Every January your city or town probably has a
little flurry of friendliness between churches. Pastors preach
in one another's pulpits and congregations eat together. This
happens between January 18 and 25, the Week of Prayer for Christian
A flurry isn't enough. We need to communicate
the year round.
I'm writing to help you understand what Christians
hold in common, a helpful step toward being one family in Christ.
I'll also explore what you can do in your relationships with
Protestant Christians to develop mutual understanding and respect.
This is in the spirit of ecumenism, a movement to promote unity
and cooperation among Christiansfor instance, between
Luis and Albert.
Luis is Catholic and Albert is Presbyterian. Both
16, the boys are close friends. Recently they were together
on a youth retreat for Catholic teens but open to all young
people. They discussed how being friends has helped them understand
one another's faith.
"I've heard Protestant kids say really dumb things
about Catholics. For example, someone said they worship the
pope and another said Catholics help the poor because they think
it will get them to heaven. Once, someone even said Catholics
aren't really Christians," Albert said.
"I never thought too much about it until I got
to know Luis," he continued. "I heard him talk about going to
youth group, working on mission projects, helping teach younger
kidsit sounded like the kind of stuff we do in our youth
group. Luis has been a good example for me too. He's seriously
dedicated to God and to the Church."
Luis smiled, "Albert might sound like he thinks
of me as his Catholic friend, but I don't think he does. I'm
just his friend, Christian like him, but I go to a different
church. Friendship doesn't mean ignoring our differences, but
learning more about and respecting each other."
Chances are you have friends who aren't Catholic.
Maybe they don't seem to believe much differently than you do.
All your life, you will be encountering and often working with
Protestant Christians. Future marriages in your family and among
your friends could bring the issue even closer to your door.
Ecumenism doesn't mean giving up important convictions
for the sake of peace. Ecumenism means moving toward unity among
all Christians. It involves attitudes as well as actions. It
means we cooperate with one another in talking about our differences
and we celebrate our common heritage.
Before 1964, when the Second Vatican Council issued
a document on ecumenism, many Catholics believed it was wrong
to visit other Churches. This has changed.
A few of the smaller Protestant denominations
have adopted the pre-1964 disposition that most Catholics have
now abandoned. Their attitude is called a "separatist conviction,"
and, just as it sounds, they prefer to be separate and not to
associate unnecessarily with those who have beliefs different
from theirs. Most, however, are open to making links, just as
Why are there so many Christian Churches? The
earliest division between what are called the Eastern and the
Western Churches began with the division of the Roman Empire
between the two sons of Emperor Theodosius who died in 395 A.D.
It was supposed to be like a state linenot such a great
division in our countrybut because it followed existing
divisions between languages and cultures, it turned out to be
more like a national border. This separation, over time, led
to the separation of the Churches as well.
Although it is difficult to say when the disputes
really took hold, the Eastern Churches (Greek, Middle Eastern,
Slavic, Russian...) experienced disagreement with Western (Latin-speaking
or West European) Christianity and split in the early 11th century.
Some Eastern Churches later reunited with the
Roman Church and these are called Eastern-rite Catholic Churches.
Even though Eastern-rite Catholics observe their own way of
celebrating the sacraments, and their canon law and customs
sometimes seem unfamiliar to Roman Catholics, they teach the
same faith and morals. While the Eastern Orthodox Church
remains separated from the Roman Catholic Church at this time,
we share a great deal in common.
Just as some of the Eastern Churches were reuniting
with the Western Church, it seems, other divisions began within
the West. The word Protestant was given to those involved
in a movement of protest begun in Germany by Martin Luther,
a Catholic monk. He didn't intend to break from the Church.
Nonetheless the movement to which he gave voice spread all over
It created many divisions in Western Christianity
which was already divided from the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Forms of Protestantism multiplied as believers felt free to
argue different aspects of faith. Protestantism couldn't be
easily labeled or pinned down. It was, and still is, diverse
and encompasses many expressions of faith.
Luther's basic disagreements still define some
of the complexities that separate Christians, even in a post-Vatican
II atmosphere of increased friendliness. Luther believed that
human impurity from Original Sin remained after Baptism, making
it impossible for us to please God.
Since he believed Original Sin remained, he concluded
that God puts us in right standing by our faith and that the
good, loving things we do have no part in our redemption. This
is known as justification (made worthy of salvation) by faith.
Experts in both Lutheran and Roman Catholic teaching on this
subject have come to new understandings that we might someday
Martin Luther also emphasized the Scriptures as
the primary source of Christian truth. He once said, "My conscience
is captive to the word of God." Today, both Roman Catholics
and Lutherans see that the word of God is interpreted by Church
authoritiesand by Christians themselvesin every
Church. The debate is really over who has the authority to declare
the meaning of the Bible. That debate continues but we are coming
ever closer to a common understanding.
Community of Faith
Catholic spirituality tends to be less independent
than American Protestantism. Catholicism places more emphasis
on the life of the faith community than on the personal
experience of the individual believer.
