By Dennis Sadowski Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Pope Francis’ example of servant ministry during his recent U.S. visit so inspired participants in the Roman Catholic-Reformed Dialogue that they decided to share their hope for Christian unity despite ongoing differences.
Fifteen members of the dialogue taking place in the U.S. said they were “inspired by the ecumenical promise” that emerged from the pope’s stops in Washington, New York and Philadelphia, where he mixed visits to marginalized people between meetings with church leaders and public officials.
Reformed Church participants in the most recent meeting of the dialogue Oct. 5-6 told Catholic News Service that they came to see how the example service carried out by the pope helped them better see the role of bishop within a church structure.
The pope’s actions inspired the Reformed participants to initiate a brief statement praising the pope’s actions and what they could mean for church unity. The statement was released Oct. 6 as the meeting concluded.
“What (the pope) models in his office, he demonstrates how authority is to be expressed through service and through joy, especially to those who are the most neglected and most disadvantaged,” said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary emeritus of the Reformed Church in America and a dialogue participant.
“It’s now coming up on 500 years of this terrible division in the life of the church (the Reformation in 1517) and we begin to reflect on where we can repent, talking in a new way to each other. One issue is the role of the bishop of Rome (the pope). What we’re at least suggesting, you see in Pope Francis the ability to observe how that office is an exercise in a way that can help in an ecumenical conversation,” Rev. Granberg-Michaelson said.
Authority in the church — as expressed in the person of the pope — has been a point of divergence between the Reformed and Catholic churches. The Reformed churches — Christian Reformed Church in North America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ — have disagreed with the Catholic Church over the pope’s authority and do not have the office of bishop in their structures.
Other differences exist as well, including over who can be ordained. Reformed churches allow the ordination of women who can serve as deacons, elders and ministers.
Earlier rounds of the dialogue have developed reports on the understanding of baptism and Eucharist between the churches. The dialogue has been convening since 1965.
The effort got a boost in 1995 when St. John Paul II issued his encyclical, “Ut Unum Sint” (“That they may be One”), which reiterated the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism.
The statement on the pope surprised Catholic dialogue participants, who said they readily welcomed it.
Msgr. John Radano, adjunct professor of theology at Seton Hall University and dialogue participant, said the statement stems from the “good atmosphere” that exists among the group.
“You can see from the statement, it speaks of ‘we affirm the manner of service of unity for the whole world, his (the pope’s) ministry, his compassion,'” Msgr. Radano said. “The statement gave voice and witness to aspiration for the wider Christian community.”
In part, the statement said, “While the role of the bishop of Rome has historically been a matter of contention between Reformed and Catholic communions, we affirm the manner in which the Pope Francis modeled a service of unity for the whole church and its ministry.”
It continued, “His servant heart gives hope for further developments along the road toward Christian unity, a journey that we trace to the Second Vatican Council and continue through our dialogue. Although we recognize that significant differences remain between us, we trust that the visit of Pope Francis will prompt further, honest dialogue — between our communions and others — in our search for a full expression of our unity in Christ.”
Retired Bishop Tod D. Brown of Orange, California, the dialogue’s Catholic co-chair, told CNS the group had been “struggling” with the role of the episcopacy in the latest round of meetings, which began in 2013.
“I think we’re moving toward addressing concerns on the issue, at least a recognition of the possible role of a bishop in church structure,” he said.
“We’re trying to help them understand the Catholic side,” Bishop Brown continued. “As important as the visit was and as charismatic as Pope Francis is, we’re trying to help them see … help them realize it’s not just a personality of a pope who happens to hold that office at that time, but the office itself so that they can come to understand there can be hopefully a helpful unifying role for the bishop of Rome.”
The Rev. Cynthia Campbell, the dialogue’s Reformed Church co-chair, who represents the Presbyterian Church (USA), said the dialogue has helped members of the Reformed communities see the office of bishop in a new way.
“We (have come) to a real understanding that the office of bishop that the reformers thought they needed to reform in the 16th century is not the office of bishop that exists today. A year ago that seemed like a helpful realization for us to come to,” Rev. Campbell told CNS.
She said the statement developed because the pope inspired people beyond the Catholic Church during his visit and that the Reformed members of the dialogue felt it was important to say something about his example of service.
“Our question is whether or not the office of the pope might serve as a visible expression of unity. And I wouldn’t hold my breath for Presbyterians to line up to agree to this, but I do think in the ministry of Pope Francis we can see the potential there for somebody to embody the good news, embody the servant posture of ministry in a really inclusive way,” Rev. Campbell explained.
The Rev. Ronald J. Feenstra, academic dean at Calvin Theological Seminary, representing the Christian Reformed Church in North America in the dialogue, said the discussion by the Reformed members on developing a statement on the pope’s visit included talk about how the position of pope “is a force of unity or division.”
“We felt we could identify some positive things that occurred during this visit. We felt that since the visit occurred in the country we were meeting in, we could say something,” Rev. Feenstra explained.
“Those of us who are participants in the dialogue realize that the divisions in the Christian church are really a tragedy and would like to see more recognition in our unity in Christ,” he added. “So I think one of the things we saw in Pope Francis — we only focused on the visit, but one could see it in his wider ministry — one of the things we see in his ministry is embodying the key features of the Gospel.
“That doesn’t erase some of the significant differences we have … but we can still recognize that he’s serving as representative of Christianity and putting a positive face on the Christian Gospel.”
The eighth round of the dialogue is expected to continue through 2017.
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