By Fr. Enrico Parry of the Diocese of Oudtshoorn, Republic of South Africa
A seminarian just completed his training at the interdiocesan seminary, with flying colours, one may add, and was received with joy in the diocese. After six months helping in a parish he was ordained deacon and dispensed his diaconal ministry with zeal, looking forward to his priestly ordination.
In discussion with the soon-to-be deacon, one of the priests of the diocese learnt his attitude to Christians who are not Catholic, with whom there are in the diocese some form of ecumenical contact built up over the years. Said the young man, without a shadow of doubt or hesitation, for him “no dialogue is possible with them. The only form of ecumenical contact we should have is to teach them.” There was no arguing with him, his vision was clear and he was not going to entertain any ecumenical relations if he could not teach ‘them’ about Church and Bible. The poor priest, who knew from experience that this was definitely not transmitted by the seminary professors, left the discussion bewildered but with the hope that the young man spoke in jest only, and if he did not, that time and experience will teach him differently.
It is a sad witness of his experience and understanding of the Church for which the young man is laying down his life. It is also proof of the ever-growing move in many parts of the Church towards a neo-conservatism that has taken hold of especially younger people (see Massimo Borghesi, 2021, Catholic discordance: neoconservatism vs. the field hospital church of Pope Francis, Liturgical Press; Michael Sean Winters, 26 September 2013, “Me? A neo-con?”, https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/me-neo-con). It is, moreover, in sync with the so-called culture wars of the Catholic Church in the United States of America (see, for example Damon Linker, 10 January 2015, “The culture war finally comes to the Catholic Church” https://theweek.com/articles/442709/culture-war-finally-comes-catholic-church), which spreads its influence over the internet and especially through social media. It is a voice that speaks loudly and is heard all over the world where English is understood (see John Allen
Jr., 17 May 2013, “Demographics don’t spell an end to the culture wars”,
https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/demographics-dont-spell-end-culturewars). These wars, bemoaned by the Holy Father on occasion (Christopher White, 13
September 2021, Pope Francis to Slovakia: culture wars and isolationism won’t strengthen freedom, https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/pope-francis-slovakia-culture-wars-andisolationism-wont-strengthen-freedom), longs for the politics of a strongman, also and especially in the Church, where the doors are not opened for all, but definitely closed for some, such as adulterers, abortionists, men and women from the LGBTQ world, and the like. The world becomes a place where an attitude of ‘I am right, you are wrong, go to hell’ replaces genuine dialogue where all get a chance to speak and the assurance that they are listened to.
The young deacon will, in time and with experience in the pastoral field, growing away from the idealism that drives young people especially when they are in an institutional setting such as the seminary where it is often in their minds about getting good grades and excellent reports, discover that the path on which the pilgrims walk together (syn-hodos) is not always so neatly laid out from Introduction to Conclusion, with a mark out of a 100 at the end of it. He will learn fairly soon that the latest indications from the Magisterium in the synodal preparatory document still insist, as did the Second Vatican Council and subsequent magisterial documents especially papal ones, on the necessity of ecumenical relations. It is not an option for those who are interested in ‘that kind of thing’. This is how we walk together – not teaching them, but walking with them.
What follows is a basic description of these relations in this diocese in terms of the indications in the synod preparatory document, where the guidelines to consider in the appraisal of the reality of church are given, also in the area of no. 7: “With other Christian denominations”. What are those relations? In what areas? What are the fruits of journeying together? What are the difficulties in journeying together? The examples come in no particular order of importance or preference.
1. Anglicans and Catholics pray together
In 2010 the Diocese of Oudtshoorn received its new bishop. For his ordination, as is standard practice, the leaders of other churches were invited to the ordination. One of these was the recently ordained bishop of the Anglican Church’s Diocese of George. The borders of these two dioceses largely coincide.
