So much we share in common
Ecumenical efforts must not be allowed to fail, or be viewed indifferently
By Bishop Robert Banks
Let me tell the story before Bp. Morneau gives his biased
The scene is Bakers Square restaurant in Appleton. Bp. Morneau
and I are having lunch with our ecumenical counterparts: Bp. James
Justman of the local synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of
America and Bp. Russell Jacobus of Fond du Lac's Episcopal Diocese.
It is our annual get-together for conversation and golf, so we are
dressed for the golf game that follows lunch.
Toward the end of the meal, the very nice young woman waiting on
our table asked, "Aren't you Bp. Banks?" She naturally wasn't sure
because of the way I was dressed. I told her she was right, and she
said she had been a student at St. Joseph's School and Xavier High.
"You were the bishop all that time, she added. We chatted a little
bit more, and she took off. Nothing was said to Bp. Morneau.
After she left, Bp. Morneau began moaning to our group about how
I was the one who was recognized, after just 12 years in the
Diocese, while he had been here for 65 years and no attention was
paid to him.
All this was said with a smile, of course, but I could just hear
him telling this sad story, with tears, all over the Diocese for
the next year. It will take the place of the story about his
throwing out the football at the Bishop's Charities game the year
the Packers won the Superbowl, while I threw it out the year we
lost the Superbowl.
Much more important than our friendly rivalry is the fact of our
friendship with the local Lutheran and Episcopal bishops. While we
do not have many "official" meetings, the informal get-togethers
are signs, I like to think, of the good relationship existing
between our churches. Our conversations about what goes on in our
churches are very open, frank and friendly. We sympathize with the
difficulties experienced in one another's churches, and we wonder
together how the Gospel can be lived and spread in an increasingly
While I always enjoy these get-togethers, when I leave them I
also feel a little sad that we and our churches have to remain
separate. There is so much we share in common, especially our love
of the Lord and our dedication to the Gospel; but each of us and
our churches hold on to truths that we are convinced are essential.
And each of our church communities has a history that tends to
block the way, and our people have a deep and personal love of
their own church.
There is no question that the ecumenical effort is not as
important in peoples' mind as it used to be. And the drive toward
church unity has definitely lost momentum. In the United States, a
good part of that results from the very American tendency to feel
that it really doesn't make much difference what church you belong
to. And, lately, that has changed so that many now feel it doesn't
make much difference whether or not you belong to any
Apart from the religious indifferentism that is characteristic
of our country, it just seems that the ecumenical effort has run
into two main obstacles. First, there is a re-awakened loyalty to
one's own religious group, and, second, there seem to be
theological and political problems that resist solution. And I fear
that there are, increasingly, some serious ethical issues that will
make our journey to visible unity difficult.
An acceptable Pope
Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has recognized the new
situation. Not that he has given up. Most remarkable was his
suggestion that there be a joint reflection "to find a way of
exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is
essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation."
In other words, let's see if there is a way to be Pope that would
be acceptable to all Christian groups.
In comments about the ecumenical movement at the beginning of
this year, the Pope said, "At times, we sense a certain weariness,
a lack of fervor, while still experiencing the pain that we are not
yet able to share the Eucharistic Banquet."
Of course, our Pope is not one to become discouraged. He points
us to renewed faith in the Holy Spirit, since it is only the Spirit
that can give Christians the full visible unity that we need. The
unity we desire will be a gift of the Spirit, not just the result
of our efforts. So prayer for the unity of all Christians,
especially at Mass, should be frequently on our minds and in our
Jesus desires unity
As Catholics, we believe that the unity Jesus desires for his
Church is "concretely embodied in the Catholic Church, despite the
human limitations of her members." But, as the Pope has said, this
unity is also "at work in varying degrees in all the elements of
holiness and truth to be found in the other Churches and Ecclesial
Communities." We pray that the Spirit will keep us working to bring
to visible unity all those varying ways in which we all try to
follow the Lord.
As Americans, we have to beware of religious indifferentism
which, in many ways, is the worst enemy of true ecumenism. It
does matter whether we belong to a church, and it does
matter to which church we belong. Because it does matter, each
loves his or her own church, and respects the holiness and truth
found in what others believe.
Going back to that incident at Bakers Square, no bishop should
be too concerned about people recognizing him. I am regularly
greeted by older folk with "Good morning, Bp. Bona."
As I thought about the young woman's greeting, it dawned on me
that, 30 years from now, after I am long gone, older people will be
greeting the new bishop with "Good morning, Bp. Banks," or even