Rome: Day Four — More Discussions on Ecumenism

After our time at the PCPCU at the Vatican our small group walked to the Angelicum for the second time in two days. Here we had a small lunch in the college and then a wonderful meeting with Fr. Frederick M Bliss, S.M. IMG_3112Fr. Bliss teaches courses on ecumenism at the Angelicum. His special interest is the theology and history of ecumenism. He is veteran of these conversations and has much more than an academic interest, though he is a very capable academic.

He is also the author of several books, including:

Understanding Reception: A Backdrop to Its Ecumenical Use (1993)

Anglicans in Rome: A History (2006)

Catholic and Ecumenical: History and Hope (1999)

51K7hrTNM1L._AA160_Fr. Bliss is deeply engaged in ecumenical teaching, writing and dialog. He is a compassionate and warm Christian brother who engaged with our team in a kind spirit with a keen mind. It was a delight to spend about ninety minutes with him. He appropriately sees real ecumenism as “a dialog of spiritual life in action.”

Fr. Bliss was apt to point out that the patristic writers were simply being the church thus they did not write a lot of formal doctrine about the church. Until 1962 the Roman Catholic Church had held an exclusive view of itself for centuries Only one model of ecumenism was offered to non-Catholics: “Return home!” Vatican II considered this “older model” and clearly rejected it.

IMG_3085 Please read again what Fr. Bliss said to us in this observation above. I sometimes grow very frustrated with a few conservative Catholics who insist that nothing was changed at Vatican II in regards to how Rome responds to non-Catholics. The only path to unity is for us to “return” to Rome, so they say over and over to me. This has led to a lot of popular apologetics on both sides of a modern debate about the church. This has often not helped us pursue unity in the right way. Evangelical apologists insist that Rome never changes so the Catholic Church of the 16th century is the same as the church down to this day. Some conservative Catholics make the exact same mistake in their zeal to tell everyone else that they are outside the true church. Fr. Bliss said the truth is that Vatican II taught that there are elements of the church outside Roman Catholicism, i.e. elements that are beyond the bounds of Rome in some very profound sense. If this is true then the Catholic Church had no option but to become serious about ecumenism. This has happened since Vatican II whether Catholics and evangelicals realize it or not.

Here is the proper way to understand this oft misunderstood disagreement. Fr. Bliss said, “Rome believes that the church really subsists in the Roman Catholic Church but there is an ecclesial reality beyond the Roman Catholic Church.” This is what I believe is too easily missed by the extremes in the current effort to grasp ecumenism and then move forward in faith, hope and love. This also means that ecumenism is an “imperative,” not an option. This ecumenism is best advanced “cold face” (an expression I did not understand at first). Fr. Bliss clarified this by saying that it is advanced first “at the grass roots.” Ah, I got this. It is advanced in what I’ve called missional-ecumenism.

But how do we do this? We get to know one another by name. Pastors and priests engage in real friendship. They learn to celebrate things like “Feast Days” and other occasions where they can fellowship without coming to the Eucharist. He noted that official documents play a role here as well. We talked several times in these dialogs about the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by Lutherans and Catholics in 1999. (I wish more people would read this document and stop talking about the past without a working knowledge of the present and what has been said in ecumenical contexts by respective church bodies.)

Fr. Bliss concluded his time with us by advising we best advance ecumenism when we know our own identity better. When this happens we avoid a theological mish-mash on the one hand and establish a solid self-identity on the other. If we avoid mish-mash and establish a solid sense of ourselves we then can relate to one another. John Green, a Catholic member of our team, concluded: “We’re seeking to find our common roots together.” I totally agree.

IMG_3119 Following our time at the Angelicum we pressed on and walked quickly to another group meeting, this time with Protestant friends. David and Margie Richardson live at the Anglican Center in Rome where David directs the mission.  David is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official representative to the Holy See. David was previously the dean of the diocese of Melbourne. His task in Rome is to build relationships (there is that lovely word again) with Vatican officials and departments. His role is also to interpret Anglican thinking and practice to Catholics and then to reflect their response and thinking back to Anglicans. These days that is a very demanding task to say the least. The Anglican Center says it works to “foster friendship.” This was the very reason our team went to Rome so this was another delightful stop in our journey. The Anglican Center has a small chapel, a lovely meeting room, a wonderful library and places to gather and study.

Later some members of our team agreed that it was here that we experienced one of the highlights of our time. At the end of a sharing time we went into the chapel and David led us in a time of Lenten readings and prayers. We found what I believe we can always find if we are willing to listen and respond in love. We may not be one in the Eucharist but we can pray and read Scripture together. We should do both and doing them as Catholics and Protestants under David’s leadership was an immense blessing.

IMG_3115 We asked David about the idea that Anglicans and Catholics had entered “an ecumenical winter.” He reminded us that winter always comes before springtime. He said the historical cycle has generally been in 30 year patterns. He added, “If this is winter then I think this is a very promising winter.” We were also reminded that it is good to have a journey’s end but that life is really about the journey itself. This journey is going somewhere (to Christ) but it is about being with him and his followers. We must focus  on staying together in this journey. When I get discouraged by the reaction of so many to missional-ecumenism I need to remind myself of the word David gave to us at the Anglican Center.

In the evening we attended a gathering at the Caravita Community. Our team was asked to speak for 45 minutes to a group of about 40 or so people. The group included ten students from Boston College who were in Rome on spring break. I was the last of four to speak. The first three were all missionaries with Inner CHANGE. I really felt I was privileged to simply sum up what had been told in very human stories by underscoring the theology of missional-ecumenism. The people listened well and then asked marvelous questions.

IMG_3126 I will never forget Deanna Hayes being asked if her goal in working with poor Muslims in the slums of London was really only about “converting” them to faith in Christ. She said, in essence, that the way the question was asked led her to say, “No, it is not.” She then said we do not convert anyone, God does. She then spoke of her love for a dying Muslim friend that she would see the next day when she went back to London. She spoke, with tears, of her love for this lady. She then said, “Because I love her I want her to know the love of Jesus. I do talk about his love and salvation because I love my friend. I leave to God what he will do with the message.” I told the group that I teach evangelism and I felt her answer was, contextually understood, one of the finest responses I had ever heard on a complex issue that we insist on making too easy. 

Don’t you honestly get the feeling that people want to pin you down to a “Yes, this is my answer” kind of response? The real answer is always a “Yes, but . . .” response. I felt Deanna marvelously answered a ticking time-bomb sort of question with a “Yes, but . . .” kind of response. With the expression of her love and compassion it had profound integrity. I was as moved by this moment as almost any in Rome.

I headed back to Piazza Farnese after the longest day I had in Rome. I was ready to crash but I had not eaten dinner. Italians eat every meal several hours later than Americans. I did not adjust to this well but I saw, night after night, how easy-going Italian lifestyles allow people to enjoy one another without being in an American rush. I like that a lot. I watched how people interacted and engaged in ways that we Americans would find a bit too personal. For me it all felt very good. And the food was very good.

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