Thursday, March 10, was the day I most looked forward to in Rome. I was not disappointed. Our itinerary included a visit with two leaders in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) in the Vatican. Our gracious hosts were Fr. Gosbert Byamungu and Fr. Juan Usma Gomez. Today I will describe this meeting and then tomorrow tell about the second part of a very busy Day Four. The PCPCU is very closely linked with the work of Vatican Council II and Pope John XXIII’s desire that the Catholic Church become engaged in the modern ecumenical movement. Even before Vatican Council II Pope John XXIII established, on June 5, 1960, a secretariat for promoting Christian unity. This was, in actuality, a “preparatory commission” for the forthcoming global council. This was the first time the Catholic Church had ever officially engaged with the worldwide ecumenical movement. Knowing this history I entered the building with a deep sense of appreciation that a little more than fifty years ago there was no such place for the conversation we were about to have as Catholics and Protestants in Vatican City. This sense of history and the work that has gone on in this place, especially in recent years under the recently retired leader, Cardinal Walter Kasper, moved me very profoundly.
By 1963 the Secretariat would be made up of two sections, one dealing with the Orthodox Church and the ancient Oriental Churches and the other with Western Churches and communities who are traditionally called Protestant. When Vatican II had ended Pope Paul VI would conform the Secretariat for this office by appointing Cardinal Bea. He died in 1968. Cardinal Johannes Willebrands would follow him and serve for twenty years until his retirement, becoming one of the world’s most respect ecumenical leaders. Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy was then named President. In June of 1988 Pope John Paul II, the greatest ecumenical pope of modern history, would issue Pastor Bonus, an Apostolic Constitution. In this document he changed the Secretariat into the Pontifical Council, giving it even greater recognition and importance. This new designation took place on my birthday, March 1, 1989. Again, I found this very interesting.
As I reflected on all of this history I thought back to March 1, 1989. I realize again that there was no way I even noticed this history at that time. I was so far removed from interest in ecumenism that I even if I had read about this event it would have meant nothing to me. I am reminded, day-by-day, that we are all on a journey and God’s grace leads us where we sometimes do not plan to go to do what we never imagined ourselves doing. If we live by faith the journey is filled with twists and turns that lead us deeper and deeper into the unity of Christ’s Spirit given to his church.
The PCPCU serves a double role. It is entrusted with the promotion of “an authentic ecumenical spirit according to the conciliar decree Unitatis redintegratio.” The PCPCU has published a directory that seeks to guide Catholics in the task of being serious ecumenical partners. The goal is not only to guide the Catholic Church but to put it in service and mission with all churches and ecclesial communities. At the same time the PCPCU aims to develop dialog and collaboration with other churches and world communions.
Over the course of my own journey into ecumenism I not only became aware of the PCPCU but began to read its various documents as well as the books of some of its spokespersons, especially those of Cardinals Bea, Willebrands, Cassidy and Kasper. I so wished I could meet Cardinal Kasper but he is retired now and was not in Rome. There are few Catholic leaders that I admire more than Walter Kaspers!
I was reminded, as I awoke on March 10, of just how much this commitment to ecumenism meant to the global catholic church. I was also reminded that this commitment comes with a price. Cardinal Kaspers is hated (that is not too strong a word) by some Catholic conservatives. They see him as a “great compromiser” of the Roman Catholic Church. Bloggers, web sites and popular lay tracts abound with attacks on the character, leadership and writing of this Christian gentleman. When I browsed the web I came across the photo that you see to the right, labeled : “No Kasper.” It is a sad, simple reminder that humbly following Jesus into his prayer for unity does not please some of Christ’s flock. It also reminds all of us that we are called to love the whole church, the people of God, even those who do not care for our expression of that love.
The meeting I enjoyed was arranged by our team leader Nate Bacon. He had met Fr. Gosbert in 2008-9 when he was in Rome on sabbatical. We each shared our story with Fr. Gosbert and Fr. Juan Usma. They listened with great interest and eager response. Nate Bacon told of how Isaiah 58 had gripped him with a passion to reach the poor. I heard my friends talk about how gang members in San Francisco and Oakland wanted to see the reality of Christians treating one another with love and respect. This became important to the witness of Inner CHANGE in the urban context. Broken people wanted to see a broken church acting like the body of Christ with one another.
Fr. Gosbert Byamungu is from Tanzania. He was born into a first generation Christian home and raised in the Catholic Church. He said, “Being a Christian was being somebody in my childhood experience.” He even referred to songs he learned that were sung in order to mock the Lutherans! (I am glad to know that Catholic leaders come from backgrounds similar to my own in terms of being taught to despise their opposites within the church.) But Fr. Gosbert said that as a young man he thought, “Some of these Lutherans are good people and some of the Catholics I know are not. It seemed very odd to me.” He later studied in Rome and then returned to Tanzania. He pastored refugees from Rwanda, serving the genuinely poor. He referred to these as, “The best days of my life.” Until those years among the poor the God of the Bible was more of a conceptual God but when he met him in the poor his life was powerfully transformed. Our team resonated deeply with this story.