This difference struck me at a retreat I attended
as a young teen. Youth from various Christian traditions had
worked together to organize the event. We spent the weekend
learning about leadership modeled after Jesus Christ.
During the closing ceremony one of the Protestant
youth ministers suggested, "Shut your eyes and imagine Jesus
talking to you about your life. No one else matters. Forget
your pastor, your parents, your friends, like the song says,
'You and Jesus got your own thing going.' "
I didn't know why his words made me uncomfortable.
Later, I talked to our parish priest about it. He helped me
understand that a more private or personal religion seems foreign
to most Catholics because Catholicism teaches that Christians
are nurtured and grown in communitythat "no one has their
own thing going with Jesus; no one cuts any private deals."
This is perhaps best expressed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation,
which makes sorrow, forgiveness and penance part of its public
Catholics believe "It is through Christ's Catholic
Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation,
that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained"
(Decree on Ecumenism, #3). This is not written in a spirit
of excluding anyone, however, but in a spirit of inclusion.
It also allows that "means of salvation" are to be found in
many ways, if not in their fullness.
Catholic belief recognizes the crucial, unique
role of the Church in the lives of the People of God. The Church,
headed by the pope (the Bishop of Rome) united with other bishops,
has been instituted by Christ through the apostle Peter to bring
all human beings to reconciliation with God. For Catholics,
the sacraments are the means by which Christ's grace comes to
us as members of the Body of Christ. The grace received by the
whole Church through these sacraments contributes to our unity
as a body of believers.
Baptism is a sacramental bond that unites all
who are baptized, whether Catholic or not. The faith of non-Catholic
Christians is birthed and nurtured by the same Christ and strengthened
in worship, at least some sacraments and the Scripture, just
like the faith of Catholics.
One of the most common differences I've noticed
is what experts call the Catholic sacramental mind. This means
that most Catholics view God as present in our world. God can
use the things of creation to unite us with God.
Some Protestants whom you may meet view God as
less active in the world. Why? They feel that sin has so influenced
creation that it isn't really good in itself. They might say
that while God might be discerned in events here and there,
like splinters of light in the darkness, these are exceptions.
Protestant belief concludes that division and conflict exist
between God and creation because of Original Sin.
Years ago, as part of a Protestant youth group,
I visited a large zoo. While walking around, I heard one teen
say to her friends, "It's a shame that all this [world] has
been so ruined. Animals are vicious; storms kill thousands;
it's like creation gone nuts."
Someone agreed, "Goes to show just how bad the
world is. Remember when the Sunday school teacher said that
God is separated from us?"
I suspect you will be less likely to find this
among your friends now. Many find the world to be basically
a good place where it's easy to find evidence of God in the
beauty of the earth.
Catholics take this attitude a bit further and
use many objects they call sacramentals. Sacramentals are actions
and signs understood to be holy because of the blessing of the
Church. For instance, holy water, holy oils and candles have
been blessed by a priest and Catholics treat them with reverence
and use them as reminders of God.
In a relatedand much more significant and
powerfulway, Catholics believe that in Eucharist the substance
of the bread and wine becomes the substance of the Body and
Blood of Christ. Christ is present, giving himself as spiritual
food to the People of God.
Most Protestants believe the bread and wine are
only symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ. Many celebrate
communion once a month, or even less often. OthersLutherans,
members of the Church begun by Martin Luther, for exampleparticipate
in Eucharist every Sunday. They believe that Christ is present
in Communion but that the bread and wine are not actually changed
into his body and blood.
Centered on Jesus
Julie attended Catholic school until two years
ago when she entered the public high school, her only choice.
She began attending a Bible study at school and discovered that
most of the kids were Protestant.
She smiles when she says, "I was something of
an oddity. They really jumped on asking me all those questions
they thought they'd never be able to ask without offending someone.
"It surprised me how much they talked about the
pope. It was like they thought every Catholic home has a direct
line to the pope and we receive daily instructions or something."
Julie says her Protestant friends were a little
surprised when she explained that the pope isn't the center
of her faith and "I don't think all that much about him. Yes,
we respect him and recognize that he represents Christ to us.
But the center of my faith is Jesus Christ, not the pope."
Keenan, 15, remembers discussing religious beliefs
in a small group setting at an event to which people from different
Churches came. "We seemed to get stuck on how we're different
from each other. Finally, the group leader helped us focus on
what we have in common. When we did that, the atmosphere changed.
You could feel everyone take a deep breath and relax," he said.
A striking facet of Vatican II's groundbreaking
1964 statement on ecumenism is the concern expressed by the
leaders of the Council that the sin of disunity among Christians
finds its cause in all of usnot just Protestants,
not just Catholics.
In his 1995 encyclical (letter to the whole Church),
Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), Pope John Paul II
strongly encouraged all people to pray for religious unity.
He wrote that "...through prayer the quest for unity, far from
being limited to a group of specialists, comes to be shared
by all the baptized."