Educational Ecumenism: Learning from our Brothers and Sisters in Christ

“It is my hope that interreligious and ecumenical cooperation will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters,” said Pope Francis at an interreligious meeting in Sri Lanka in 2016. He also professed that, “if we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common.” I had the chance to witness such ecumenicism this weekend. My roommate belongs to the Church of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon church. And I was able to accompany him to his Sunday service. I was interested about what the service would be like and what would be taught in the talks. Remarkably, I gained a lot from the service, as many aspects of the Christian life that we hold in common were presented. It is humbling to be reminded by another faith that you are not always living out yours to the best of your abilities. Having an open mind toward others, while remaining true to your convictions, may surprise you with what you can learn. In particular, I was reminded of the importance of being present and involved in the mass and your parish, knowing the Scriptures, and living out charity daily.

I believe that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. One of our greatest treasures is that of apostolic succession - the fact that we can trace the lineage of popes all the way back to when Christ tells Peter, “[a]nd so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Our Church comes directly from the authority of Christ. And, he left us the Eucharist, his true Body and Blood, which he gave to us at the Last Supper. It is the “source and summit of the Christian Life,” from where we receive grace and abundant blessings (Lumen Gentium 11). There are also many other rich traditions that the Church has practiced throughout the centuries. The veneration of the saints, the rosary, and Church doctrine are riches that we pass on through the Tradition of the Church. They are not arcane formalities, but eternal truths.

Still, one aspect of the Mormon service that struck me was that members of the congregation were chosen to give talks during the first part of the service. The topics covered many themes including being children of God, service, and the Christian calling. During another part of the service, members of the congregation led groups of members, their same age, in Sunday school. A guy in his mid-20s led my group in discussing a reading about service.

The Catholic Church has a richness in the tradition of the priesthood, being the leader of the parish and minister of the Sacraments. But, these Mormons giving talks in front of the congregation made me wonder how many Catholics would be willing to give a talk at mass, if that were a part of our liturgy; and, it reminded me of how easy it can be to approach the mass in a passive way, just sitting in the pew without paying attention to the Word being professed.

Catholic involvement in the mass has been declining in recent decades. According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey, only around 40% of US Catholics say that they attend mass weekly. Not attending mass weekly may also correlate with a lack of participation in mass when you do go. That is a big generalization. But, if you do not go to the gym regularly, you will be out of shape when you do - the same with the mass. More astonishingly, a Pew Forum study found that less than 50% of Catholics believe in the True Presence of the Eucharist - the center of the liturgy and our faith. If you do not believe that, upon what is your Catholic faith based? As I mentioned before, it is the source and summit of the Christian life. If Christ is the Son of God, then everything that he said must be true, including, “‘this is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me,’” and “‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you’” (Luke 22:19-20).

A common stereotype of Catholics is that we have ignorance of Scripture. And, as St. Jerome said, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” There is such a depth to the mass and the Sacraments and how they relate to Scripture that it is a wonder why we still do not know Scripture as well as our Christian brothers and sisters. That stereotype should challenge us to dive deeper into the Scriptures, the Eucharist, and the mass. There is often talk about the shortage of priests in the Church. But, with an increase in priests needs to come a rise in devout parishioners. Is it just that there are not enough priests to lead parishes, or that we as Catholics are not doing enough to foster a culture that encourages young men and women to pursue their religious vocation? Surely, more priests are needed to administer the Sacraments. But, holy lay people are also needed to be active in the Church and guide society toward charity in Christ. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “sanctify yourself, and you will sanctify society.”

Another interesting part of the Mormon faith, is their sincere following of the fourth commandment - keep holy the sabbath day. They try their hardest not to do any labor, for school or work, on Sunday, and reserve it for church and family. In that way, Sunday is set apart from the rest of the week as a special day. In college, I had a few Catholic friends who did the same thing. They had such a freedom and joy on Sunday because it was their day of rest. I think it takes a lot of self-restraint and trust to live in such a way. You have to be diligent the rest of the week to accomplish your work, and you have to trust that God will see through whatever you did not get to complete. Then, on Sunday, you can do what truly matters, spend time with God and your family. It truly focuses your week and your life back on Christ.

Mormons also devote themselves to missionary work. Usually, each person goes on a two year mission to serve and share their religion. What an active way to live out their faith. In the Catholic Church there are countless religious orders, charities, and missionary groups that serve the impoverished and share the Gospel. But, often these activities are limited to those called to a religious vocation, or those very involved in their parish. For others, acts of charity are limited to throwing a $20 in the basket during the preparation of the gifts during mass. In that mentality is a strong sense of bystanderism. We think that as long as we show up to mass and do our weekly duty, we have done enough. And, even when we do go to mass, we easily become complacent by not paying attention and not participating. We reduce it to just another thing to check off our weekly list, to make sure we get to heaven, or to please our family. But, Catholicism is not just a requirement for Sundays, it is a lifestyle centered on a person, Jesus Christ. If we call ourselves Catholics, we have to fully accept what Christ and his Church teach, and do our best to live it out on a daily basis.

My previous parish priest, an old yet vivacious man, used to always say that Christ came to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted.” We, often time comforted by a lifestyle of convenience, can do more to give of ourselves daily in a way like St. Mother Teresa said, “doing small things with great love.” Or as Pope Francis said, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” “Out in the streets” can mean visiting the sick and impoverished in far away places. Or, more easily, you can simply live charitably toward your family, coworkers, and the needy in your community. Acts of charity, large and small, are what will convert our own hearts and society.

The Catholic faith is so rich with teaching and traditions that have been passed down for 2000 years. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in mass attendance and a rise in fallen away Catholics. However, there is a new generation of Catholics who are seeking to understand more about Jesus through the Church and her Tradition. The pendulum is swinging back from a lack of catechesis post-Vatican II toward a revived interest in the beauty of the faith. By realizing what we ourselves are lacking, trying to grow in our faith daily, and “opening wide the doors to Christ,” we will find our salvation and attract others to do the same (St. John Paul II). And by encouraging all of our Christian brothers and sisters to fully encounter Christ, Jesus’s prayer to God the Father will be fulfilled: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).