As I mentioned a few days ago my trip to Rome came about because (Catholic) Deacon Nathaniel Bacon, an InnerCHANGE missionary in Guatemala, read my book and concluded that I should be a part of a group he invited to meet and develop friendships in an ecumenical context in Rome. I initially said “yes” to the possibility of going, several months ago, and then had second thoughts less than a month before the trip. After two days of intense prayer and seeking God for three specific answers to specific questions I felt the door opened and that I should go in faith. I have no doubt that I made the right choice in hearing the Lord’s word in this matter.
On day three, Wednesday, March 9, I met the members of the InnerCHANGE group for the first time. I also reconnected with my friend Deacon John Green. Nate Bacon had spent a year-long sabbatical in Rome in 2008-9 and knew a number of the people who he would ask to meet with us as a group. He worked up the entire itinerary except for the parts of my own trip that were related to Acton Institute. (I’ve mentioned these the last few days and will make one more mention later.)
Nate reminded all of us in advance that we were “ordinary people” and this was an “extraordinary opportunity to see a light off the main path, on the margins.” He wrote about being in a place of brokenness, a place where humanity really intersects with the divisions in the body of Christ. Eloquently he wrote to us that this would be, “A place where the brokenness of humanity intersects with the fragmented Body of Christ, and where the Holy Spirit hovers over the chaos, healing wounds, and forging new and life-giving bonds of love. In the words of Cardinal Kasper . . . we are privileged to see the first sparks of a ‘New Pentecostal’ fire!” These words powerfully compelled me to go to Rome. A New Pentecost, a movement on the margins among the poor, a time of global witness through missional-ecumenism. These are words that deeply move my soul.
Nate suggested that we should prayerfully take on the responsibility of bearing witness to what God was teaching us and take it “to those whose lives and vocations are wrapped up in this great project of Christian unity. The time has come to step out of the world’s shadows, and engage for a moment in heart-to-heart conversation, in hopes that we might be one small yet critical instrument in God’s hands for the unfolding of the new heavens and new earth.”
What was so unique about this team, with me being the real exception, is that all of these dear folks are missionaries who minister to the poor and broken, people truly on the margins. This is why Nate saw this as an outworking of my vision of missional-ecumenism. So the theme we came back to all week was “pursuing missional-ecumenism on the margins.” I was profoundly changed by this thinking. It is not at the center of my book but it is in the center of God’s heart for the world. I began to see the wisdom of Nate’s words and the power behind them before I even got to Rome.
Yet in all of this Nate suggested that we were gathering to simply have conversations with friends, old and new. So on Wednesday, March 9 (Day Three), I was back at the Centro Pro Unione, where I had begun on Monday. Here I sat in this most amazing room as we all shared our story and interacted with Teresa Rossi, who I wrote about in my blog last Thursday (March 24). She was energetic, encouraging and humble. She told us some great stories about the advance of unity among many Christians in Rome and beyond. Since she works with a number of Baptists and Pentecostal Christians she has an unusual perspective on unity and the church.
One of the more interesting stories Dr. Rossi told us was about the room in which we were meeting. She said that in the early 1960s, during Vatican Council II, theologians met here every Thursday afternoon for dialog. Included in these times were men like Karl Barth, Oscar Cullman, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltman, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and Karol Wojtyla (later to be Pope John Paul II). Here Protestant observers were encouraged to interact and talk with Catholic brothers. Here ideas were discussed and thoughts considered openly. She said this was often a room filled with the friendly smoke of the theologians! I could picture it in my mind as I looked around and then above at the amazing ceiling based on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
This center really came about because of the dream of Paul Watson, an Anglican who became a Roman Catholic in 1909. Watson gave his life to remarkable efforts for Christian unity in the 20th century.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was initiated in 1908 by Paul Watson, who was the co-founder of the Society of the Atonement, or the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Its observance has changed over the years, in accordance with developments in the ecumenical movement: the universal week of prayer advocated by Abbe Paul Couturier in Lyon, France in the 1930's; the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948; the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism in 1964; and the formation of the Joint Working Group between the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches.
A world observance, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an important expression of ecumenical activity at the local level. The traditional date for the Week is January 18-25. Those dates were proposed by Paul Watson to cover the days between the feast of St. Peter and the feast of St. Paul, and therefore have a symbolic meaning. The Center for Unity still advocates for this week and publishes resources for it.
A major contributor to this same movement is the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute in New York. Graymoor fosters study and research in the ecumenical and interreligious movements through writing, workshops and participation in dialogues between and among the churches as well as with different faith communities at the local and national level.
After lunch over pizza and wine we headed to the Angelicum, which is one of the eleven universities under the direction of the Vatican. The Angelicum is a place where most lectures and classes are in English. It also the place where Nate Bacon took classes during his sabbatical year in Rome. The Angelicum’s most famous graduate is John Paul II. I saw the room where he defended his doctoral dissertation. This was moving to me too since I read George Weigel’s Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II and knew the time and context of his study and writing. I never dreamed I would stand in the room where he had to defend his work.
At the Angelicum we met with Fr. Paul Murray, OP. Fr. Murray is responsible for the spirituality teaching in the faculty of theology. He specializes in subjects like contemplation and personal spiritual growth. An Irishman he has a wit to slay you with and a depth to raise you up again. One of his stories was unforgettable. In a retirement home in Ireland a priest walked into the room but the crowd did not quiet down. An elderly lady stood up and said, “Be quiet, the priest is here.” Another lady stood and said, even more loudly, back to her, “You be quiet. If it wasn’t for the grace of God none of us would be here today.”
Father Murray was simply a delight. He refreshed my soul as much as anyone I met in Rome. It was apparent that he knew a great deal about the real practice of spiritual theology, not just as an academic subject, which he clearly possesses. Professor Murray’s book, New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A Drink Called Happiness, had been added to my library upon return to the U.S. (I love using Amazon while I am out of the country.) I hope to read it by summer. This type of teaching was the basis of a great deal of our discussion and prayer. I believe Fr. Murray deeply encouraged us all. He prayed for our journey and ministries with such warmth and love.
There was a service in the evening that I missed because I was completely and totally exhausted. This was, thankfully, the only meeting of the entire eight days that I was forced to miss. I made the right choice since Thursday, March 10, would be a full day with some amazing discussions and unique times to speak and share.
Monday: Meeting with leaders in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the Vatican.
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John, I have been reflecting on Jesus’ final words to his disciples before “going to prepare a place” for them. The words he spoke, in the window of opportunity after Judas left to do his dark work and before the arrest and crucifixion of J…esus, are presently my devotional meditations. In reflecting on how God is leading you in missional-ecunemism, and where he is drawing me, the Holy Spirit has shed fresh light the words of John 14:12.
The “greater things” that the followers of Christ will do, after he is gone, will not be greater in terms of being more amazing but greater in terms of more wide spread, expansive, more worldwide, due to the Holy Spirit’s work.
I had the thought this morning that this wider, greater, more expansive work would also be great in that it would equally be undivided—great in unity. The heart of Christ for unity is seen even in the word “greater”, a good ways before we even get to John 17.
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