The True Greatness of a Friend Who Loved Christian Ecumenism Deeply

imagesMy good friend Jeff Gros (1938-2013) moved to Chicago in 2011. He became an adjunct professor at Catholic Theological Union and Dean of the Institute for Catholic Ecumenical Leadership. He also became a consultant to the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago, led at that time by another good friend, Sister Joan McGuire, O.P. (I came to know Sister Joan via my work in ecumenism with the archdiocese and the Cardinal George dialogue in March of 2011.) At the time Jeff moved to Chicago he lived across the street from Catholic Theological Union and from this place introduced me to many of his Catholic friends. When Jeff moved he did not know that he would very soon be diagnosed with a potentially fatal cancer. He fought the disease with courage and accepted it prayerfully with profound grace.

Tributes of all sorts have appeared in honor of Jeffrey Gros since his passing on August 12. America, a prominent Catholic magazine, included a wonderful tribute to Jeff, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, in their August 14 issue. Baptist ecumenist Steven R. Harmon gave a short tribute to Jeff on a blog of August 13. Condolences were expressed by the World Council of Churches at their site on August 13. The much respected Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research wrote of his passing at their site as well. An online search will reveal many similar entries and will also guide you to a discovery of a number of Jeff’s articles and previous public achievements.

If ever a person fit my personal beatitude – “Blessed are the balanced” – it was Jeff Gros. He demonstrated, again and again, how important this quality is if one would pursue ecumenism deeply. Jeff also learned to engage in deep listening thus he was generous with everyone he met. He was given a superior intellect by his Lord and he used it gracefully, something that is uncommonly rare. Jeff did not argue for the sake of arguing yet he could handle every argument I ever considered in his presence. He was a natural teacher and trained educator but he was, by grace and spiritual formation, a man of love who sought the good of others above his own good. From the first moment of our relationship he respected my views and received me as his peer even though he was vastly more skilled and able as an ecumenist than I will ever be in two lifetimes!

As per Jeff’s wishes a portion of William Faulkner’s acceptance speech given at the awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1950 was read at his vigil as a memory/appreciation. Faulkner is referring to the “writer” in this speech. In Jeff’s life the writer was the Christian “ecumenist.” This will give you some idea of how he thought about his calling.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

As Faulkner suggests in this speech the best writers must learn to appreciate the perspective of others. Jeff clearly aimed to do this in everything he did. He modeled this and the tributes given by his vast array of friends at his funeral attested to this over and over again.

Over the last months of his life Jeff wrote a kind of personal memoir about his life and final sufferings. I hope to somehow get this material. Excerpts were read at his service but one that struck me deeply referenced how he faced his own suffering and death. He wrote about how he felt about facing trials and suffering, “I have been richly blessed for which I remain grateful.” His words reflected an attitude of deep trust and daily hope. He knew Jesus had been consistently faithful to him over the course of his life and he knew nothing would change this in his final days. He never once questioned God’s wisdom and providence and in fact repeatedly encouraged the rest of us to not doubt but to love more.

 

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