Shining an Ecumenical Light

Posted: 12/5/2014

Frank Lesko at the Wild Goose Festival - Glenmary Home MissionersBy Dale Hanson

"I pray...that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me."
—Jn 17:20-21

Ecumenism is the effort to bring Christians together to work and pray in a spirit of harmony, respect and hope for eventual unity. Glenmary's Catholic-Evangelical relations initiative is another chapter in ecumenical efforts that have been an integral facet of its ministry for 75 years. This initiative, says Father Neil Pezzulo, is true to God's call, the Church's teachings, and Glenmary's charism.

"We can't ignore Jesus' prayer for unity in Scripture," says Father Neil, chair of the
Glenmary Commission on Ecumenism. "We are called to share our unique gifts and experiences in ecumenism with others to help bring about this unity. Our goal is for Glenmary to again take its place as a leader in ecumenical relations."

The commission—with interchurch membership—was established "to enhance understanding, reduce alienation and foster reconciliation between Catholics and Evangelicals, primarily in the southeastern United States."

The June 2014 hiring of Frank Lesko as director of Catholic-Evangelical relations was the key step in launching the new grass-roots-based initiative. He's an experienced leader in outreach, justice and ecumenical efforts—for instance, as a founder and director of the Catholic Worker in Columbus, Ohio.

The launch of this ministry also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's 1964 Decree on Ecumenism—which says "the attainment of union is the concern of the whole Church...This concern extends to everyone, according to his talent...."

Father Neil explains why Glenmary is uniquely suited to ecumenical work: "Our charism takes our missioners to areas where they and their mission members are a small Catholic minority. But by building friendly, prayerful relationships with non-Catholic ministers and congregations and partnering with them to serve those in need, Glenmary missioners and parishioners overcome prejudices and become respected, valued members of the larger community."

That's the ecumenical foundation on which Frank hopes to build. As an undergraduate at a small Protestant college, he studied, volunteered, prayed and dialogued with mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and other Catholics. "Some of those folks have become my closest friends," he says. Ecumenism has been a central theme in Frank's life.

His rural roots help him relate to Glenmary missions. He grew up in an immigrant farming community where his family's small Catholic parish helped form his faith.
"I've been amazed by how well Glenmary develops ecumenical relations in innovative ways," he says. "Being a missionary group puts them in a unique position to be pioneers. It's a tremendous story that needs to be shared. Glenmary can be an ecumenical light for the whole Church."

Frank and Father Neil are working collaboratively to plan the ecumenical initiative in three overlapping phases. The first phase involves learning as much as possible about the ecumenical "best practices" used at Glenmary mission and ministry sites. Frank is talking and walking with missioners and their non-Catholic ecumenical partners to gain a deeper understanding of their rich experiences in ecumenism.

"I ask them: What does ecumenism mean to you? How do you live out Jesus' prayer for unity? How do you foster ecumenism? What is the essence of your ecumenical partnerships?

"This helps me pull stories out of these mission areas for future sharing. In the meantime, I'm relating these individual experiences and other information through my blog and Facebook page."

Some ecumenical best practices may sound deceptively simple, he says, but they can be powerful: praying together and for each other, visiting each others' churches and collaborating on social outreach.

For the tentative second phase, Frank will distill the information and narratives from his experiences at the Glenmary sites. He will then create documents, workshop/training materials and published materials for sharing.

Ultimately, in the proposed third phase, Frank and others will share this information at every opportunity with Glenmary and the larger Church and community—to provide ecumenical models and inspiration for their future lives and ministries.
"Our first audience will be Glenmary missioners and students, and then possibly Catholic and Evangelical Christian seminaries, clergy, congregations and conferences."

A planned Web site will also offer ecumenical resources, links and online discussions. "One of my responsibilities," says Frank, "is to provide online support for people in ecumenical marriages."

In addition, he'll work to further develop relationships with regional and national Christian groups/movements. Examples include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Emerging Church movement, the Charismatic movement and more. He and Father Neil will also participate in the 2015 National Conference on Christian Unity.

Vatican II stated that "the movement toward unity is the work of the Holy Spirit," Frank says. "The Decree on Ecumenism says division between Christians ‘openly contradicts the will of Christ.' St. John Paul II cited the same passage 30 years later. And he and Pope Benedict XVI both expressed their strong commitment to ecumenism. These statements reinforce the importance of our ecumenical efforts.

"The mainstream culture will say this work is against all odds. But I've seen through Glenmary the amazing, visible signs of the kingdom. I've seen Glenmarians who have won the trust of the local community and who have become close friends with Evangelical pastors, leaning on and trusting one another.

"Some Glenmarians say their ecumenical ministerial alliances are their lifeblood. I think these experiences can help Christians everywhere figure out how to build relationships."

Unity will occur in God's time, Frank says. He quotes Pope Francis from his recent video address to an Evangelical group: "A famous Italian author named Manzoni once wrote in a novel of a simple man...who said this: ‘I've never seen God begin a miracle without finishing it well.' He will complete this miracle of unity."

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 Glenmary Challenge.