Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares remembers growing up in East Texas and hearing that the reason Catholic priests wore cassocks was to disguise their cloven hooves.
Such was the all-too-common prejudice of that era, a prejudice that cut both ways.
Rosemary Dougherty, who grew up in Carbondale, Pa., has vivid memories of Catholics and Protestants crossing the streets to avoid contact with one another.
Flash forward to 2014, to the Salvation Army KROC Center in South Phoenix. There, inside a gymnasium with 150 Catholics and Protestants, Bishop Nevares knelt with his eyes closed, singing the praises of God.
For the auxiliary bishop of Phoenix, known as a bridge-builder, the moment highlighted the latest of his ecumenical efforts.
While still in Texas, Bishop Nevares worked alongside leaders of these separated brethren, as they are known in Second Vatican Council parlance, combining efforts to serve the poor. In Phoenix, he served as the president of the Arizona Ecumenical Council during 2012-2013.
Since last December, Bishop Nevares has been part of a burgeoning local undertaking known as the John 17 Movement, which quickly sprang from a dinner at Wayne Rich’s home in 2013.
Rich, the former president of the board at Word of Grace Church in Mesa, embraced the Catholic faith in 2008. His former pastor, Gary Kinnaman, remains a close friend.
“When I broke the news to him, he was very generous and took an ecumenical stance about it,” Rich said. “Gary has always been naturally a connector, getting leaders together to strengthen the body of Christ.”
That’s exactly what happened at the dinner. Kinnaman invited Joe Tosini, a local pastor, to join them.
“We had a wonderful sharing in the Holy Spirit and in fellowship,” Bishop Nevares said. “At the end I felt moved to ask, ‘Can we not just gather to pray? We are all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ and we believe in one God and Father.’” It turned out to be a pivotal juncture for separated brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Can we not just gather to pray? We are all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ and we believe in one God and Father.”
“We felt anointed, gifted and commissioned to continue this unity in the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Nevares said. “The word that came to us was from John 17.”
That’s the verse where Jesus prays, “May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in Me and I am in You.” The leaders had their marching orders.
Last February, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix and Giovanni Traetino — an Evangelical pastor and friend of Pope Francis, no less — spoke at a luncheon at Living Streams Church in Phoenix.
Both Bishop Olmsted and Bishop Nevares attended prayer gatherings at Living Streams the following day in which a letter from Pope Francis that encouraged efforts toward building Christian unity was read.
The letter, Bishop Nevares said, noted that the Holy Father was “very happy to see that there was a unity in the Holy Spirit. He gave us his apostolic blessing to continue this work.”
The local effort toward building bridges with other Christians, Bishop Nevares said, has been fruitful.
“Not one of us is foolish enough to think that it’s going to be easy to bridge a lot of these past hurts and past suspicions and past animosity between groups,” Bishop Nevares said. Still, the hope is that that Christians of various denominations can continue to come together for prayer.
At the Nov. 2 prayer event at the Salvation Army, leaders of the John 17 Movement, including Kinnaman and Tosini, shared their thoughts on the effort to bring Christians together to pray.
Chris Thyberg spoke of his strict upbringing in an Evangelical family.
“I loved my parents dearly but they were sure all Catholics needed to be saved and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or they weren’t going to go where were going,” Thyberg said.
In college, he discovered the beauty of liturgy through the Episcopal Church. “Suddenly I knew my brothers and sisters in the Catholic and Orthodox Church, that we were on the path together. It wasn’t who is in and who is out. If you are going to Jesus, we are going together.”
Plans are underway for more ecumenical gatherings in January and March as part of the lead-up to a Pentecost prayer service May 23 at the Phoenix Convention Center.