always. Call it “human nature” or “our sinful condition” or “the power of Satan” or what have you; there are always detractors to every ecumenical or interfaith venture that is planned. Because of this, an ecumenical ministry (or minister) must develop tremendous resiliency.
Illustration: I can recall one occasion when we had worked for months and months to arrange the four-day visit of a renowned ecumenist in our local church. This was a massive undertaking, bringing together all of our ecumenical partners, planning multiple events to multiple audiences in multiple venues, securing adequate funding, ensuring the right mix of prayer, teaching and fellowship, negotiating some hard edges between some pastors and communities, not always certain what the actual fruit of the whole endeavour would be. Our teacher came, our teacher left; the whole thing was an unbelievable success. People from various communities were brought closer together in a spirit of genuine care and concern for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Planners from the various church communities were also brought closer together by the experience of working together on this project. We were encouraged that if we could plan this activity together, maybe we could do other things at other times to bring our churches into closer communion with one another.
Wouldn’t you know that in the next edition of our local Catholic newspaper, two Letters to the Editor appeared taking exception to the fact that so-and-so speaker had been invited to our Archdiocese in the first place, and criticizing the organizers for deliberately confounding our people by blurring the lines between traditions. Some of our partners felt deflated by this critique, and although much good fruit continues to come from the activity, not everyone is eager to put the work into “doing it all again.”
An analogy can be made between interchurch/interfaith relationships and interpersonal relationships, particularly when things go awry in the relationship. When trust is broken, for instance, between friends, the offending party must recognize their part in it before they can approach the offended party to ask forgiveness and be reconciled. Until this happens, the wound between the two parties will remain. The same is true for rifts between church communities, and so the ecumenical ministry is quite naturally a reconciling ministry.
Illustration: I often ask my students to imagine a fight that they have had, perhaps with a sibling, a friend or a spouse. After a period of cooling off, we usually find a way to come back to our loved one and say that we’re sorry; we apologize for speaking (or yelling) more than listening and we hope that they can find it in their heart to forgive us so that we may go forward in our relationship. Sometimes it happens, however, that the pain inflicted keeps us from returning to the relationship; perhaps we go about talking behind the other person’s back or maybe we stop talking to or about that person altogether. This can go on for days, months, sometimes indefinitely, but the further apart we grow, the harder it is to ever restore the relationship between us.
What happens when this dynamic takes place not between individuals, but between communities of people and over centuries or even millennia? Where do we begin to relate to one another? Do we even care about the other party’s existence enough to want to be in relationship with them again?
Ecumenists must always be prepared to be the ones to make the first steps in this ministry of reconciliation. Practically speaking, the first step requires us to cultivate humility and courage to seek forgiveness where such is needed and to give forgiveness when it is requested. Sometimes ecumenists are faced with anger or disappointments from a community or individual, the spiritual descendants of an alienated sister or brother in the faith or of a whole tradition that was decried by our ecclesial ancestors at a certain moment in history. Sometimes there is joy in no longer remembering why we were fighting in the first place. The ministry of reconciliation is not an easy task for anyone and the spiritual toll can be high. For this reason, an ecumenist’s life must always be rooted in prayer and dedicated to Christ’s prayer for unity among his followers. There is no substitute for this spiritual way.
Meetings between Christians or with members of other faith communities must not be pretentious or underhanded, as though our neighbours were all people of weaker faith or without faith or merely potential converts. In many instances our neighbours are people of an already established or mature faith, aware of differences between our traditions but eager and willing to work toward building a world of peace and understanding, and ready to cooperate in all of the many ways that are already open to us for doing so. The ecumenist’s task in such gatherings, then, is not to manufacture something new or foreign to all the participants, but rather to invite the participants to share that which is already present and active in their lives, namely faith that is rooted in love for one another. In ecumenism, in other words, we reach toward a highest, rather than a lowest, common denominator.
Illustration: This became most evident for me at the installation Mass for the bishop in a neighbouring diocese. At the celebration, significant representations were made by Protestant and Orthodox Christians, and by various members of other faith communities. The time that each faith representative took to be present to this assembly, and the care with which each one spoke and offered a gift or gesture of friendship toward the new bishop, showed great love toward him and his Catholic community. It was a moment of palpable spiritual presence in the world; a moment of true solidarity among all the many believers in God. All in attendance felt love in this moment and no one had any doubt of God’s very existence. This is the testimony of real but imperfect unity; it is a tangible reality and it bears witness to the source of all love, who is God. It has the power to transform hearts and minds and to forge a new future beyond the problems of the past. This is the reward of the ecumenical ministry. Practically speaking, the ecumenist lives to see such moments realized in the community.