In the News: Catholics and Orthodox

As many of you know, there has been an official division between the Eastern and Western churches — later known as the “Orthodox” and “Roman Catholic” branches of Christianity — since the year 1054.  The separation actually began much earlier, but that’s the date people point to.

Pope and Patriarch KyrilThere have been glimmers of hope for reconciliation here and there (see this link and also this one, for just a few of the important events that have happened over time), but the two groups have never achieved full unity.  But just today, CNN posted a story about Pope Francis’s plan to meet the “Patriarch” (that is, the head) of the Russian branch of the Orthodox church.  The meeting is to take place next week in Cuba, during Patriarch Kyril’s planned visit to Cuba.  The story is a nice one for us, as it refers to multiple events in church history!

This kind of story warms my heart significantly.  I come from a branch of Christianity that has always said that we value church unity… but we haven’t done a good job of letting our actions match our words.  But I’m convinced that, in this century, we will find our similarities to be MUCH more important than our differences.  Let us remember Jesus’ prayer to the Father in John’s Gospel: “…that they may be one as we are one.”

So, a set of questions: What do you think?  Are you hopeful?  Pessimistic?

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Noll, Ch. 12: The Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910 CE)

Noll’s chapter 12 is devoted to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910.  Many people consider this event the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. The 19th century did see some important progress in missions (and other ministry activities) via various “voluntary societies” – Noll notes how many more people became Christians during that century. However, it was not until the 20th century that we saw true ecumenical cooperation, that is, joint work at the level of whole denominations.

Two other notes about the chapter before we get to the discussion questions:

  • First, a contemporary reader will likely note that, while this conference seems really important, it doesn’t seem to represent worldwide Christianity. Indeed, this early event was pretty Anglo- and Protestant-focused. Happily, the later ecumenical movement was much more diverse.
  • Second, I was impressed to see the Moravians come up yet again.  They are not a large group within Christianity, numerically speaking, but they seem to keep showing up via their missionary and theological emphases.

Edinburgh, 1910

Two potentially helpful links on this material:

Now, for some questions to consider:

  1. This “worldwide conference” on missions was overwhelmingly represented by people with English or other European ancestry, and it was entirely Protestant. Do you know of examples of groups (religious or otherwise) that are supposed to be “representative” but are actually skewed so as to represent only one or two sub-groups? How can this skewing affect the life of that group?
  2. The missionaries at the Edinburgh conference saw the evangelization of the entire world as imminent. Do you think this goal is one that can be truly achieved, or is it simply an ideal to aim for? What shapes your opinion on this question?
  3. Another question that the conference took up was how much Christianity, in the forms they knew it, should be considered as the single, true revelation of God to humankind. In your opinion, how much of God is revealed in other world religions? How would you address that question with a friend from another world religion?
  4. One aspect of Noll’s chapter has to do with the question of “indigenization,” that is, making Christianity “native” in a new culture. This indigenization can happen by means of music, cultural influences, worldviews, etc. What are some ways in which Christianity has become indigenized in the United States?  (Two manifestations I can see, on the positive side, are the use of American English in our worship services and the native composition of most of our worship songs.  On the other hand, one negative manifestation would be the creeping individualism that is growing in our churches as it grows in our culture.)  What do you think?
  5. Some missionaries and many early converts to Christianity lost their lives for their faith. How do their stories strike us, given our cultural condition in which the Christian faith is protected and (generally) accepted by outsiders? Are these stories simply to be admired? Do they inspire us in some way? How so?
  6. Many historians and culture-observers note that, relatively speaking, Christianity is on the decline in the United States as it has been in Europe for many decades. Can you imagine a world in which North American Christians are actually on the fringes of world Christian society?  In other words, can you imagine a world in which “southern” and “eastern” Christians come to North America to encourage the Christians here?  What would that be like?

