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Bishop Banks'

 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinOctober 3, 2003 Issue 

So much we share in common

Ecumenical efforts must not be allowed to fail, or be viewed indifferently

By Bishop Robert Banks

photo of Bishop Robert J. Banks
Robert J. Banks

Let me tell the story before Bp. Morneau gives his biased version.

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 secular culture.

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 church.

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 hearts.

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 "Bp. Morneau!"

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