Not long after, the two bishops met and decided to meet periodically to pray together and, where it is appropriate, reflect on their ministry, which they did. This turned out to be such a positive experience for them that they extended the opportunity to the priests who work closely with them in the diocese in terms of governing and administration. Soon a day was arranged for this. The first one was presented by an Anglican priest who was from a different branch of the Anglican communion and from elsewhere in the country. The next encounter was organised by the Catholic bishop, who invited one of his priests to give a reflection. And so the two dioceses alternated. The time of reflections was concluded by a meal. The location was moved alternately as well, one time in an Anglican church or chapel, and another time in a Catholic church. Eventually, the prayer and meditation was extended to include reflection and sharing on aspects of ministry. It came to an end after the Catholic see was vacated when the bishop presented his resignation to the Holy Father. Only one or two gatherings took place subsequently. The pandemic put a definite end to the days of prayer. With the advent of the new bishop in that time, this activity was not resuscitated.
This gathering came as a result of a positive experience of the two bishops, who found that they could relate to each other. The priests who participated mostly knew each other already, since they work in the same areas and often met in other ecumenical endeavours. The encounters were positive and were an occasion to strengthen relations. It was often the opportunity to begin planning common events between individual participants, such as the Palm Sunday common blessing of palms of parishes that are neighbours in a place somewhere between the church buildings with processions of each parish to its own church to continue the services.
As with the Palm Sunday blessing, other relations surround the day of prayer. On occasion the Catholic bishop was invited to lead and present the morning reflection of the diocesan synod of the Anglican diocese. One of the Catholic priests was invited to present the keynote reflection at the annual Clergy Day of the Anglican diocese. The Anglican bishop was invited to bring greetings and lead a reflection at an annual meeting of the Priests’ Council of the Catholics. The day of prayer that started between the bishops was not an ecumenical act in isolation. Other fruits of this day of prayer included a living interest in one another’s life and ministry, not only of the two bishops, but of their priests and co-workers as well.
A difficulty was that the day of prayer was an activity that grew from the personal relationship between the two bishops. When one of the dioceses had a new bishop, a new personal relationship had to be developed, perhaps between two people who could not connect as well as the other two did. At the time of writing, the Anglican Diocese of George has no bishop. Once they get one, they will have to start from scratch. It is, however, not an entirely negative ‘difficulty’, for ecumenical relations are at best personal encounters. Their strength and development will depend on such personal encounters and are not merely restricted to doctrines and theological matters and the like.
2. A ministers’ fraternal
Whereas the previous encounter is on diocesan level, the present description goes to parish level, still remaining mainly in the clerical sphere. It is namely that of the relations between pastors heading some of the churches of different denominations. These have joined together in a permanent body of sorts which serves to bring together the different churches largely in an ecumenical dialogue of life, firstly of the members themselves and secondly of their parishes or churches. Membership of the fraternal is entirely dependent on free participation and is not mandated by their churches either on local or regional level, or for the Catholic participants by parochial or diocesan demand. The Catholic participants in this fraternal, for example, represent only a fraction of the Catholics in the four different parish churches in the three towns in which the members do their ministry. The different churches involved are Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Congregational, each of these representing two or more of those churches, with one single Charismatic.
The fraternal has a distinct name, Emmanuel Ministers’ Fraternal. They have a rudimentary constitution that regulates their relationship and structures their interaction. A fixed annual calendar sets out their own monthly meetings over ten months of the year, in addition to the combined ecumenical services held in their different churches at different times in the year, involving their congregations in active participation. The fraternal meeting serves as a gathering point for community organisations wishing to approach the different churches all at once.
The monthly meetings of the ministers are the greatest point of contact and activity. Each meeting is held in a predetermined church on a rotating basis, with the local minister providing the location and the lunch. The structure of a meeting is twofold. First, the local minister who is the host, presents a reflection on a Scripture passage, and invites the others to share their insights. This takes up half or even three-quarters of the meeting time. The rest of the time is devoted to discussing common issues on the agenda, the gist of which is community based. Every agenda would include a matter of ministry that may need reflection and discussion. Agenda matters also include the common services and a work roster, community organisations that wish to meet with the fraternal to introduce some issue and get the insights of the ministers, and the like. This part of the meeting is presided over by the chairman. A secretary takes the minutes and the finance report is given by the elected official.