As his ministry developed the bishop wanted to send him to Geneva to work with the World Council of Churches. He asked for three days to pray about this post. During these days he experienced a moment of divine grace and the Lord sent a figure of Abraham to him who said, “Get thee out!” He was to leave and let go of the work he so loved in Africa. But Geneva was not going to be easy. The students there were very anti-God and the culture was so challenging. He prayed, “What have I done to deserve this?” Eventually he began to learn that what we all really needed was to know one another in personal relationships. (Readers of my book know this is my central thesis!)
Over time the truths that moved Fr. Gosbert were those that surrounded Christian unity. He concluded that there was “no future unless Christians come together.” He asked, “How we can work together on the ground? How can we liberate God’s children?” He noted that “Jesus was sent for all of God’s children.” So he became a real ecumenist.
As we discussed evangelical Protestants and Catholics the conversation became even warmer and more direct. Here Fr. Gosbert assured us that ecumenism was working wonderfully. It is not happening in major agreements, though there have been some of these, but in relationships. This, of course, is my simple thesis in Your Church Is Too Small. Fr. Gosbert is a missional-ecumenist.
I was reminded, as I listened further, that “Christian structures do not always know what to do with this work of the Spirit.” He said, “Catholics too often hold evangelicals at a distance but this should not be. Even bishops do not know evangelicals personally and this is not right.” One of the most trenchant things that he said at this point was, “Ecumenism travels widely but through who it travels is much more important than through what!” We need to discover who we are, in relationships, even before we seriously discuss what we teach. Again, this is precisely the passion of my whole heart. I was listening with rapt attention as my brother poured out a vision that tracks so powerfully with my own. At times I forgot where I was and even forgot that he was a Catholic and I was not. I think those transcendent moments were when the Spirit might have been most active in my heart and in the room.
Fr. Juan Usma attended the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town last October, the first official Catholic representative of the Vatican at such a global event. This is a new day when this kind of contact begins. Making this happen was costly for some evangelical leaders because small Protestant groups in Spain believed that inviting a Catholic sold out their work. I can understand the problem and feel for these brothers and sisters but I am glad the committee invited Fr. Gomez. He said, “Part of our problem is that we need a new language to communicate.” This emphasis upon simple language and short statements allows us to move ahead toward unity, a move that is critically important. I deeply share this view. Sometimes we over define things and thereby destroy the work of the Spirit. This is not to say doctrinal differences do not matter but it is to place the emphasis on people, not on statements. The PCPCU only has twenty-four people working in its office so it is not a large part of the whole at the Vatican. But there is a deep sense of commitment to ecumenism here and it rings true with the witness of the Spirit and the Bible. Fr. Usma added, “I believe the salvation of souls is involved in ecumenism!” That sounds like a powerful reflection on John 17 to my mind. And if this is true, he added, “We need discernment and prudence in great abundance.” Fr. Gosbert reminded us that “If all this is the fire of the Holy Spirit (and he, like me, believes that it is) then you cannot stop it!”
One of the more interesting moments came when Fr. Juan Usma talked about being at Cape Town last October. He warned us that we must be careful about looking at the past and doing so without careful contextualizing in the process. He also noted that Lausanne did not see clearly enough what all of this means for the future. The great question should have been: “What next?” He felt this was not clearly answered and the evangelical images of the 1970s still linger much too deeply. I almost shouted a hearty “amen” but it would likely have been out of place. He concluded, “The way ahead is never through the past!”
I cannot tell you how heartening and powerful this time was for me and our entire group. As I walked away from the room I was amazed at what had just happened. I was more amazed that I had the privilege of being there. I am nobody when it comes to the larger issues of the church in the world but God allowed me this glimpse into the heart of some of the finest leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. I am sure I will never be the same because of these two men and the time they gave to six of us on Day Four in Rome.
My future mission is quite clear to me. I am an ecumenist who believes that missional-ecumenism is a critical emphasis on renewal for the whole church. This is not just for my circles and friends but for everyone. I was honored to see this in the Vatican and to hear with my own ears that I am not alone in my passion. Some say ecumenism has entered a “winter season” because of the recent stresses in Anglican-Catholic dialog. That may be true on one level. But a spring time is clearly at hand in the trenches where Christian and Christian are coming together to pursue the mission of Christ, especially among the poor and those who live on the margins.