One body in Christ

Posted: 10/4/2017

 Glenmary's 78-year history making mark on 500-year rift

By John Stegeman

The first prayer for the unity of Christians came from the mouth of Jesus Christ. Before his passion and death on the cross, he prayed to the Father for his followers, "that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you." (John 17:21)

More than 2,000 years later, Christians are not united. Arguably the most famous event in the history of Christian division is being marked this year.

On Oct. 31, 2017, the world will note the 500th year since the start of the Protestant Reformation. While Glenmary Home Missioners has only been around since 1939, the society has placed itself at the forefront of Catholic-Protestant relations. The Catholic Church, both at the Vatican level and locally, has made strides toward Christian unity, but to understand this important milestone, one must go back half a millennium.

The Protestant Reformation's story is well known. On All Hallows' Eve 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest at the time, is said to have nailed a copy of his "95 Theses" to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. His theses were widely distributed throughout Europe and the Protestant Reformation was underway.


For another ecumenical story, check out One Family in Faith: Father Frank Ruff's 50-year relationship with Southern Baptists.



Luther's concerns were multifaceted, but the best remembered concerned certain abuses in the Church, including the sale of indulgences and certain aspects of papal authority. Shortly after Luther broke with the church, more divisions followed. No one is sure exactly how many variants of Christianity exist, but most believers agree such divisions are not a manifestation of Christ's will.

The Catholic Church recognized the issue at the Second Vatican Council, promulgating the decree "Restoration of Unity" in 1964. At the time, Glenmary was a 25-year-old religious community ready to join the effort.

After the council, Glenmary adopted its five categories of mission: Catholic nurture, evangelization, ecumenism, social outreach and connection to the universal church.

"While there were efforts to heal the divisions of Christianity before Vatican II, I think the Council provided great impetus to the movement," Glenmary president Father Chet Artysiewicz said. "To me, the spirit it promoted could be summarized by a shift in perspective. Instead of emphasizing our differences, let's try concentrating on what we hold in common.  Pope John XXIII used a phrase that captured it;  'In essential things, unity; in non-essential things, liberty; in all things, charity.'"

A desire to work with non-Catholics was present in Glenmary even before the council. In 1952, Glenmary founder Father William Howard Bishop wrote, “I am convinced that side by side with the great convert-making purpose, there is another objective … to lift up and improve the moral lives of the people around us, regardless of their beliefs or lack of beliefs; regardless even whether they will ever accept the faith or not.”

One reason Glenmary was eager to join the ecumenical movement was the nature of missionary service.

"The whole ecumenical movement really started with missionaries," said Frank Lesko, Glenmary's director of Catholic-Evangelical Relations. "Missionaries in Africa were having a hard time proclaiming the Gospel when locals saw the divisions within Christianity.  Domestic missionaries like Glenmary realized that when Catholics are less than 1 percent of the population you are working with, you can't avoid interactions with Protestants. As a result, Catholics spend time trying to understand their relationship to other Christians — how to get along, how to avoid conflicts, how to reconcile their different beliefs."

And there are many different beliefs. Many Christian sects trace their lineage to Martin Luther and the Reformation. Glenmary's mission areas primarily include Evangelicals (particularly Baptists) and a smattering of others.

"A lot of folks think that the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is only a Lutheran concern. Not true," Lesko said. "All of the Evangelical Christians that we are in relationship with are children of the Reformation. In fact, many of them are more actively concerned about the issues of the initial reformers while most Lutherans have moved on to a much more complex and fruitful relationship with Catholics. Evangelicals are still very concerned about Mary, the saints, religious artwork, indulgences and Catholic views of Scripture and the priesthood."

Planting Seeds

Those concerns are no small matter, but Glenmary missioners don't dwell on differences. In Glenmary's mission territory, it isn't uncommon to encounter people who have never met a Catholic, so step one is often just saying hello.

"When I meet my brothers and sisters who are not Catholic, we begin with what we have in common," said Brother Craig Digmann, who ministers in Hancock County, Tenn. "I'm all about relationships. That's where the door opens for the Spirit to really move."

Brother Craig, like other Glenmarians, looks for ways to become part of the community. He greets students at a local school, leads an ecumenical Bible study and is often invited to visit Evangelical communities. Brother Craig visited 143 Protestant congregations in Union and Grainger counties before beginning his current assignment.

"I just felt really compelled to go to these churches," he said. "I've been invited to 48 here in Hancock County. Often they'll come to me with questions.
"Part of what I do is invite people to come to our churches. At Glenmary in general, we do a lot of seed planting. What has resulted is the opportunity for dialogue and friendship."

Keeping the Conversation Going

Dialogue has been a long-standing part of ecumenical outreach. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church opened talks with a variety of Christian groups. Soon thereafter, Glenmary incorporated that into its own mission.

"Since we adopted the five categories of Glenmary ministry, working for Christian unity has been normative for Glenmarians," said Father Frank Ruff, a Glenmary priest who has worked alongside Baptists for more than 50 years. "It is as foundational as helping the poor, working for justice or giving the children religious education. Some may not even realize that we have simply followed the teaching of the Catholic Church when we adopted ecumenism as normative for Catholic ministry.