The fruits of this journeying together is that the ministers not only deepen their appreciation of each of the Christian traditions involved, but also and especially, provide support for each other in their ministry. In other words, the sharing provides a kind of debriefing of a ministry that can otherwise be quite lonely. Their sharing happens in a non-threatening environment, where they do not have to think twice before saying something and fearing the consequences for their livelihood or for the power dynamics either in their congregations or in their regions or dioceses. Together they are able to face the challenges in their community, since members of their congregation are neighbours, work together, and are often in one family, and so on.
The difficulties pertain to the reality that the fraternal is not a body of official dialogue as such. It is clear for most members that such dialogue takes place in official capacity and on national or international level. This is rather challenging for the more theologically-minded, who want to engage on such a level, too. Another difficulty, and perhaps flowing from the former, is that the good relations between pastors are not as easily translatable to congregations. While the latter see the amicable bond between their pastors, they are often at a loss for those things they are taught officially as regards ‘the others’. Yet another difficulty is the fact that the members are pastors of churches in historically Black and Coloured parts of the town, to the exclusion of those whose membership are (still) White. This is a particular South African difficulty which pertains to segregated living areas under apartheid. Despite efforts to address this, the fraternal has not made much progress.
3. A brass band without borders
This might be a surprising inclusion, but it is a reality not only in the one town where the brass band is at home, but is often replicated in many other towns, each band with its own history and development.
The brass band in the town of Oudtshoorn has its roots in the sixties, when especially the
German missionaries provided instruments to form just such a band. The Catholics and Lutherans had similar histories in this regards in the area of the Oudtshoorn Diocese. The members were initially mostly Catholic but were soon joined by their Lutheran counterparts. The people who trained members to read music often came from other Christian denominations, depending on their skill and expertise. Eventually the band grew to include members of other churches. In the current format, the band includes one Catholic, three Lutherans, one New Apostolic who is the music leader, three Congregationalists, one Catholic priest and a minister of the Reformed Church. They have two weekly practice sessions and play at the different congregations’ Sunday services at their invitation.
The fruits of their journeying together is that they get exposed to the Sunday services of each other and come to get an intimate knowledge and experience of that service of worship. Theirs is a respect for each of these. The community knows about them and responds well to their presence in their churches. The value of educating youth is close to the heart of the members and they make it a point to always keep it alive and develop their skills. Since it is an amateur organisation with no money to be made and no competition to win, much can be said of their commitment.
The greatest difficulty is not of an ecumenical nature, but is situated in the relations between the different age groups. In the band there are men between 50 and 70 mixing with youngsters who are in high school or have just completed it. The intergenerational dialogue is fraught with difficulties, which are often addressed in practice sessions where the music and instruments are put aside and discussions are held in a meeting session.
Whether the seminarian likes it or not and despite his attitude, he will learn that in his diocese, like the Diocese of Oudtshoorn in the Ecclesiastical Province of Cape Town Archdiocese in
South Africa, with its bishop a member of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, ecumenical relations are a living reality. A dialogue of life is already taking place on various levels of Church, including on diocesan, parochial and community levels. These relations are a demonstration of the syn-hodos or journeying together reality of Church, namely that the Catholic Church in Oudtshoorn Diocese journeys with other Christians in various situations already. Some of these have developed spontaneously or have their roots in Christian practices that have a long standing. Others are the result of a deliberate decision and commitment on the part of those who journey together. None of them are examples of a perfect kind of ecumenical dialogue or relation, but no one is asking for perfect definitions to be shown from real life. These situations or examples of journeying together are exactly that, namely they are situated in real life and will be part of the life of the church in a future that can be imagined together.