“…and every third Sunday, we have a Beatles service.”
I did an internal double-take. My friend was just describing her Methodist church and what their services were like, and that was the last thing I expected. I maintained an expression of calm interest as I pictured a spiritually transcendent rendition of “Yellow Submarine.”
It was what you might call an ecumenical moment.
I don’t mean ecumenical in a “let’s all get along” kind of way. I think that’s how most Catholics think of ecumenism, that it’s being nice. But it’s way more important than that. While we as Catholics have the fullness of revelation, there’s a huge thing we often forget: all Christians are the Body of Christ.
Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopalian, and thousands of others. All believers in Christ are members of His Body.
Obviously, the Body of Christ is fragmented in our time. But the goal of all Christians should be a) healing the wounds between us, and b) doing God’s work together. To do that, we need an ecumenism that is possible for individuals. And I don’t mean just attending the local Interfaith Sunrise Easter Mountaintop Candlelit Service every year. Let’s get practical.
Ask questions about their faith.
Let’s imagine for a moment that, after hearing about the Beatles service, I immediately stopped my friend and harangued her about how Beatles music was not appropriate for church. If I hadn’t kept my mouth shut, I wouldn’t have heard about her church’s intense homeless ministry. I wouldn’t have asked about what the ministry does, and I would not have been summarily given a blanket to distribute to the next homeless person I saw.
Now, I really don’t get how a Beatles service works; I seriously don’t see the attraction. But that’s not the point. Between all the theological differences, diverging musical taste is the least of our problems. Nor is the point of ecumenism to befriend the enemy, infiltrate his camp, and poach them for your parish.
The first step in ecumenism is honoring the faith of others. Just because someone isn’t Catholic doesn’t mean they don't really love God, or even that they’re not intelligent enough to understand the historical validity of the Catholic Church. My friend is a Methodist, she is an intelligent person, and she and her congregation do great work for God through their ministry. That’s awesome! I believe their work serves the Kingdom. I’m not going to respond to hearing about someone’s faith by proselytizing; I’m going to praise God for what they’re doing.
This doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church is any less the true Church. But Christ said:
"By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35)
The most practical way to share that love and honor someone's faith is to ask questions. Even if you think someone’s faith practices are odd, don’t dismiss them. People love to share what they’re passionate about. Take Jehovah's Witnesses, for example. They love sharing so much that they started coming to my house every Tuesday.
Until we let them in and they saw all our statues and stuff. Guess they can't be ecumenical with idolaters...
Learn more Bible verses.
I live in the Bible Belt, and the average Baptist high schooler can probably rattle off more Bible verses in their sleep than I have memorized at all. It’s a Catholic stereotype, but it’s true of many of us: we don’t know as much of the Bible by heart as our Protestant brethren. (I could mention that, as Catholics, we have a lot more to read… you know, encyclicals and Catechisms and stuff, but still. The Bible was first.)
Because of the sola scriptura doctrine, Protestants actually have an entirely different language and vocabulary than we do.
They say, "I'm saved!" We say, "I have received the sacrament of Baptism, which washes away original sin and leaves an indelible mark on my soul." We have theological terms defined by years of study; they quote the Psalms. While our Catholic terminology is great, it creates a stumbling block for communication.
If we're going to be discussing matters of faith with our Protestant friends, we need use an old Jesuit principle that's worked for centuries: enter through their door and lead them through yours.
When Jesuit missionaries first came to China, they wore their somber cassocks and collars and attempted to convert people. They were generally ignored. So they came back dressed in the silk garments of royalty, which got them audience with people of power. Then things started happening.
The basic idea is to approach people through a familiar means to open a dialogue with them and lead them from there.
So if you'll be discussing faith with a Protestant friend, learn more Bible verses. Get flashcards and learn a new one every week. Not only will it force you to read more Scripture, but it will also keep the lines of communication open between you and your other Christian friends.
You can talk about transubstantiation and the philosophical definitions of substances, accidents, and natures later.
Read the Catechism.
I’ve already said that ecumenism is not about proselytizing. Ironically, though, ecumenism may be the best way to open a dialogue that could actually lead to conversion. Say what?
It may be a generalization, but I’m going to declare by the power of 26 years of experiencing human nature that nobody listens to their enemies, only their friends. We will never convert a single person by attacking them with the power of rationality, and if we approach others merely with the purpose of “winning an argument,” we will never reach a soul.
That being said, once we have honored the faith of others and we have the tools to communicate with them, we are in a position to answer questions regarding the Catholic faith. We become the “go-to Catholic.” That’s a big responsibility, because if you get asked a question, you should be ready to know the answer.
“Why do you worship Mary? How is the Pope infallible? Why can’t women be priests?”
Because this ^
If you don’t know the answer to those questions or to the thousand others that people have about Catholicism, you’re the worst Catholic ever! Go to confession for not memorizing the entire Catechism in Latin!
Joking… but we should all keep learning about our faith. There’s so much to know, but actually reading the Catechism is a great way to get an overview in terms that are easy to share. Even if you don’t know an answer to a question immediately, you can probably find it later in the Catechism.
Explain things with joy.
Catholicism is not a religion for wimps. On so many issues–contraception, abortion, divorce–we stand on the tougher side of things, and there are a lot of emotions tied up with these subjects.
As a small example, a coworker of mine was telling me that she’s not a regular churchgoer, but she definitely goes at Christmas. Knowing I was Catholic, she said, “I really wish the Catholic Church would have open communion. Everyone else does it, but the Catholic Church seems so exclusive.”
I explained as kindly as I could that our communion isn’t just a symbol, it’s an effective union and a declaration of our unity in belief, so that’s why it wasn’t open. I also said she was welcome to ask for a blessing if she wanted. I don’t think the answer satisfied her. But I wanted to clearly explain things with joy while not equating the Body of God with a Sunday Saltine.
And just as no rational explanations alone will convert anyone, your answers will not be convincing unless they radiate the personal joy that comes from being Catholic. That’s the one thing Protestants can’t understand from the outside, and only joy can demonstrate it.
Invite people to Mass.
I recently stayed at friend’s house for the weekend. While he’s not particularly religious, I invited him to join me at Mass on Sunday morning. He enjoyed the experience. Although he’s not about to go through RCIA by any stretch of the imagination, I was glad I got to share something that’s so important to me with a good friend. I got him in the same room with God, and God can do with that experience whatever He wants.
I think we’re hesitant as Catholics to invite people to Mass because there’s so much synchronized movement and speaking that happens, but it doesn’t need to be such a big deal. Would you invite someone to a Crossfit class or maybe hot yoga? Mass takes way lees coordination. If you talk to someone about religion, invite them to Mass without any pressure.
Be sure to brief them about some things, and make sure they don’t expect any pop songs. (I mean, even if they played “Here Comes the Sun,” pun intended, a Beatles Mass would never fly. Just imagine that for a second.) God can do whatever He was with them; you just provide the opportunity.
In the end, that’s what ecumenism is about: keeping doorways open for God to accomplish His work through us, showing the world that our Catholic Faith brings us incredible joy, and hoping for the day when the Body of Christ will again be one, in answer to the prayer of Christ Himself:
"...that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me." (John 17:21)
BLOG BY CONOR hENLEY
Conor Hennelly got his start in writing when he began writing subversive literature against his home room teacher in 3rd grade. He never successfully obtained a full hour of recess time, but he did manage to graduate from Ave Maria University with a degree in philosophy. He now works in marketing, which basically means he makes you want things for a living. We here at The Crossroads Pursuit think that's pretty cool.