BY SUSAN J. KAY
Lorraine, a member of the Saint Margaret Catholic Parish choir of Lowell, Massachusetts, beamed with delight as she told her exciting news. Her choir decided to participate with the choir of Christ Church United, in nearby Dracut, for an Advent concert. Her choir director was the organist and music minister for both churches. Without more and various voices, he knew that each parish would have to cancel their planned Advent concerts. He suggested combining the choirs and offered to do the concerts in each parish. The choir members and parishes responded enthusiastically to the proposal.
Lorraine invited folks to attend either concert — one on an evening in the CCU church and one a week later in the afternoon on a Sunday in Saint Margaret Church. She reported that the choirs not only learned a new choral piece, but they also met new people and had new experiences. The pastors in each church welcomed the groups, encouraged their work, and expressed gratitude. Practicing in each church building, Lorraine noted the differences and similarities of the liturgical environment.
The concerts were well received, and the audiences in each parish church were diverse. Encountering other Christians in a common endeavor “enforced for (her) the idea that we are one.” Lorraine felt that “this wonderful experience made us happy in our souls.”
Combining choirs from different Christian denominations does not sound like a particularly unusual event. Catholics and other Christians appear comfortable with the term ecumenical; however, less than 50 years ago, this event would have been rare, maybe even “experimental.”
Ecumenism’s Roots as a Catholic Movement
In the 1960s something happened that affected a positive movement among Catholics and other Christians who had been divided and at odds with one another for almost 500 years.
Pope St. John XXIII announced on January 25, 1959, at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (celebrated in the United States since 1908), that he was calling an ecumenical council. Ecumenical, used in this instance, means that all the bishops, abbots, heads of religious congregations from around the world, and others whom the pope invited, would meet in Rome.
Ecumenical councils had been called in the past to deal with crises or to correct errors in doctrine. There were no such issues in 1959. The pope responded to questions as to why he was calling the council by saying that a spiritual renewal of the Church and outreach to separated Christian churches were part of his vision and reasons to convene. In 1960 the pope created the Secretariat for Christian Unity, making it one of the preparatory commissions for the Second Vatican Council, thus beginning the Catholic Church’s formal commitment to the ecumenical movement. This movement was already established (World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh, 1910) among many Christian churches. This new Catholic action sent a strong signal of friendship to other Christians.
“Dialogue” is the engine of ecumenism. No longer strangers or “enemies” to one another, Christians enter conversation, talking with and listening to one another. Dialogue does not sound foreign to modern ears, but it was revolutionary among Catholics. Dialogue was an element of aggiornamento — an expression of Pope St. John XXIII, roughly translated as “updating.” The word dialogue then appeared in Council documents, especially those concerning ecumenism — a word that had never been used in Church documents before. It became the word that embodied the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and it has become the word that speaks to Christians today.
Magisterial Teaching on Ecumenism
Ecumenism, as the Christian community has come to understand, means to reach out in love and hope as Christians to one another in all walks of life, despite whatever divisions have risen among us — that we may make the Gospel of Jesus Christ known in the world. The Second Vatican Council affirmed the work of ecumenism through the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that all who are baptized in the name of the Trinity and through the pouring of water are baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ and “with good reason are accepted as brothers and sisters by the children of the Catholic Church” (CCC, 1271). The ecumenical movement shares Jesus’ prayer for unity — “that all may be one” — and his hope that it will become a reality.
Thus Christians must take ecumenical work seriously. Catechists must understand that ecumenism is part of the work of religious education.
I recall that during a workshop, people raised questions about how one should teach the ecumenical dimension of community. Did one need to become an expert in other Christian religious doctrines? Catechists and catechetical leaders, while not opposed to the ecumenical dimension, did not feel confident about doing justice to the demand. Yet this task was not an option, then or now.
Ecumenical Formation of Pastoral Workers, authored by the USCCB, stated:
Those who carry out ministries, whether ordained or not, must be prepared with ecumenical openness and knowledge which enable their ministries to be a true resource to the communities they serve in the quest for unity, which is the great vision and hope of the Church in our time. It is the responsibility of those in diocesan and parish catechetical leadership to help catechists prepare well. Catechists have a responsibility to accept the offered opportunities. Knowledge is the key; curiosity is the foundation. Unity is the goal.
Building Relationships is the Place to Start
Building upon first-hand experiences and relationships is a way for both individuals and parishes to become more ecumenical.
