The Imperative for Ecumenism

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Home is where we start from. T.S. Eliot wrote those words and they are true for all of us in terms of religion and our understanding of the particular denomination within which we were raised.

I was born and raised a Roman Catholic with deep roots. My parents had a strong faith and they made sure that faith and religious practice were central to every aspect of our lives. We went to mass whenever we could, daily when it was available, went to confession at least every two weeks, prayed the rosary daily in our home, recited the Angelus together at least twice a day, learned a good number of prayers, memorized the Catholic catechism, had a picture of the pope hanging in our house, and believed that Roman Catholicism, among all religions and Christian denominations was the sole true faith, the only fully valid religion. We didn’t believe that others, Protestants and peoples of other religions, would not go to heaven, but we were not exactly sure how this would happen, given that we believed that they were not of the true faith. Because of this, we lived in a certain suspicion of other denominations and religions, secure in our own truth, but cautious always about intermingling religiously with others, fearing that somehow what we believed might be watered-down or contaminated by religious contact with non-Roman Catholics.

And that was, and is, a good place to start from. I am deeply grateful for having such strong, conservative, religious roots. But a lot of things have changed for me since I was a young, idealistic, Roman Catholic boy growing up in an immigrant community on the Canadian prairies. Early on in my seminary years, my professors, honest scholars (and mostly Roman Catholic priests), exposed me to some wonderful Anglican and Protestant biblical scholars and theologians whose insights and commitment deepened my understanding of Jesus and helped rivet me more firmly in my own religious life.

Later on in my seminary years, I was joined in the classroom by men and women from various Christian denominations, all of whom were studying for ministry and all of whom had a deep commitment to Christ. Friendship with them and respect for their faith did not lead me to leave Roman Catholicism and join another denomination, but it did begin to reshape my thinking about what constitutes true faith and true religion. It helped me too to realize that our commonality as Christians largely dwarfs our differences.

Since my ordination I have taught and ministered in various countries and in various universities and seminaries. I have prayed with, shared faith with, lectured to, and become deep friends with men and women of every kind of denominational and religious persuasion: Anglicans, Episcopalians, Protestants, Evangelicals, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and sincere humanistic searchers. I have been nurtured deeply in both my faith and my spirituality by Anglican and Protestant thinkers such as C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jim Wallis, Jurgen Moltmann, and Alan Jones, among others. Today, alongside my Roman Catholic community, among those who help anchor my religious commitment, soul mates in the faith, there are a good number of Anglicans, Episcopalians, Protestants, Evangelicals, and persons from various other religions. Their faith and friendship has helped me internalize something that Virginia Woolf once said: Why are we so hard on each other, she asked, when life is so difficult for all of us and when, in the end, we value the same things? She was speaking about the lack of empathy between the sexes, but she could just as easily have been speaking about the lack of empathy between different denominations and different religions.

This is not to suggest that all religions are equal or that all denominations within Christianity are equal paths to God. There is nothing parochial or narrow in believing that one’s own church is the right one or in believing that belonging to a certain church is more than a matter of historical accident or simple ecclesial taste. Deep loyalty to the truth as one perceives it is one mark of a genuine faith.

But this does suggest that we must be open to a new empathy towards those whose church is different than ours and to a wider understanding of what it means to belong to a particular denomination or religion. Sometimes we must repent too of our denominationalism.

Perhaps what this suggests most of all is that we must be open to a deeper understanding of the ineffability of God and the humility that asks of us. I’m still a committed Roman Catholic, but, like the Evangelist, John, I know now that Jesus has other sheep that are not of this fold. I’m glad for that, glad too for the words of the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz:

Would you think it odd if Hafiz said, ‘I am in love with every church, and mosque, and temple, and any kind of shrine because I know it is there that people say the different names of the one God.