Letting Our Loves Meet:
Ecumenism for Us Plain Old Laypeople
I run into lots of Catholics who feel bad about the divided state of Christendom yet also feel powerless to do anything about it. "After all, this is the 20th Century. Don't most Protestants know what we believe already?" they say. "So why should I talk about my faith with them? Besides, I'm a layperson. All that ecumenism stuff is for theologians, not laypeople."
Well, let me tell you, when I was an Evangelical, I lived for years in the most media-packed, multicultural society on earth. Yet my knowledge of Catholics was just road-kill on the information superhighway. I didn't know diddly. That was because I thought I knew all that was worth knowing about them already. Catholics, you see, worship Mary. They also add to the Bible, say meaningless repetitive prayers to statues, and trust in human wisdom and tradition instead of the Holy Spirit. In a nutshell, I thought I had the reality of the Spirit while Catholics had the shadow called Religion.
One day however, the Spirit opened my eyes to some actual Catholics. And I saw to my surprise that these people (particularly the woman I married)--in addition to being remarkably loveable human beings--had a lot on the ball spiritually and theologically. So much so, in fact, that I had to repent of the stereotypes and bogus "facts" I had embraced about them and resolve to listen to them in order to find out what they actually loved and believed rather than listen to my ignorant prejudice. And when I did so, this Protestant (who could no longer find anything in Catholic dogma to protest) became a Catholic.
"Ah!" says someone, "That's because of your wife! Love is blind, you silly goose! Small wonder you started seeing something in the Catholic Church after you met her!"
Now I quite agree that it's a small wonder someone as blind as me finally saw the glory of the Catholic Church. But I flatly deny that love is blind. On the contrary, love is the only thing that sees. And it was love that opened my eyes to the riches of the Catholic faith as surely as it was love that opened the eyes of Bartimaeus 2,000 years ago.
For the love of my wife Janet opened me to loving her loves. She did not shove the Church down my throat. But she did speak lovingly of it, and of its God. And this love compelled me to see her beloved Church for what it is: the river through which God had given his living water to the woman I loved. Rather than a collection of faceless, nameless caricatures, I began to see Catholics as an enormous family of people whose heritage is rich, whose love is deep, whose faith is real, whose wits are quite as sharp as mine (if not sharper) and whose struggles are as complex and painful as mine. In short, love humanized what I had dehumanized. It brought me to see Janet's Church first with empathy, then with admiration, then with embarrassed humility and finally with love and desire for full communion. For as I started seeing this Church of hers in love I became convinced, not because of infatuation with Jan, but because of conviction of the truth, that the fullness of the revelation of Christ was there and that everything I loved in my own Evangelical tradition found fulfillment and completion there.
Now I'm not the first wise guy to have this sort of thing happen. Nor is Janet the first lay Catholic whose love and goodness has ushered some well-meaning but ill-informed believer into the Catholic fold. In fact, people like Janet are simply acting in the grand 2,000-year-old tradition of a lay couple named Aquila and Priscilla who took a certain hotshot young turk named Apollos under their wing one day and changed the course of the Church's history forever.
Apollos was a gung-ho guy and a bit of a loose cannon. Like many Evangelicals today (me, f'rinstance) he was a curious combination of tremendous familiarity with Scripture coupled with a zeal that loved God but didn't always know what it was talking about when it came to the Catholic Faith. Luke writes of him "He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John [the Baptist]" (Acts 18:24-25).
In other words, we can think of him as, in a sense, a "bible Christian" on fire for Jesus but only loosely related to the Church. He knew a number of facts about Jesus and told them truly enough; he knew about John the Baptist and his proclamation of the Messiah, but he did not know yet about stuff like sacramental baptism or the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, like Evangelicals today, he was not yet in full communion with the Church but was a sort of first century "separated brother" with sharp wits and a heart of gold who was bound and determined to give God his best shot. Sound familiar?
Now imagine meeting Apollos today. You might find him on the street corner, preaching the word to passersby, busting up church meetings with enthusiastic proclamations about Jesus or witnessing to fellow officer workers with gusto and a too-loud voice. Alas, if we average Catholics did meet him, "speaking boldly" as Luke says he did in the synagogue every week, we would likely pass by on the other side of the street and wince at some of the half-cocked things he might say--especially if (as is highly possible) he said half-cocked things about the Catholic Church (like I often used to). Zealots, especially religious zealots, give us the willies, after all. We don't quite know what to do with them.