Image credit: (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 13

Contemporary Catholicism

As some of you know, I grew up (and still am) in a Protestant denomination, but I did my Ph.D. in church history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  One of the MANY great things that happened during my time in South Bend was that I got to know Catholicism much, much better — not just individual Catholic brothers and sisters, but also the broader movement as a whole and in its diversity.  Some of you currently belong to Catholic churches or have in the past, and so you are naturally aware of aspects of modern Catholicism — but some of you do not have that knowledge.  As a result, I want to reflect upon an important event that ended right at fifty years ago — the so-called “Second Vatican Council” — and what it means for contemporary Catholicism.

Now, because of our various backgrounds, I can’t assume that you know much about pre-Vatican-II Catholicism before this week.  Among Protestants, probably the most well-known feature of older Catholicism is the use of Latin in each church’s worship., as opposed to the “vernacular” (that is, local languages).  Also, if you’ve seen certain movies, you might know that the priest used to celebrate the Mass with his back to the congregation, facing the back wall.  And you might possibly be familiar with the relative lack of good preaching in Catholic churches at that time, and how many Catholics viewed worship as a confusing experience.


I’m willing to bet, though, that you did not know about how closed off the Catholic church was during recent centuries; in fact, one of the greatest enemies of 19th-century Catholicism was the so-called “modernism,” as this list of 80 (!) modern “errors” that Pope Pius IX rejected can testify.  In fact, some authors have argued that pre-Vatican-II Catholicism was largely about protecting a type of “medieval fortress,” with as few gates as possible open to the modern world.

Of course, there were exceptions, as you may also know.  For example, Jesuit missionaries traveled very far afield, even experimenting with new missionary methods.  Also, there were many Catholic thinkers who were in conversation with the modern world; the controversial priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin provides just one example.  But for the most part, especially in the West, “Catholicism” was often associated by Protestants with being “conservative,” and even sometimes “backward.”

But in the wake of Vatican II, many changes have happened, as you now know.  Catholics can now experience worship in the vernacular (German in Leipzig, English or Spanish in the part of Texas where I live, etc.).  They can now see their priest’s face, as he faces them around a table that is much closer to the congregation.  They can hear good preaching – even if it is rather short.  And those of us who are Protestants would probably be more welcomed than we would have been 50 years ago.

Those changes are rather well-known.  But what about some less famous modifications that still impact us?  One important one is the growth in Catholic participation in ecumenical movements.  The recent Pope John Paul II was well-known for this sort of thing, in his visiting of Eastern Orthodox churches, and even sharing Communion with its leaders!   Second, if you were to take my own road and attend graduate school at a Catholic university, you would enjoy much more academic freedom there than you would have before Vatican II.  There wouldn’t be as much need to line up your research with traditional Catholic teaching.  Finally, we’ve seen new emphases in Catholicism: on youth ministry, on using media in ministry (e.g., the TV network EWTN), and on composing new, indigenous worship music.

The term that most accurately describes one goal of the Second Vatican Council is the Italian word “aggiornamento,” which means “bringing up to date.”  Catholicism certainly hasn’t been well-known for being innovative in its recent history; if anything, it’s been known for being behind.  And so, just bringing the Church “up to date” is a real win for Catholicism.  Sometimes just catching up is really important.

pope_francisBut why is this important for those of us who are Christian but not Catholic?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First, Catholic churches are no longer places that ought to feel particularly intimidating to us.  A lot of the barriers have come down in that regard.  Second, we can learn about recent Popes – people like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I – and we can truly admire them.  The reality is that we really have a lot in common with them, whereas before we might have thought of them as “stick-in-the-mud Catholics” who are really different.

The final reason this is important is that, as our world continues to change, I really think that we will become more and more dependent on our fellow Christians, of whatever stripe.  It will become more and more important than we can join together in common work, even though we have doctrinal differences.  Thus, it will be important that we can know and learn more about Catholicism, just as it will be important that Catholicism is more and more able to learn about and accept us.

Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that those who come after his disciples “will be one,” and that that oneness will be a testimony to the world concerning Jesus.  May it be so among us!

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