head A dear Catholic friend sent me a printed copy of an article that appeared a year ago month in the paper, Catholic San Francisco. You can read the full article online in the archives of the paper. The article, written by Catholic deacon Nate Bacon, was titled: Toward a “New Pentecost.” Nate Bacon had just spent a year studying ecumenism at the Angelicum University in Rome and wrote reflections about the subject that is so close to my own heart and vision: missional-ecumenism. As a Catholic he grasps clearly what I think is the right understanding of Catholic advances and positions with regard to other Christians and churches.

Bacon wrote that building the “bridge” was a critical and time-honored vocation. He said, “In our age of instantaneous social networking, however, this role can be obscured, and at times appear obsolete. Nonetheless, those people whose lives connect us to others in deep ways offer us an invaluable gift—they open us to the presence of the Holy Spirit in one another. The entire ecumenical enterprise might be summed up as one of bridge-building.”

I love that description. I pray every day that I will be a “bridge-builder” in the ecumenical movement and stand as a faithful witness to God’s grace in healing the church and renewing her in grace and power. My voice is pretty unimportant but it is my offering to God.

Nate Bacon wrote of an ancient bridge which spanned the Tiberina river, called simply “Ponte Rotto” (the “broken bridge”). He said: “As individuals and as churches, we can all recall the relational bridges that have been broken in our personal and collective past. Ponte Rotto stands as a stark reminder of our human frailty and ultimate reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit to establish any lasting bonds of charity and unity.” Amen to that.

Bacon, like me, believes that “unbelievable progress has been made in this ecumenical bridge-building endeavor over the past 50-100 years. The miracle of Vatican II unexpectedly carried our Church into the already thriving Ecumenical movement. The Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) brought new insight into the presence of the One Church of Christ outside the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. The Decree on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) sought to illuminate and strengthen those elements of commonality we share with other faith traditions, especially the Jews. The formation of what became the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue made concrete this new bridge-building enterprise.”

Again, this is precisely what I’ve also discovered. What deeply grieves me is that too few of my peers have discovered it yet. This includes both my Catholic friends and my Protestants friends. We are still filled with fear, triumphalism and a deeply sectarian impulse that keeps us firmly in its grip.

Pope John Paul II worked devotedly for unity and his classic encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (“That they may all be one”), says Nate Bacon correctly, “captures in words what his life expressed in action.” John Paul II, one of the greatest Christians in the twentieth century, urged all Catholics to engage in the pursuit of Christian Unity, thus to join me in building bridges. I so wish many more conservative Catholics, who are my/our truest allies in the mission of Christ, would open their hearts to friends like me. John Paul, and now Pope Benedict XVI, have showed the way.

To the surprise of some conservative Catholics I routinely read and listen to on Relevant Radio John Paul II recognized openly that “the way papal primacy has been exercised has often presented a serious stumbling block to ecumenism.” He invited “patient and fraternal dialogue” (John Paul II's words) to the end that we might “find a way of exercising the primacy, which while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.” (That is an astounding step in the right direction even though it was aimed primarily at the Christian East!) Calls for reform of the papacy have come in the last few years from leading Catholics as well. Why do more serious Catholics not know this or seem to care about it? For that mater why do so few Protestants care either?

Bacon reminded his readers that Pentecost properly reminds us of “how the Holy Spirit brought believers into unity, breaking down barriers of language and culture. Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel, where humankind pridefully sought unity apart from God and found itself mired in confusion.” Yes, the work of the Spirit will bring unity.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and one of those Catholic scholars that I regularly read with deep pleasure and resonance, recently said, “Over the years, through the many ecumenical dialogues we have created an impressive stack of critical documents and agreements. Without diminishing their importance, we must remember that the Holy Spirit did not come as paper, but as fire. And fire burns up paper! What we need is a new Pentecost!”

Amen to that my brother, Cardinal Kasper! And thanks Nate Bacon. My heart burns for this divine fire to fall. Paper and blogs are not the answer, though they can have a proper place in fostering community and knowledge if they are used well. If you are Catholic, or Protestant, please prayerfully address this one question in the coming days: “Who do I personally love and share the life of the Holy Spirit with who is not in my own church?” The place to begin this journey is with the first step. Get outside your comfort zone and pray with others. You will be surprised and if you do this in faith, hope and love you will find that these you did not know are your true brothers and sisters. I did it ever so fearfully and my life was radically altered forever.

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  1. Nick Morgan August 9, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    AMEN to this Post John!! This Roman Catholic stands with you completely. Always remain faithful to the mission God has called you to! God bless you my brother.

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