New ecumenical handbook traces history, provides direction


CHARLESTON — A new Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Handbook recently completed by the Diocesan Ecumenical Commission, chaired by Msgr. Leigh A. Lehocky of Columbia, will be a powerful resource to prepare clergy across the state for ecumenical and interfaith work.

According to Bishop David B. Thompson in his comments at the beginning of the material, “The intent of this handbook is to give support for ecumenical initiatives as well as assistance in their implementation as we work to manifest the hope for unity which Christ willed for His people. These guidelines, we pray, will aid us in the search for the unity that the Holy Spirit chooses to give us.”

The handbook was designed for a variety of readers with differing degrees of experience and knowledge. Among the key chapters are ones on “History,” “Ecumenical Etiquette” and “Definitions.”

The section on “History” discusses the origin of the ecumenical movement, mostly from the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement at three levels: international, national and diocesan.

“Ecumenical Etiquette” covers three key elements involved in ecumenical and interfaith work: prayer, understanding oneself and one’s church and communication.

A brief summary is also included on ecumenical formation, while another chapter on “Principles, Norms, and Directives” offers a concise summary of the Church’s current teachings about sharing in prayer, worship and the sacraments. In addition, practical suggestions are offered for activities at the parish level, and a brief overview of current diocesan activities is presented.

The handbook concludes with an appendices which provides definitions, general background information regarding religious demographics of South Carolina, and suggested additional resources for ecumenical and interfaith activities.

In compiling the handbook, the Ecumenical Commission for the diocese, led by Msgr. Lehocky, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Columbia, drew heavily from a variety of resources, including the Ecumenical Handbook for the Dioceses of Kentucky, Guidelines for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the Province of Chicago Ecumenical Guidelines and An Introduction to World Religions from The Christophers.

Msgr. Lehocky said it took about a year-and-a-half to complete the effort, and that meetings were held around the diocese to gain input. He said that the question “How do we do this?” was frequently asked by those preparing to be in dialogue.

“Despite the real religious divisions within the human family, we must continue to strive to answer Christ’s call to unity. If it was an important priority in Jesus’s life, so it must be in the life of His Church. With all our brothers and sisters we search for that communion for which Christ prayed at the Last Supper,” said Bishop Thompson in his introduction to the guidelines.

As they are known today, the ecumenical and interreligious movements are a 20th century development.

The Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, was the major and defining event for Catholics in the modern ecumenical movement. When it was convened by Pope John XXIII, one of its principal purposes was the restoration of unity among Christians. Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and World Council of Churches representatives were present as observers at the council sessions. From the work of the council emerged two documents of paramount importance for the ecumenical and interreligious movements.

The Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, treated the principles and practice of ecumenism, making clear the essential place of ecumenism in Catholic Christian faith. At the same time, the promulgation of the Declaration of the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, together with Guidelines on Religious Relations with Jews, provided a significant step in the history of Jewish-Christian relations.

At the close of the council, Pope Paul VI set a papal precedent by participating in interfaith prayer with the non-Catholic observers. The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (now the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) was established by the council to carry out the Church’s commitment to pursue the goal of unity among Christians.

“The Holocaust and the Second World War also influenced the ecumenical movement,” according to the handbook. “The atrocities of the former convinced countless thoughtful persons of the absolute necessity of breaking down barriers cause by prejudice and bigotry.”

Ecumenical and interreligious affairs have long been an integral part of the life of the Diocese of Charleston.

The 1995 Synod Document describes the history of this movement in the diocese:

“… Bishop John England pioneered dialogue with other Christians. In our time, Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler continued that ecumenical spirit and aligned the diocese with the South Carolina Christian Action Council. Many of our Catholic faithful have long since taken ‘an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism’ so that a budding network of cooperation has already begun to flourish. Not surprisingly, in 1987 Pope John Paul II chose to speak in South Carolina to exhort Catholics everywhere to ‘go forward’ in the mission of ‘Christian reconciliation and unity’ without prejudging the future inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

In its concluding remarks on this subject the Synod Document says:

“…great diversity is a hallmark of the State of South Carolina, and Catholics here are daily compelled to be ecumenically and interreligiously sensitive — in social settings, in the world place, in schools, and, importantly, in the family. Indeed, about one third of our married Catholics, in fact, make up a relatively small proportion of our state’s population. But to these tasks — the tasks of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue — we, Catholics of the Diocese of Charleston, bring a richness and strength that belie our numbers. We draw on the great wealth of Catholic resources and traditions. So, we reclaim our heritage, seek the path of renewal, and find hope for the restoration of unity among Christ’s followers and the establishment of harmony among all people.”

On May 3, 1992, Bishop Thompson set a precedent by gathering Jews and Christians in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to mourn the brutal tragedy of the Shoah (Holocaust).

In the handbook chapter “Ecumenical Etiquette,” it is stressed in the “Prayer” section that “the context of dialogue and ecumenical activity must always be that of prayer and a humble placing of self at God’s disposal…. In short, we must respect our partners in ecumenical and interfaith activities with the dignity due all God’s people, and we must come together as equals.”

“A goal of ecumenical and interfaith activities is to begin to understand one another’s beliefs and traditions,” states the “Understanding Self and One’s Church” section. “Good preparation for this entails study and review of Catholic teachings. It is also important to realize that there may be times when we are not fully prepared. In those instances, we should be honest about it and continue to seek further knowledge,” the handbook advises.

Three key principles for good or active listening are explored in the “Communication” section. First, it is important to demonstrate respect for the speaker and give full attention to what is being said. Second, the listener should seek clarification of what has been said through questioning and paraphrasing. Third, the speaker should have the opportunity to confirm that perception or correct it.

“Faith can be a sensitive issue to discuss, and one may feel personally challenged by others’ comments. It is best to assume that comments are never personally directed,” the guidelines emphasize.

Said Msgr. Lehocky, “We should hear the call of the Lord to conversion so that the Spirit can make us one. The Lord can draw us to a new experience of Christian unity.”