But check out what Priscilla and Aquila did. Fully realizing that this synagogue-disrupting enthusiast was probably already a bit of a persona non grata with The Authorities, they nonetheless risked their reputations and did two extremely important things. They (1) "invited him to their home" and (2) "explained the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26).
In so doing, Priscilla and Aquila revealed how we Catholic laypeople can help build up of the Body of Christ with our separated brethren rather than simply stay separated. What's more, they showed us how to do it while avoiding the twin pitfalls of triumphalism and compromise. What was their secret? Love and truth.
Aquila and Priscilla loved both Apollos and Catholic truth, refusing to pit the two against each other. They knew that Jesus had died for Apollos (as He had died for them), not because Apollos knew his Bible, but because He loved Apollos whether he knew his Bible or not. So, like Christ, they accepted Apollos and welcomed him into their home, rejoicing over his heart for God and over his determination to study and do the word of God. They did not patronize him. They respected his heart, his considerable mind and his gift of evangelism. That's the love part.
Yet they didn't just accept him, nor did they define "acceptance" as pretending that Apollos' good heart and brainy head made everything he said perfect. Rather, where Apollos had holes in his theology, they "explained to him the way of God more adequately." That's the truth part. They faced the fact that Apollos didn't have all his theological ducks in a row, but instead of berating him for it, they said, "You are doing great work! And did you know that there's even more to the gospel than that?" Then they proceeded, speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) to fill in the gaps in Apollo's theology with the fullness of the Catholic Faith by telling him about stuff like sacramental baptism, full union with the community and whatever else was lacking in his preaching. They affirmed the good work Apollos was doing for the Kingdom and set it on a firmer footing by presenting the Faith for what it was: the completion and fulfillment of Apollos' deepest desires. In short, rather than see Apollos as a competitor to the Church's work, they let their love of the truth meet Apollos' love and complete it.
Result? Apollos came away from his encounter just as bible-believing and evangelical as ever, only now he knew the baptism of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit and the fullness of communion with the Church. And that's not all. For thus strengthened by his full union with Christ in the Church, Apollos was, in turn, "a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ" (Act 18:27-28). Because of the love and truth given to him by two ordinary laypeople, Apollos went on to become one of the greatest evangelists of the early Church.
Which brings us back to where we started. For all this means there's hope for us laypeople who want to see the Church healed. Because if Janet, Aquila and Priscilla can speak the truth in love, so can we.
So let's not run from gung-ho Christians. Let's welcome them into our lives, thank God for them and their gifts and love them with everything we've got. At the same time, let us, as Catholic Christians, be authentic with them and never settle for anything less than the Full Meal Deal of Truth and Love that Jesus told us to keep safe for our children. That means we must really understand what the Church teaches about stuff and why. Then, when gung-ho guys like me or Apollos come along with enthused but ill-informed notions of the gospel, we can, like Aquila and Priscilla (who were tentmakers, not rocket scientists), let our love and truth shine rather than wishy-washily mumble about being "just a layman."
Of course, that's easier said than done. It takes a little elbow grease to love your neighbor and learn about the Faith. Yet even so, it's still a lot easier than you think if you start small. How? Well, for starters try focusing on just one person by having a simple dinner and walk with the nice non-Catholic guy at the office who loves the Lord. Get to know him. Speak to him frankly as a Catholic Christian, not to "convert" him but simply to be authentic with him. After all, you are a Catholic Christian, so there's no point in pretending you aren't. Wherever possible celebrate your commonalities, but if he says, "Why do you Catholics believe X [insert non-Protestant belief]" tell him why. If you don't know, say so and then go find out from a reliable source like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In turn, ask, "What do you love--about God, about your church, about your family?" When you find out, find the place in your love of the Catholic Faith which speaks to that love. That's where hearts really come together--like strangers sharing pictures of their kids. Instead of trying to pretend to be what you aren't, focus on honestly being the Catholic Christian you are and seek to find him at the heart of what he is. For in the end, to be ecumenical is to act out of love and truth.
"Hey!," you say, "that's something I can do!" Of course! As Jesus said, His yoke is easy and his burden light. For his yoke is love and his burden is truth.
Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea