Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Ecumenical Legacy of the Second Vatican Council: Reflections of an Accidental Ecumenist

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Ecumenical Legacy of the Second Vatican Council: Reflections of an Accidental Ecumenist

Article excerpt

My mother used to remind me that my ecumenical and interfaith interests were already apparent in my childhood as I, a Methodist, tried to understand the religious differences present in our predominantly Roman Catholic and Jewish neighborhood in suburban Washington, DC. These differences were on display when, as a primary school student in the early 1960's, I was joined by Catholic and Jewish friends after class for a mutual sharing of gifts on my family's back porch: We worked together on CCD (religious education) class preparations and Hebrew lessons, and during breaks I led the singing of "Jesus Loves Me" while we all moved in rhythm on the backyard swings.

My curiosity about Christian difference was piqued after I was invited to join two of my Catholic friends for Mass one Sunday morning. Worship was in a language I had never heard before; the pungent yet sweet odor in the room was almost overpowering; and the worshipers never seemed to sit still as they did in my church. Even experience as an acolyte in my Methodist congregation had not prepared me for this. I survived the hour by copying the behavior of my friends in a liturgical posture and gesture game of "Simon says." When 1 asked the mother of one of my friends why they used a strange language in their liturgy, I vividly remember her telling me--with excitement in her voice--that soon they would be worshiping in English.

I thus grew up alongside the unfolding results of the liturgical and ecumenical movements as well as those of the Second Vatican Council. I have benefitted personally as Christians agreed to learn from and welcome one another: as an organist in a Lutheran congregation while a young teen; as a youth worker during college in a rural Baptist congregation, which was more concerned about my openness to glossolalia than the sprinkling of baptismal waters on my infant head; and as a doctoral student in liturgical studies at a Catholic university--a married and ordained United Methodist woman on a full scholarship. Had it not been for ecumenical advancements since the 1960's, I cannot imagine that I would have had the opportunity to discuss at the world level the joys and problems of worship together as Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant; to attend--as an official delegate--the installation of a pope, as I did for Benedict XVI; to sit as a Methodist member of national and international bilateral dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church; and to give this address in a Catholic basilica. From the perspective of my own life, the achievements made since Vatican II are significant indeed.

As this brief life narrative may suggest, I am really an accidental ecumenist. Circumstance and interest more than professional credentials have defined my ecumenical engagement. I am neither a trained ecumenical theologian or ecclesiologist, nor a professional ecumenist. However, I was trained ecumenically by virtue of my matriculation in the liturgical studies program at the University of Notre Dame and by acquaintance there of a company of students drawn from an array of faith traditions. Thus, it is as a liturgical scholar and through the lens of liturgy--and liturgical theology--that I reflect on Vatican II's ecumenical legacy for the churches.

1. Post-Conciliar Optimism

In 1965, the final year of the Council, Cardinal Lorenz Jaeger of Paderborn, who played a role in the establishment of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, published a commentary and reflection on Unitatis redintegratio under the translated title A Stand on Ecumenism: The Council's Decree. In his preface, Jaeger laid out his expectations relative to the document:

      The decree 'On Ecumenism' shows in what way Catholic Christians
   share in the world-wide ecumenical movement. Today we cannot even
   begin to estimate how much the realization of its proposals will
   contribute to unity among Christians for it strengthens the
   universality of the ecumenical movement and gives it new impulses. … 
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