Miscarried or Still Pregnant?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  3. 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.
  4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  5. 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.

Prairie Encounters

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A Time of Transition

You did not choose me but I chose you
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
 fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you
whatever you ask him in my name.
I am giving you these commands
so that you may love one another.
(John 15:16-17)

Many years ago I attended the beautiful celebration of a woman religious taking her final vows.  In his homily the presiding Bishop spoke about the many twists and turns our life path can take; yet God will not rest until we have reached the place prepared for us. Well, God has taken me on quite a journey in life, especially the journey of ecclesial ministry in the past 22+ years.

At various times in those same years I was compelled to step back and take stock, in order to listen intently to the promptings of the Holy Spirit both within my own heart and in the faith community as per my perceived sense of priestly vocation, a vocation not recognized by our beloved Roman Catholic Church. While I have never felt the urge to turn this experience of priestly call into a political cause, I have  been acutely aware of the controversial nature of such a claim. For this reason I have continuously strived to engage discernment with the utmost discretion and integrity, seeking direction through Scripture-based prayer and study, through mentoring conversations with wise and trusted individuals, Roman Catholic and otherwise, ordained and lay, as well as feedback from those on the receiving end of my ministry activities.

I have taken seriously the requirement to make important decisions with an informed conscience, and, I would add, “in community.” While such discernment is deeply personal, it is by no means private. As a baptized member of the Body of Christ, the Church, and as a recognized leader, teacher and mentor in that church, I live and exercise ministry in interdependence and accountability to all the members of Christ’s community of believers. It is my commitment to integrity and accountability that prompts this letter.

Acknowledging a call to priesthood is not an easy matter for a Catholic woman, as the Roman Catholic Church does not deem itself authorized by Christ to ordain women to the priesthood. I have had to face serious obstacles both outside and inside myself. Maybe the fact that I am soon turning sixty is giving a new urgency to the desire to respond more fully to God’s promptings, promptings that have been there for many years and persistently keep circling back into the affective, spiritual and ministerial orbits of my life. The promptings have defied my own resistance, ecclesial boundaries and current church teachings, even while they have been recognized and affirmed by many in the faith community. They have taken me into the sweetest, most intense and most beautiful spiritual and ministerial experiences, as well into the most challenging, most painful and most demanding intimacy with God. The promptings have tenaciously survived my own objections as well as the Church’s dismissal of the same. There is an authenticating power in having lived with this call for more than two decades. I have finally come to realize that this is so because inner promptings of this nature most likely have their origin in God’s dream, a dream that promises fullness of life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

In order to facilitate my response to God I have recently begun the process of becoming a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, where I will soon begin a formal discernment on priestly ordination. Already I am being warmly welcomed in this new ecclesial home, a home which, while possessing a distinct and unique ethos, considers itself an integral part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, Christ’s body on earth.

This decision was not taken lightly, however, nor is it motivated by a desire to attack or criticize the Roman Catholic Church. “Mother Church” will always be the womb in which both my faith and my priestly calling were nurtured and grew in maturity and depth. As Pope Francis says in his Encyclical The Joy of the Gospel in the section on Ecumenism: “We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (par. 244)

Even though I am motivated by the desire to choose life there is nevertheless profound grief. Christ may not be divided but the institutional reality of his Church is. While ecumenical dialogue has reaped genuine fruits of profound respect, understanding and affection among the various ecclesial expressions of the Christian faith, my transfer to the Anglican tradition is nevertheless not formally approved by the Catholic hierarchy. Even though such a rejection causes great pain, in Christ’s own resurrection we see that deep suffering does not stop God from infusing our lives with redeeming power, grace and mercy. On this promise I stake my future.

I’m quite aware that not everyone will receive this news in a positive light. I can appreciate this; at times I too struggle to understand and accept choices others make. Allow me to offer a few thoughts in response to such a struggle. First I turn again to Pope Francis’ words in The Joy of the Gospel: “How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another. It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us. … Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness.” (par. 246)

Secondly, I suggest turning to some of the Roman Catholic documents on ecumenism, esp. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That All May Be One) as well as some of the major agreements from the Anglican—Roman Catholic Dialogues of the past 40 years. These agreements show clearly our shared theology on the Eucharist, substantial mutual recognition of one another’s gifts and the acknowledgement of the action of God’s grace and mercy in both our traditions. Even if my decision stirs disagreement and struggle, can we nevertheless join in increased prayer for the unity of Christians?

While this may be difficult to comprehend, I do not feel I am “leaving.” On the contrary, I take the gifts and graces of my Catholic faith with me, desiring deeply to enrich my new ecclesial home with them. For I wish nothing more than that my personal ecclesial and ministerial journey may serve the quest for Christian Unity in the Body of Christ, a unity so fervently prayed for by Jesus on the final night of his earthly life.

I sincerely wish to thank all who have entrusted various ministries to me over the past 22+ years, in particular the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the people, staff and clergy, together with its past and current Bishops, of the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina. You have never ceased to affirm the gifts and talents God has given me. Thank you for your trust, encouragement and friendship. With gratitude and affection I take you all with me in my prayers, my heart and my future ministry.

For I am confident in this very thing,
that the one who has begun a good work in you,
will bring it to completion
until the day of Christ Jesus.
Phil. 1:6

(While I share the above freely and publicly,  I have felt strongly about living my experience of priestly call in non-political ways in the church, and I continue to feel this way. Let us grace one another’s paths with mutual respect and affection. Rest assured that my participation in the Catholic conversation on the ordination of women is not ending, merely changing. United in prayer God’s will be done.)

For follow-up reflections pertaining to my experience of this denominational transition, see the subsequent blog entries:

Transition Continued

Transition: The Inside Story

Transition: The Outside Story

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this to the very end. I ask for your prayers as I move through this time of transition. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”