Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic features a big question the Church is facing. This month, Father Alan Wielinski and Lutheran Pastor Ben Durbin dialogue about their experiences of Christian unity.
Father Alan is pastor of Our Lady of Victory in Fergus Falls, St. Elizabeth in Elizabeth and St. Leonard of Port Mauritius in Pelican Rapids. Pastor Ben currently serves at Eagle Lake Lutheran Church in Battle Lake. He and his wife, Ruth, have two daughters, Lucy and Zinnia.
Q: Jan. 18-25 is the Week of Christian Unity. What is Christian unity and why is it important?
FATHER ALAN: Christian unity is, first of all, a spiritual reality! All who are baptized in Christ are united by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism …” (Ephesians 4:5). So this is a great gift that all followers of Christ share in, this unity.
God himself brings about our unity and makes us one. The challenge today with so many different Christian denominations is how can we reflect and better live out this unity. Denominational differences sometimes seem more important than the witness and acknowledgement of our oneness in the Lord. Jesus acknowledged that there would be challenges when he fervently prayed that “all may be one” as he and the Father are one. That beautiful prayer is found in John 17.
PASTOR BEN: Christian unity is the recognition that Christians throughout the world form one Body of Christ. While we have many various gifts and perspectives, at the end of the day we are brothers and sisters — siblings — in Christ which supersedes any divisions among us.
Recognizing our oneness in Christ is so important, especially today in our divided and divisive world, because it reminds us how God is so much more concerned with our being loving than being “right.” When we remember our “right-ness” or righteousness comes only from God through Jesus, we can embody the grace and love this world so deeply needs.
Q: You’ve done some work together in your community around this topic. How did that relationship begin?
FATHER ALAN: The recent experiences surrounding the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 are a beautiful example. This included a series of Lutheran- Catholic lunchtime study and discussion sessions and culminated in a celebration hosted at Our Lady of Victory and led by St. Cloud Bishop Donald Kettler and Lutheran Bishop Larry Wohlrabe. All of this was preceded by OLV receiving a letter from one of the ELCA congregations in town in which, in the same spirit as Pope Francis had asked forgiveness on behalf of the Catholic Church for any historical, hurtful actions towards our Protestant brothers and sisters, the Lutheran congregation in turn asked our forgiveness for any hurtful actions they had caused historically or locally. At Easter time that year (2016), OLV responded by sending them a card and Easter lily, and then our church councils met together a couple of times socially.
PASTOR BEN: The work that I did in Fergus Falls toward public expressions of Christian unity began in 2017 as the five ELCA congregations and Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church worked together to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. It was such a joy to experience Christian community with Lutheran, Catholic and other denominational Christians who were committed to following Jesus together and learning from one another. The spirit of unity that filled the sanctuary during our commemorative service at OLV was nothing short of awe-inspiring. How great is our God! I’m so grateful to have been able to be a part of that expression of Christian unity.
Q: What kinds of things have you done to promote Christian unity?
FATHER ALAN: Since Christian unity is something Jesus prayed for, I guess it must be important! Jesus is saying that it strengthens our witness as his followers. Both Pelican Rapids and Fergus Falls have active Christian ministeriums, where clergy come together on a regular basis for prayer, fellowship and common concerns.
Over the years, I personally have had many strong, personal relationships with clergy (and lay persons) of other denominations, and somehow I have felt they always made me a better Christian and priest. I’ve enjoyed getting to know some of their traditions and practices, and at the same time, felt that by our friendship we were honoring our deep unity in Christ.
PASTOR BEN: As a part of preparing for the commemorative service, we led adult studies that examined the points of agreement and remaining points of disagreement between Lutheran and Catholic Christians. While there was value in what the texts sharing with us, it was so helpful and healing to hear from people share their experiences of “being Lutheran” and “being Catholic” Christians and how so many people shared a deep longing to experience the “oneness” that Jesus talks about, that we “may be one as [he] and the Father are One.”
Q: How has the community responded to these efforts?
FATHER ALAN: We have many ecumenically-minded people in our community, so as far as our communal endeavors, we always have great participation. There are always some members of both the Catholic and Protestant congregations who are wary of any perceived “watering down” of our beliefs and practices. They are a bit more cautious and reserved. Some have wounds from the past of family members not participating in an interdenominational wedding (for instance) and eagerly welcome and promote any common activities and prayer that can bring healing.
PASTOR BEN: There was a strong response. The response to the adult studies was overwhelmingly positive and respectful of differences. The spirit of togetherness during the service commemorating the 500 years since the beginning of the Reformation was palpable with bishops from the Catholic diocese and ELCA synod preaching and shared adult and children’s choirs and bell groups leading us in song. It was beautiful.
Q: What advice do you have for families who may feel divided by differing Christian beliefs?
FATHER ALAN: For families that may feel divided I hope they can find ways to pray together — meal prayer, Thanksgiving and Christmas prayers, and perhaps read Scripture together, too. Focus on the unity of the Trinity in the diversity of their Persons: Father, Son and Spirit! That’s the unity Jesus wants us to reflect in our diversity as well. Hopefully family members can learn to respect and “live with” differences and cherish commonalities.
PASTOR BEN: When approaching others with differing Christian beliefs, try to understand why their differences are so important to them rather than convince them of your own beliefs. If you cannot embrace another’s views or beliefs perhaps you could develop an understanding and appreciation for why they believe what they believe. You may even come to love that person for their beliefs, though they differ from yours. And, in the end, love is what it’s all about. As the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Q: Jesus prayed that “all may be one.” How can we work toward unity in our daily lives?
FATHER ALAN: I think it’s the work of keeping minds and hearts open to the Holy Spirit, open to the gifts of people who may think, pray or believe differently than I do, and keeping ourselves anchored in the command to love. Practically, I guess we could be more proactive in learning about different ways of worshipping and believing, the teachings of other churches and really expect and appreciate that everyone is trying to know and love the same God. And there are so many Christian endeavors where we can work together, do great things together such as helping the poor, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and in the process get to know one another better. Also remember, as Jesus told his apostles, “Whoever is not against us is with us!”
PASTOR BEN: I believe that Christian unity is brought about by the Holy Spirit, and so we begin as Jesus began in prayer with openness to how the Holy Spirit is bringing us together as one. My experience of that has been to be led to a place of curiosity to understand Christians from other traditions and why they value what they value. When I begin to feel threatened or defensive, I am learning to question my own defensiveness rather than insist on my rightness. This is not easy as we have so many reasons for believing what we believe and it is an uncomfortable place to be. And, yet, we know that following Jesus is not a place of comfort. The call to love first — God and our neighbor — is ever before us, lighting our path through the darkness as we follow Jesus together.