Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Ecumenism is one of the most important missions of the Church. It is a concerted effort to promote unity among all Christians in the world so we can pray together, serve the needy together, and work together for the common good.
In “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” Pope Saint John Paul II spoke urgently of the need for Christian unity.
“By the year 2000,” he wrote, “we need to be more united, more willing to advance along the path toward the unity for which Christ prayed on the eve of His Passion. This unity is enormously precious. In a certain sense, the future of the world is at stake. The future of the Kingdom of God in the world is at stake.”
The Church has made ecumenism a priority since Pope Saint John XXIII established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in 1960. This was the precursor to today’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
All around the world, dioceses have liaisons charged with ecumenical relations. In the Diocese of Lincoln, the chairman of the Diocesan Commission on Ecumenism is Father Douglas Dietrich, who is also pastor of St. Mary Parish in Lincoln. In this role, he is a liaison on behalf of Bishop James Conley, with leaders and members of other Christian churches in the area.
He also communicates a Catholic voice and viewpoint at local ecumenical gatherings, such as the mayor’s “Interfaith Prayer Breakfast” each May, other meetings and both formal and informal conversations.
“It’s good to make sure people understand that we are all churches, and we can all come together in what we have in common, rather than spar over our differences all the time,” Father Dietrich said.
He reported that during his previous posts at St. Joseph Parish in Benkelman and St. Wencenslaus in Wahoo, there were many more opportunities for local churches to come together.
“Many of these churches will have a common Thanksgiving service, common choir concerts, and things like that,” he recalled.
A convert to the Catholic faith himself, Father Dietrich stressed, “Ecumenism isn’t about compromising what you believe, not for anybody. It’s about dialogue, and searching for the common ground.”
Father Dietrich recounted a recent ecumenical meeting where one Protestant leader said something about “celebrating” the Reformation. Another Protestant minister provided gentle correction by saying the Reformation should be observed as a historic event, but not celebrated due to the divisions that it caused.
“I’ve seen some sensitivity toward the Catholic perspective from some of the other Protestant ministers,” Father Dietrich said. In turn, he has sought to understand other Christian viewpoints better.
“I don’t want to shy away from hearing somebody else’s side,” he stated. “Knowing what they believe and why makes my belief stronger.”
Father Stephen Cooney, coordinator of Catholic patient services at both St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center and the Nebraska Heart Hospital, works with chaplains of other churches every day.
Together, they serve patients, relatives of the patients, hospital staff, other medical professionals who practice at the hospitals, and even each other.
“We visit every single patient when they arrive,” Father Cooney said. “We ask them what spiritual needs that we can assist them with. Then we strive to fulfill those needs.”
Though he estimates that less than a third of the patients in these hospitals are Catholic, there is no shortage of opportunities for Father Cooney to reach out to others as Jesus did.
Recently, he said, a Muslim woman stopped him in a hallway and begged him to pray over her seriously ill husband.
In a couple of days, the gentleman improved, and his wife praised Jesus. A week later, Father Cooney met the couple walking down the hall together, and the husband embraced him in gratitude.
This interfaith team of chaplains also ministers to atheists and Christians, including Catholics who are not practicing their faith.
“When I walk into a room, you can tell who has faith and who does not,” he said. “We try to open a door for them to find the strength that comes from outside of themselves.”
Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference [NCC], frequently joins forces with people of other faiths in working to shape public policy.
“Broad coalitions on fundamental issues, like the dignity of the unborn person and religious liberty, help amplify the way truth is communicated in the public square,” he said. “When the truth is being proclaimed in unity, people (most especially, policymakers) are more apt to hear and listen. This can help move good policies forward.”
Venzor said the NCC has “solid relationships” with people and organizations that represent different Protestant denominations. They work closely with the Nebraska Family Alliance, for example, as well as various church leaders.
“When it comes to advancing good public policy, we find that we are more often than not united in our desire to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “When the people of God unite, beautiful and good things happen.”
All Catholic believers are to work toward Christian unity. Paragraph 820 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, reads, “The Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her.... The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.”
Father Dietrich said that the first thing any Catholic layperson who wants to take up the call to Christian unity should do is to keep learning about the faith.
“You will never drink all the water in the river, so keep drinking,” he advised. “Then share your faith if opportunity arises, but respect is the operative word.”
Father Dietrich added, “We don’t have to run from people who don’t believe what we believe. We all work for Jesus, we all pray to Jesus.”