Father Frank Ruff's outreach to Baptists leads to 50-year relationship

Posted: 10/30/2017

Something unusual happens when the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention meets.

Leaders of America’s largest Protestant denomination are recognized in a roll call.  These include presidents of state conventions and seminaries, elected officers and more. In that litany of names, one stands out — Catholic priest,  Glenmary Father Frank Ruff. He is greeted in goodwill with a blessing for his many years attending and partnering with the Southern Baptist Convention.

In a denomination where the gap between Catholics and Baptists is still wide and anti-Catholic sentiment can still flare up in the ranks, this is unprecedented.

Father Frank had a life-changing experience with Southern Baptists when speaking to students at Furman University in 1965.  He was scheduled to speak to the Baptist Student Union. The interaction was still going strong when the building closed at 9 p.m. They moved to the library and continued until it closed, too.

“It was like meeting relatives I never knew I had,” Father Frank said. “That’s when I discovered that we were family on the emotional level.”

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For another ecumenical story, check out: Working toward Unity: Glenmary working to heal 500-year rift

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The next year, a unique opportunity allowed him to explore that connection. A Southern Baptist family invited Father Frank to Christmas dinner. They asked the associate pastor of their church to take him to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention the following summer.

The SBC annual meeting is traditionally for members only. It is open to the press, but otherwise, there are few outside visitors. The SBC’s convention is a meeting where they elect leaders and pass resolutions, but it is also a time for worship, networking and socializing. The closest parallel in the Catholic Church is a Vatican council or synod of Bishops.

Father Frank’s first SBC meeting was in 1967.

“It was a transformative experience for me,” he recalled. “They had such enthusiasm for missions, but they were so isolated from others.

“The SBC accepted my request (to attend the next year as an observer) but didn’t know where to put me,” Father Frank said. “They assigned me to the press booth.”

So began a long tradition for Glenmary. Attending the SBC was quickly adopted as an official Glenmary role and helped Glenmary further its reputation as a society committed to ecumenical relationships.

“It was not just my ministry,” said Father Frank. “Ecumenism was a whole community value for Glenmary.”  

Because of Father Frank’s pioneering work, Glenmary attends the SBC each year as the representative of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

The SBC remains isolated. All formal dialogues between the SBC and Catholic Church ended in 2000. Glenmary is the only group from a non-Baptist denomination that attends the SBC.

Despite that, Glenmary has been welcomed. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Glenmary's presence at the SBC. Executive Committee President and Chief Executive Officer Rev. Dr. Frank S. Page presented Father Frank with a gift for his years of attendance.

When Father Frank walks the convention floor, his clerical collar makes him stand out.  He shakes hands and responds to questions about Catholicism. It is hard for him to walk from one end of the hall to the other, because friendly faces continually call out to greet him with a warm embrace.

“I want my presence to say that we are family, and not just any family, but the family of Christ,” he said. “Families are better when they communicate and work together than when they are isolated from one another.”