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  • January 22, 2008


    I thought that in this new year I would vary my posts a bit.
    What follows is a short article on ecumenism.

    I would like to dedicate this article to Archbishop Vsevolod, who
    is quoted at the beginning. He died in December after a struggle with cancer.
    He was a great ecumenist.

    The Fear Factor—And Spiritual Growth[1]

    We can have a ‘fear of ecumenism’. Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop Vsevolod of Scopelos remarks in one of his essays that he found on entering the ecumenical movement that fear is the major obstacle to Christian Unity. The thought of the emerging unity—formal and informal–among Christian traditions can be very disconcerting.

    Fears can originate in our own life history.

    Growing up Catholic in Philadelphia in the ‘50s, I developed a deeply grounded faith. I knew the Baltimore Catechism by heart.

    We did not enter Protestant churches and Protestants did not enter ours. We might play sports together and even work together but praying together was forbidden!

    The church began to change when I was in High School in the ‘60’s.

    In those days, our pastor began to collaborate with the Lutheran congregation across the street. Among other things, they worked together on a ‘Summer Bible School’.

    My present full-time work with the Consortium is a direct result of this ‘lowering of the walls of hostility’ at the Second Vatican Council [1962-65].

    As we get to know good people of other Christian traditions, their deep faith can impress us and raise fears within us at the same time. The fear is that our friendships with their conversations and dialogues will ‘shake our faith’ or deepen it. Either will mean change.

    Deep down we are very emotional people. Years ago my colleague Sister Rita, the Academic Dean of DeSales School of Theology, used to say: ‘There is a good reason and the real reason’. The good reason for my discomfort might be rational; the real reason is often a deep emotional attachment to history, to persons and to places.

    We have deep attachments that can sometimes be threatened by serious conversations. Conversations might cause our anchors to move. They might push all of us out of our ‘comfort zones of consolation and happy memories’.

    We also might fear that we will embarrass ourselves by not knowing enough about our own faith. Let me note–after ten years in ecumenical work—that I haven’t embarrassed myself any more than I do normally. Most of my fears have been groundless.

    The people I’ve dealt with in ecumenical conversation have been outstanding.

    Dick Abbot, an Episcopal layman, was the seventh executive director of the Consortium. For many years previously, he had served with the World Bank. From him, I learned that to be successful ecumenists must proceed with perseverance, joy and hard work.

    My ecumenical conversations have forced me to go deeper in my faith in ways that I did not expect. They really have been an addition not a subtraction.

    My real ecumenical fear is fear of spiritual growth. It is at the root of all these other fears.

    Ecumenical dialogue has pushed me ever so gently toward spiritual maturity. My conversation partners expect me to love deeply and not live in fear.

    [1] The original version of this essay appeared as a column for Catholic News Service.