How Meeting Real Christians from Different Traditions Makes a Real Difference

John ArmstrongMissional-Ecumenism, Roman Catholicism

A regular reader of this blog, who is Roman Catholic in his faith and practice, told me that he was recently at an A.A. men's retreat conducted at a Jesuit-run retreat center.  This retreat was specifically geared toward men involved in A.A. but it incorporated the Spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.IGNAT002 Because of this Catholic connection the retreat included Catholic prayers such as the angelus, the rosary, the daily and Sunday mass, morning prayers, as well as evening eucharistic adoration and benediction. In such settings no one is forced to participate in these spiritual practices that are specifically Catholic but all are invited to participate to whatever degree they choose to do so. What follows is an account by the writer (edited by me) of the letter, a Catholic friend, that was sent to me a few days ago.

“There was a man at the retreat from out-of-state who had traveled some distance to be there. He is a Baptist and, according to my Catholic friend, has a very close relationship with Christ. Men Inside He accepted the invitation to be the prayer leader for morning, angelus, and before-meals prayers. He also participated in the mass and received holy communion with the rest of us. I personally told him that I was very impressed at his willingness to share in these aspects of Catholic spirituality and practice.  He shared with me that even though he doesn't agree with some of the teachings of the Catholic Church he sees much value in the practices and disciplines. For this reason he had approached the rector of the retreat center in the past in order to gain permission to participate in the sacraments. Since this institution is run by a religious order, rather than by the archdiocese, he was granted permission to commune (in such settings this is not uncommon). This brother shared with my friend that his wife is a former-Catholic, but she is not ‘hostile’ toward her former church. The two of them occasionally attend mass at their local Cathedral in a large American city because they appreciate its beauty.  My new friend told me that he believes every Christian tradition can bring us closer to Jesus and that no one tradition "has the final corner on Him.” Overall, I have to agree with him.”

Chapel “As a practicing and believing Catholic I do sincerely believe that my Catholic tradition can bring people closer to Jesus, especially when those local churches or denominations focus on other aspects of Christian tradition that are of less importance to our core faith. In these settings the teaching often seems to be more to the exclusion of Jesus than centered on him. Yet, from my own experience as both a Catholic and as a practicing evangelical, I believe he is fundamentally right. I say this because I've met true, Christ-loving Christians in so many different churches and denominations. And I've met ‘nominal and cultural Christians’ in various traditions as well, including my own.”

“My own spirit was lifted up by this brother who had so much respect, not only for his other Christian brothers in A.A., but also for our own Catholic tradition.  I'm sure some Christians on both sides of the Tiber would be scandalized by this story but I saw it as a genuine work of the Holy Spirit, and totally consistent with the spirituality of St Ignatius.”

What do I make of my friends letter? What do you make of it? I think it perfectly reflects the very missional-ecumenism that I teach and practice through the witness of ACT 3. I do not believe that we have settled our very real differences in some important areas of theology and practice. At the same time I do not believe that we are living in a sixteenth century context any longer. Some act as though we are still fighting the exact same battles in the exact same way. When they believe this way they will always continue to stoke the fires of controversy saying Catholics are not Christians or their church is heretical. Others live as if we are in a pre-Vatican II time warp. This is true of many conservative Protestants and some very conservative Catholics as well. When I really began to study Vatican II (for myself) I realized how totally wrong the ideas of some were that had been taught to me about this Council. Rome does change, in spite of the oft mentioned idea that she does not. Any careful reading of Vatican II, especially the parts on the kingdom of God, ecumenism and mission will prove this point. Because Rome does not “revise” history but functions as a “living” tradition many Protestants act as of nothing has really changed but this is a failure to understand how Rome changes.

As I noted yesterday the world has changed remarkably, shrinking in unimaginable ways through communication and travel. I welcome this change with all my heart. I think it opens an incredible door to us for the gospel. But the church has also changed, both Catholic and Protestant. (Some of the changes we see in the West are morally wrong and should be resisted accordingly since the law of God still stands true!) A new day has dawned and a new opportunity for relational unity and shared mission for Christ has dawned with it. I am committed to fostering an awakening that incorporates the prayer of Jesus in John 17.

This is why I see a story like the one related above as one more evidence of my central thesis. I believe there are thousands of similar stories, probably millions, to be heard. I know hundreds of them firsthand. I am committed to telling these stories and thus to promoting a vision that “equips leaders for unity in Christ’s mission.” Telling stories is still the best way to share vision and the work of the Spirit. This does not mean theology does not matter but it matters in a different way if you hear the story of how grace in Christ transformed another person’s life and the evidence backs this profession up clearly and powerfully.

I was once an anti-Catholic, or at least I was publicly known as such. (In my book I explain this chapter of my life clearly and openly so I will save that story.) The most important thing that changed all this for me was not reading theology, though I have read thousands of pages of Catholic and evangelical theology. The most important single change came about by meeting living, breathing, loving Christ-centered people like the Baptist and the Catholic in the story that my friend shared with me. How has this unfolding story of missional-ecumenism worked in your life? I would love to hear your story and add it to the bigger story we are all a part of by God’s sovereign grace.