Ecumenism Builds Bridges among Christians Pope's Call for Unity Boosts Movement to Learn about - and from - Others

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago, when she was a student at a Catholic grade school, Pauline Pearson accompanied a friend to a Protestant Sunday school in University City - and felt like she was from another world.

The teachers were amazed she knew Bible stories. When she explained that she studied Bible stories in a religion class five days a week and heard Scripture at Mass every Sunday, the teachers were dumbfounded.

"The Sunday school teachers had been taught a myth, widely held, that Catholics didn't read the Bible," said Pearson, now 59 and a grandmother.

Such misconceptions are disappearing widely as ecumenism - the spirit of cooperation among Christian churches - gathers force here and around the world.

Ecumenical study groups have proliferated. Members of different denominations have worked together for about 25 years to help the poor and the sick and to rebuild neighborhoods. Now more are worshiping together.

A vivid example took place in St. Louis last weekend, when 8,000 people joined the "March for Jesus" Downtown. Members of conservative churches, nondenominational churches, Pentecostal churches and mainline churches clasped hands and bowed their heads to pray for a more faith-filled, more moral community.

On Ascension Thursday, the week before last, members of 11 North County Evangelical Lutheran and Episcopal churches celebrated a joint Eucharist with approval of two bishops.

"It was a great joy to have brothers and sisters who have been sadly prohibited from sharing unity in the Eucharist - the heart and center and soul of the Christian Community - come together," said the Rev. Jerry Mansholt, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor.

At its annual May Fellowship Day of Prayer, many of the 800 local members of Church Women United gathered at 10 celebrations across the region and read Gospel texts.

Ecumenism got a strong boost Tuesday when Pope John Paul II added an urgent call for Christian unity before the year 2000. He signed and dispatched his 12th encyclical, "Ut Unum Sint" ("That All May Be One"). It does not break new theological ground, but the pope does ask other Christians how he can best help build Christian unity.

The spread of ecumenism has been spurred partly by the rising number of mixed marriages. Ecumenical dialogue now begins at home between parents who are teaching children more tolerance toward other denominations.

"Families want to break down barriers - at any Protestant baptism you'll likely find family members of about six denomination among relatives," said the Rev. Joan B. Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches who spoke here Monday. In the 1950s, she recalled, Presbyterian family members shunned relatives who married non-Presbyterians.

***** Labels Lose Meaning

Many ecumenical leaders in the St. Louis community have been women.

"Women of different denominations have been praying together, networking and combining and so forth for decades here," said Nancy Remmert, 59, a member of Emmanual United Church of Christ in Jennings. She is an administrator at the ecumenical Parish Associate on the Kinloch Team (PAKT) agency. …