Former Columbus resident helps Glenmary reach beyond only Catholics
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the Oct. 16, 2016 edition of the Catholic Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.
By John Stegeman
When 97 percent (or more) of the population isn’t Catholic and you’re looking to establish a Catholic presence, it is smart to make friends where you can
Establishing Catholic missions in rural parts of Appalachia and the southern United States is the task of the Glenmary Home Missioners. The Cincinnati-based society of priests and brothers are missionaries to forgotten corners of America.
Former Columbus resident Frank Lesko (pictured at right in photo), Glenmary’s director of Catholic-Evangelical relations, helps Glenmary establish relations with other religious congregations. Glenmary puts a priority on ecumenical outreach to reduce alienation, enhance understanding, and foster reconciliation between Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and other faith communities in the rural Southeast United States.
“A lot of people think reaching out to other Christians to build ecumenical relationships is dangerous, because it may seem like stepping outside of the Catholic Church and blurring the lines,” Lesko said. “It is no surprise then that some people are wary of it. We see it completely differently. It is inherently part of being Catholic. It’s actually not a separate activity from our faith. We are to witness to our faith to everyone we meet and to reach out to whomever we can. This includes Christians who belong to other denominations.”
Columbus’ own Catholic community had a role in inspiring Lesko to his current line of work. He came to Ohio Dominican University to obtain his master’s degree in theology.
While in school, he worked at Shepherd’s Corner, an ecological ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Peace in Blacklick. He later was part of a team that established a Catholic Worker community, and served as music director at Columbus Ss. Augustine & Gabriel Church.
“Columbus had a big role to play in my spiritual formation,” Lesko said. “I loved Columbus and would have stayed there, but the need to find full-time work doing Catholic ministry compelled me to leave.”
Glenmary’s ecumenical efforts drew Lesko to the society, particularly the role of reaching out to those who had little contact with Catholicism.
“Among non-Catholic Christians, many misunderstandings abound to this day,” Lesko said. “Reaching out to them does a lot to ease those tensions and create a friendlier place for Catholics to live and practice their faith. In some ways, we help the larger community get ready to accept a new Catholic presence and break the ice.”
Father Neil Pezzulo, Glenmary’s first vice president, is also the chairman of Glenmary’s Commission on Ecumenism. While ecumenism has always been part of Glenmary’s charism, the society doubled down on its efforts with the hiring of Lesko in 2014.
“We shouldn’t ignore Jesus’ prayer for unity in Scripture, and we don’t,” Father Pezzulo said. “We all have a role in bringing about this unity, and where Glenmary serves, most of the people we encounter outside the missions are non-Catholics. A Glenmary missioner cares for all the people of their assigned counties, not just the Catholics in the pews.”
Because Glenmary’s missions are spread across three states (Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina), Lesko leverages the power of the Internet to foster interdenominational dialogue.
“I maintain several social media sites promoting dialogue and understanding between Catholics and Evangelicals,” he said. “There are many amazing stories of Christian unity happening in the small towns, hollers, farms, and fields of the rural Southeast, and my job is to make sure it does not stay hidden, but is rather put on a hilltop (the Internet) so all the world may see.”
Despite its nearly 80-year ministry, many people are still unaware of the Glenmary Home Missioners. Lesko helps explain what Glenmary does by drawing comparisons to the Holy Father.
“If you like what you see in Pope Francis, then there is a lot you will probably like about Glenmary,” he said. “Glenmary pastors really have the ‘smell of their sheep,’ to paraphrase the pope. They work hard to build relationship in their community and walk with the people in their faith life and daily struggles.”