By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
WORCESTER – Worshippers entering Assumption College’s chapel for the annual ecumenical service Friday were welcomed with programs and candles.
But their way to the pews was partially blocked by students holding stones bearing bad words: “persecution,” “division,” “pride,” etc.
During the service, the students (11 from Assumption and one from the College of the Holy Cross) piled their stones on a wall placed in front of the altar. They led the congregation in asking God’s forgiveness for the sins the stones represented.
Later they placed the stones in a cross, and the wall was put behind it. (The stones, wall and cross were made by Art Prof. Lynn Simmons and her students, said campus ministry director Paul Covino, who organized the service with others from the college and area churches.)
Later in the service, these students took tapers lit from the Easter Candle to the worshippers, who were told to light each other’s candles and say, “Be the light.”
Despite participating in this eye-catching ritual, a Catholic student seemed most touched by something more familiar. Alexandra Landrigan, an Assumption freshman, said she came because she was asked to carry one of the stones. And she was thankful she did.
“It was such a beautiful service,” she said; the biggest thing was the sign of peace. She saw happy people smiling, hugging and shaking hands and thought, “God must be so happy right now.”
Her roommate Kaitlyn Anderson, also a Catholic and a freshman, said she didn’t help with the service because there were enough other helpers. But she came to support her roommate.
“I felt very connected through Christ” with the other Christians and churches, she said. “I felt very moved by it.”
The service was primarily in English, with some reading and singing in other languages, including Armenian and Ky Swahili. It used this year’s theme for the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (traditionally observed Jan. 18-25): “Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us.”
“This year many Christians and churches will be commemorating the anniversary of the Reformation,” noted the Rev. Susan Nachtigal, a Lutheran minister who co-presided at the service with a Catholic priest.
Rev. Nachtigal is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. Assumptionist Father Ronald Sibugan is campus minister at the college.
The Protestant Reformation traces its roots to 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Germany, separating from the Catholic Church. This gave rise to Lutheran and other Christian denominations and to violence on both sides.
“St. Paul reminds us that God has reconciled us through Jesus Christ and that the love of Christ compels us to be ministers of reconciliation,” Rev. Nachtigal said.
Father Sibugan noted that sometimes renewal movements have led to unintended divisions, which contradicts Jesus’ prayer that his followers be one.
Church leaders participating in the service included Bishop McManus, Bishop Douglas John Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Rev. T.J. DeMarco, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Boston and pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Worcester.
The preacher, the Rev. Shandirai Mawokomatanda, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church, gave the congregation a pop quiz with a trick question.
He asked why the prodigal son was starving: a. “Because no one gave him anything to eat,” b. “There was a famine” or c. “He squandered his inheritance.” The preacher asked listeners to raise their hands for their answer, and seemed pleased to get the most for the third choice.
“Hah!” he exclaimed. “Interesting! I’m going to leave you in suspense.”
He told about Mark Powell’s book “What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew” and a study of seminarians who were asked this question.
Six out of 100 students in the United States remembered that this Scripture story mentions a famine, Rev. Mawokomatanda said. Being from a capitalist society where money is important, they believed the son was starving because he squandered his inheritance.
The Russian students chose the famine as the answer; famine was part of their history, the preacher said. Losing the inheritance simply meant the son would be poor like everyone else; his sin was leaving home, trusting in his self-sufficiency, thinking that money was all he needed from his father.
The Tanzanian students chose the answer: no one gave him anything. They knew immigrants struggle in an unfamiliar land and recalled biblical injunctions to care for the stranger in your midst.
Rev. Mawokomatanda then told listeners he’d given them only three options, which was a bit of a trick: the answer was d. “All of the above,” because the story mentions all of those details.
Drawing a lesson from this, he said Christians need to study Scripture together, since none of them alone sees the whole picture.
He said Martin Luther wanted to invite conversation. But instead of being met with openness, he was met with persecution.
“We come from one family,” Rev. Mawokomatanda said. “When we return home to each other we are whole.” Our witness to unity can be a healing balm in the world.
After the sermon, Jena Hardy, co-director of Elm Park Ministries Day Camp, told how her work at the day camp brings together children from various socio-economic backgrounds, including refugees.
“Now we’re breaking down those walls,” she said. She said some of the children haven’t been to church, but “we are sharing the word of God with them.”
Several years ago 10 churches got together to operate a camp for children who couldn’t afford to attend one, she said. She said they have 70 children for two weeks, and an optional third week of residential camp. They feed the children and take them on field trips and it’s really expensive, she said. (The ecumenical service’s collection was for this ministry this year.)