Ecumenism is everybody’s responsibility. That was the message shared by two nationally-renown speakers at the annual Prayer for Christian Unity, held Jan. 23 this year at St. Mary’s Basilica.
Fr. John Crossin, OSFS, and the Rev. Lowell Almen from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, both members of the U.S. Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, each reflected on the ecumenical progress that has been made. The presentations served as the homily for the annual prayer service which is sponsored by the Arizona Faith Network. The theme this year was “Toward Greater Communion: Reflecting on the Reformation after 500 years,” ahead of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Representatives from multiple denominations led different parts of the service, with Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares reading one of the passages and Bishop John S. Pazak of the Byzantine Eparchy of Phoenix proclaiming the Gospel.
In his presentation, Almen, who had served as the ELCA’s secretary for 19 years, discussed the history and development behind the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” signed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, noting that it was neither a new confessional statement nor a compromise document.
“On the day of the declaration’s signing, Pope John Paul II was reciting his Angelus prayer at noon before a large crowd in St. Peter’s Square. In his comments, he announced that ‘a very important event’ was taking place that day in Augsburg, Germany. He described the event as a milestone on the difficult path to re-establishing unity among Christians,’” Almen said.
He then cautioned his listeners to not think the work of ecumenism should be limited to the experts. While that may be true for theological ecumenism, he noted there are other types of ecumenism that people in the pews can take part in: spiritual and social.
Spiritual ecumenism, he said, is where “we are willing to take time to pray together and to study together and to discover ways in which certain memories that have divided us over the years may be healed with the guidance of God’s spirit.” As an example of social ecumenism, he recalled how his parishioners at a church he pastored in Colorado Springs would volunteer at Catholic Charities every Friday to help prepare and serve a meal for the hungry.
“When you leave here don’t think you’re leaving here absolutely scot-free. You have ecumenical obligations when you leave this room, because Jesus places that obligation on our shoulders,” he said.
Fr. Crossin, who currently serves as executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, discussed the recent document “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist” put forth by both the USCCB and the ELCA that summarizes the work of the 50-year dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics.
“The most important thing we do is to pray for and with one another. These statements arose from a prayerful context — they must be read or studied appropriately in the context of your own personal or communal prayer,” he said.
Fr. Crossin observed that in the last 50 years, he’s seen Catholics start value Scripture more while Lutherans have started to value Eucharist more.
“When I was a boy we had a bible, and it was in a drawer. It had a family tree, but nobody ever read it. Nowadays Catholics want to talk to you about the sermon and how biblical it was, what they got out of reading the readings, so there’s been this shift in Catholicism toward reading the Bible. And there’s been shifts going on in Lutheranism toward Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. Not every quarter, not every month, but every Sunday,” he said. “I can’t help but believe that this interchange is an effect of the Holy spirit in some way.”
Fr. Crossin pointed to the cover of the document depicting Jesus walking with His disciples on the road to Emmaus.
“Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we continue to grow closer together only if we listen to Jesus,” he said. “When He was explaining the Scriptures to them and their hearts were burning as they walked along the way. And when did they recognize Him? In the breaking of the bread.”
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and the Rev. Stephen Talmage, bishop of the ELCA’s Grand Canyon Synod, led the gathering in the closing prayer.
“We’ve been intentional to call it commemoration, but not a celebration, because we don’t celebrate divorce or schism in the family,” Talmage later told The Catholic Sun. “The main thing was to pray together, fellowship together and to receive current information on the status of the relationship today.”
Fr. Michael Diskin, vice-chancellor for the diocese and president of the Arizona Faith Network, said the event was “particularly significant” because it provided an “opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the Catholic Church and those that developed from the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.”
“While significant obstacles remain before there can be a restoration of full communion, it was very affirming to be reminded or learn of the progress that has been made and to look ahead with hope to a future that is rooted in mutual respect and love rather than in distrust and condemnation,” he said.
Janie Schindler, an 83-year-old parishioner at Grace Lutheran Church, recounted how she’s had Catholic friends all her life. “Spiritual maturity brings spiritual unity,” she said.
Teresa Shine, a parishioner of St. Maria Goretti in Scottsdale, sat with Schindler at the reception and said it was heartwarming to realize the dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics has been going on for so long.
“Being here today made it more tangible for me, which includes hope for unity,” she said.