New Ecumenical Effort Is Response to the Times

Posted: 1/3/2012

Glenmary Father Frank Ruff (right) with Southern Baptist pastorEcumenism is the effort to bring Christians together to work and pray in a spirit of harmony, respect and hope for eventual unity. Glenmary recently began a new chapter in the ecumenical efforts that have long been a hallmark of its mission. In doing so, says Father Frank Ruff, Glenmary is staying true to its charism and the Church's teachings.

The initiative planned for the future, he says, is a "bold, unprecedented one that seems right and needed" for the times. "It will involve using a special Web site and social media as the key means of bringing together Catholics and evangelicals who want to work for mutual understanding and Christian unity." The idea was conceived by a Glenmary task force—and it has been passed on to the new Commission on Ecumenism appointed by Glenmary's Executive Council.

According to Glenmary, this commission's main purpose is "to enhance understanding, reduce alienation, and foster reconciliation between Catholics and evangelicals, primarily in the southeastern United States."

Its interchurch membership includes Father Frank as chair; Father Neil Pezzulo, Glenmary first vice president; Glenmary Deacon Aaron Wessman; Reverend Dr. David Sapp, a Southern Baptist pastor; and Dr. Richard Stern, an ordained Lutheran (ELCA) pastor and faculty member at a Catholic seminary. (Father Frank and Aaron earlier served as task force members.)

The development that spurred Glenmary's need for a new approach to ecumenism, says Father Frank, came when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) decided in recent years to terminate its official ecumenical dialog with the Catholic Church.

Since 1967, he says, Glenmary's ecumenical efforts at the leadership level had been focused primarily on the SBC, because it is the dominant denomination in Glenmary's mission areas. "But when the SBC was closing the door on official ecumenical dialog, a new door was opening. That door is the Internet."

As the Glenmary task force on ecumenism recognized, Internet and social media technology now makes it realistic to reach many more people with ease—in this case, not only leaders and not only Southern Baptists.

An overwhelming 80 percent of Christians in Glenmary mission areas are evangelicals—encompassing the many Baptist and Pentecostal denominations; Church of Christ, Holiness, and Nazarene denominations; and independent churches. "And the need is clear: the Catholic Church has ongoing ecumenical dialog with other major Christian denominations," Father Frank says, "but not with evangelicals."

The Commission on Ecumenism's next task is to find a Director of Catholic-Evangelical Relations to help lead this Glenmary ministry. The individual who takes on this role will have a wide range of responsibilities, including development, use and promotion of a Web site devoted to ecumenical goals.

He or she will also encourage evangelicals and Catholics to exchange ideas, form groups online and in person, and pray and work together in many ways for understanding and unity.

This isn't the first time Glenmary has been on the leading edge in its attitudes toward and relationships with Protestant churches in its mission areas. Glenmary's founder, Father William Howard Bishop, spoke with respect and care for these denominations long before it was popular to do so. And a number of Glenmarians were actively working with other churches before Vatican Council II began in 1962. "Vatican II's ‘Decree on Ecumenism' (in 1964) affirmed what we were already doing," says Father Frank.

At the local mission level, Glenmary's many ecumenical efforts since then have included—to name a few—joining or helping organize ministerial associations, participating in ecumenical prayer services, and engaging in ecumenical social outreach projects such as food pantries. "They've been invaluable in bringing people together and changing attitudes," he says.

At the national level, Glenmary has assigned a representative to work at least part-time with Southern Baptists in ecumenical endeavors since 1967. And also since that time, the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has appointed a Glenmarian as its field representative.

Father Frank was the first Glenmarian to serve in these two roles—and is serving in them again today.

"As Vatican II stated, we believe the movement toward unity is the work of the Holy Spirit," he says. "The ecumenism decree said that division between Christians ‘openly contradicts the will of Christ....' And Pope John Paul II cited the same passage in his 1995 letter ‘On Unity Among Christians.'"

Father Frank also quotes Pope Benedict XVI on his commitment to ecumenism: "Each one of us must render an account to (Christ) of all we have done and failed to do to further the great good that is the full and visible unity of all His disciples." The comments were part of his first message to the cardinals in 2005.

"These statements explain why ecumenical efforts must be a high priority for Glenmary and all Catholics," says Father Frank. "Our new efforts, using new technology, are our response to God's call. We are very hopeful that they're going to work."

This article appears in the January 2012 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.