This past Lent my parishes (Anglican and Lutheran) invited the local Roman Catholic parish to engage in a study on the Reformation. After all, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the 16th century event that splintered western Christianity into a number of different church traditions, traditions that remain divided to this day. However, intense dialogue in the past 50 years and new agreements on key aspects of our Christian heritage have now ushered in a new era of rapprochement, one that needs to be shared and embraced by the ordinary disciples in all church pews.
It seemed timely and such a good idea to gather participants from three traditions to learn and discuss together about the events of the 16th century, acknowledge the significant agreements and convergence that has have been achieved through dialogue at the highest levels for the past 50 years, and to look towards a future of community and unity.
Now I tried very hard to remain realistic; I minister in a small prairie town so I had no illusions of this venture drawing a big crowd. Nevertheless, I was surprised when 14 people showed up for the first of five sessions. The numbers fluctuated somewhat each week but remained steady between 14 — 21 participants. This number was amazing; moreover, people were committed and open to learning. Hearing about the significant dialogues and agreements between our church traditions was a real revelation for most folks, one that clearly inspired and engaged them in new ideas and visions for the future.
To this effect, the parish study, designed by a Canadian Catholic-Lutheran working group and entitled Together in Christ, gave five clear directives to be discussed and endorsed by local churches. These same imperatives were agreed to and signed between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in a joint worship service in Lund, Sweden, on October 31, 2016, attended by Pope Francis himself:
- Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
- Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
- Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
- Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
- Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.
This major step towards mutual recognition at such a high church level definitely moves the process towards full visible unity closer to its goal. There was, however, a slight problem in our local Lenten study, one that the group became more vocal about as we approached the last session. The majority of the participants had been Lutheran and Anglican! Despite support from the RC parish priest, alternating meeting venues between Lutheran and Catholic parish halls, and weekly notices in parish bulletins, the Catholic participation remained extremely weak (with the exception of one session which saw six Catholic participants but most didn’t return) and even zero at one session 😦 . It was painful and the group lamented this vacuum, feeling as if stood up on a date. After all, the study was designed as a conversation between Roman Catholics and Lutherans (Anglicans came along for the ride). What could possibly account for this Catholic absence/disinterest?
And so when there’s a vacuum in reasonable explanation, the mind begins to speculate:
- Were Catholic lives busier than Lutheran or Anglican lives and so they couldn’t make time for this?
- Do Catholics remain fearful to engage too closely with “those” other Christians?
- Are Catholics insulated from other Christians and don’t feel a need for serious engagement?
- Are Catholics unaware of the monumental changes brought about through 50 years of ecumenical dialogues and agreements?
- Do Catholics still believe the RC Church is the only true church, making ecumenical dialogue unnecessary?
- Are Catholics overly obedient to papal authority and may fear losing this if engaging in ecumenical conversations?
- Have Catholics inherited the historical disdain for Protestants through an ecclesial gene pool stretching five centuries now?
I’m still pondering whether this was a huge missed opportunity on the Catholic side, an ecclesial miscarriage of sorts, or if we are still pregnant with potential dialogue and conversation. The group that gathered decided to give the Catholics the benefit of the doubt and is opting for the latter. The group is currently preparing a letter addressed to the local Catholic parish community, indicating how much their voice and participation was missed and could we please talk.
By way of closing the 5-week Lenten study we shared, even if only with less than a handful of Catholics, we did mark Good Friday together with a joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican worship service. It seemed appropriate to come to the cross of Christ in contrition and humility. Lord, O Lord, have mercy.
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