The Second Vatican Council in 1964 led the way by teaching Catholics that the divisions within Christianity are contrary to the will of Christ and concern for restoring unity is the responsibility of the whole church, lay and clergy alike."

On the macro level, dialogue has produced milestones like the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, released by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999. On a more personal level, those conversations have inspired Catholics and Protestants to get to know each other better.

"When I was in college, Catholic students went on mission trips with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an Evangelical-based organization," Frank Lesko said. "On those trips, there were many difficult nights of religious debate and prayerful discussion. Many tears were shed as we confronted prejudices and misunderstandings we had of each other. We learned to find oneness in the Spirit and recognize the good in each person, even if we never resolved all conflicts from our denominational backgrounds.  Those tensions and questions have been strong in my mind since then, so I naturally gravitated to this work."

Reverend Kimbrough G. Simmons, pastor of Masonville Baptist Church in Utica, Ky., has had the opportunity to learn more about Catholicism through his interactions with Glenmarians. He met Father Joseph O'Donnell in the 1980s, and later got to know Father Frank. Previously he had limited exposure to Catholicism.

"In my relationship and conversations with (Father) Joe and (Father) Frank, I found a deeper understanding and appreciation of many of the rituals, which had been unfamiliar," Reverend Kimbrough said. "Both Joe and Frank were full of humility, sincerity and openness as our friendships developed."

Father Frank and Reverend Kimbrough have remained friends over the years. The nature of Glenmary's mission work means sometimes a missioner is the only Catholic leader in an area. The relationships they form with Protestant ministers can be a lifeline in an otherwise lonely situation.

"Protestant pastors have been the strongest part of my support system wherever I have been in the missions," Father Frank said. "I have the joy of knowing that I am on the same team with the Protestant pastors to build the Kingdom of God.  We are not competitors."

That team mentality is seen throughout Glenmary's missions. When Glenmary arrives in a new mission territory, the priests usually join the local ministerial association, if one exists. If it doesn't, Glenmarians are happy to start one.

Working Together

The people Glenmary serves, whether they are Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist or non-believers, have more concerns than just which church to attend on Sundays. Many are worried about finding their next meal. As cold weather approaches, some fear they will be unable to heat their homes or properly clothe their children. It is in helping the needy that Glenmary's ecumenical relationships really shine.

"We have been able to help so many more people who are poor because we have cooperated with many other churches," Father Frank said.

In late July, a group of Catholic and Protestant churches came together to donate $2,000 worth of school supplies to students in need in Elkton, Ky. In Bertie County, N.C., a backpack program and food pantry operate with help from the Glenmary mission as well as their Protestant counterparts. Working together in the service of the poor has the benefit of helping those in need and also fostering unity.

At the Glenmary Volunteer Program in Grainger Country, Tenn., led by Joe Grosek, volunteers don't ask people's religion before offering to help. With groups from high schools, colleges and other organizations, the program helps repair local homes, distributes food from a communal food pantry, works in nursing homes, a children's home and more.  

"Our service to those in need who are not Catholic is always a very positive experience," Joe said. "Many of those we serve love to talk about faith and like to share their faith with us, and we with them.  I have never really had a negative interaction with those we serve when we talk about faith. Oftentimes, it has led to an eye-opening and fulfilling discussion about God."

Relationships built with Protestants have also benefitted Glenmary itself. In Guthrie, Ky., a former Glenmary mission successfully returned to the diocese, and staffed by Father Frank until this summer, a fire destroyed the church. More than five Protestant congregations stepped up right away to offer to host Mass on Sundays, with Tiny Town Baptist Church becoming the Catholics' temporary home.

In Bertie County, N.C., Glenmary's Holy Spirit Mission has celebrated Mass at Windsor United Methodist Church for more than a decade.

Planning for the Future

Pope Francis spoke last October at a service in Lund, Sweden, marking the start of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Holy Father said, "We can feel (Jesus') heart beating with love for us and his desire for the unity of all who believe in Him."

In the work of ecumenism, it begins with relationships. Once established, the next step is moving toward unity.

At the moment, how Christians might accomplish this fully is unclear, said Father Frank. Will everyone become Catholic in the traditional sense, or might there be some establishment of separate rites after full communion is attained? Will denominations have their own church buildings, or will all worship together? Much of this is yet to be determined.

"We know the next step, but we don't know the final journey, because that is the work of the Holy Spirit," Father Frank said. "The next step is we've got to do something to move toward unity, because the Church teaches very clearly that the divisions are contrary to the will of Christ. We build our separate church buildings and that implies we're separate from one another. A much more true symbol of our relationship would be to find a way of building a church together, with separate rooms in there."

In the meantime, Glenmary will continue to build on relationships with its family in Christ.

"Looking toward the future, the more we can get together, know one another, the better witnesses to the world we can be," Reverend Kimbrough said. "Too often, we are so isolated in our own churches that we forget about the larger body of Christ.... The more we live, rubbing shoulders in work and play, the more we can accomplish as the larger family of faith."

"I think it's wise to realize that a tremendous amount of progress has been made over the past 50 years," Father Chet said. "Offsetting centuries of painful separation doesn't occur overnight, but it is happening. I am proud of Glenmarians and coworkers who explore ways of working together as brothers and sisters in Christ."

This story first appeared in the Autumn 2017 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.