Catholics work with members of other Christian traditions; Catholic children attend school and play sports with children of different denominations. It is not unusual for parents’ faith formation to have occurred in different Christian traditions. Catechetical leaders and catechists can build on such experiences to establish a diverse and inclusive community.
Follow your local bishop. The bishop of the diocese has the first responsibility to lead others in the ecumenical experience. He creates opportunities for working for peace and justice and shared prayer, especially during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Catechetical leaders must invite and encourage catechists to participate, as far as they are able, in such diocesan events. Leaders should plan to take catechists to where the bishop is. If that’s not possible, ask town parishes to gather with local pastors and communities to celebrate together in prayer.
Interfaith marriages and families are valuable. They are more common than we may think. Adults staying true to their beliefs while supporting their spouse’s faith journey can be yeast in the Christian community. Asking interfaith couples and families to share their advice on what would enrich their lives is key. Encouraged with their help, implementing their suggestions will enhance everyone’s faith. Amy, a Catholic parish youth minister who is married to a Lutheran, invited all Christian youth ministers in her town to plan a “pilgrimage” through the town, stopping in each church along the way on Good Friday. After much planning and education, this ecumenical group, which included pastors in the planning and the execution, walked through the town in silence or singing hymns. Fasting, visiting churches, praying, and witnessing for peace and justice, participants learned how each parish was addressing issues of hunger or violence in the town or beyond. Their shared witness was full of grace.
Considering Amy’s experience, it is important to note that pastors rightly take the lead in creating ecumenical awareness in the parish. This is their privilege and responsibility while encouraging and aiding all parish ministers to fulfill their ecumenical mandate. As a catechist or catechetical leader, never hesitate to ask for your pastor’s assistance and guidance.
Connect with another Christian church. Partnering with another Christian parish creates a dialogical community, which makes it easier to plan for an ecumenical experience. The following suggestions — assuming a Christian parish or community as partner — might stimulate other ideas. The liturgical calendar offers myriad opportunities.
Ideas for Implementation
Advent: Plan a Taizé prayer service. Invite the local community college or university. This ecumenical prayer — chant, Scripture, candlelight, and silence — is simple, lovely, and easy to plan.
Lent: Collect food for the local food bank or shelter, collect money for disaster relief, walk for peace during Holy Week, or meet to talk about the Lenten experience.
Easter: Meet for a sunrise celebration of prayer, such as the Liturgy of the Hours, or similar devotion. Share coffee, tea, and Easter goodies. Include all age groups.
Pentecost: Create a shared art and environment planning committee. Decorate the doors of each church so they mirror one another; ring the church bells at the same time; let the neighborhood know that the Christian Church is celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles by hosting an “open house” in each parish, inviting anyone to “come and see.”
Ordinary time: Address the ordinary lives of the community. Catechetical leaders and catechists take the lead, perhaps seeking the assistance of diocesan catechetical offices. We share many concerns: affordable housing, protection of the environment, concern for refugees and immigrants. All of these are topics for Christian education, conversation, and action. Invite all interested people.
Share leadership resources: Invite some members of the partnering church to observe a parish meeting, such as a pastoral council meeting or a catechetical advisory committee. At the Second Vatican Council, periti were members of Protestant churches who sat in on the meetings, listening and observing.
Connect over children’s programming: Visit the other church; ask that pastor to speak with children and families. Invite your pastor to come along. Perhaps the Sunday School teacher might plan a lesson with a Catholic catechist. Learn about each other’s textbooks. Or co-sponsor a Vacation Bible School in the summer.
Festivals: Food — of all kinds — unites people. Create occasions around the seasons to celebrate and share food.
Patronize the arts: Rely upon local artists. Visual arts, drama, poetry, essays, music, dance, and choral work offer balm for hearts and spirits as well as draw hearts and spirits to unexpected places where challenging questions arise and generate deep answers.
Jesus’ prayer that “all may be one” might find reality through an experience that results in true conversion. Let us rely on his direction and continue to pray with Christ, so that, in Lorraine’s words, we might be made “happy in our souls.”
SUSAN J. KAY, M.Ed, is a faculty member for the Masters in Ministry Program, St. John’s Seminary, Archdiocese of Boston. She’s also a member of the Archdiocese of Boston Ecumenical and Interreligious Council, and a religious education publishing consultant with William H. Sadlier Inc.
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, March 2018.
Image credit: RENATA SEDMAKOVA/ SHUTTERSTOCK