Parish ecumenical representatives act as leaven to foster ecumenical and interreligious activities



CHARLESTON — Parish advisers on ecumenical and interreligious affairs are vital to the tasks of promoting Christian unity and fostering interreligious dialogue both at the level of the universal church and at the grass roots. That was the message heard by more than 30 participants at a parish ecumenical representative (PER) training weekend held at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Nov. 9 and 10.

The event was coordinated by the staff of the diocesan Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Msgr. Leigh Lehocky, vicar; and Melissa Walker, administrator, to reinvigorate efforts toward the establishment of a PER system.

The event began with a talk by Father Sandy McDonald, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in North Augusta and member of the diocesan commission, who said interfaith discussions have increased dramatically following the tragedies of Sept. 11.

He described ecumenism as that which occurs within Christian denominations, while interfaith activity deals with non-Christian religions, such as Hindus and Jews.

While it is Christ’s will that his followers may be one, the pastor said there have been divisions in Christianity since its formation.

He discussed the tensions mentioned in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, how the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other in 1054 and the Protestant reformation in the 16th century with its resulting wars and persecution.

But there were some beginnings of ecumenism prior to Vatican II. Events cited by Father McDonald included the first World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910; the start of the Faith and Order movement in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1925; the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948; and the Catholic Church becoming an observer at the World Council of Churches for the first time in 1961.

However, the Second Vatican Council is officially the place and time the church joined the ecumenical movement, said the priest from North Augusta. That event produced the Decree on Ecumenism, Constitution on the Church, Declaration on Religious Freedom, and Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.

On Sept. 11, 1987, Pope John Paul II came to Columbia and celebrated an ecumenical prayer service in Williams-Brice Stadium. He wrote about that visit in the encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint, On Commitment to Ecumenism, which Father McDonald called a very positive document. “The baptized are put into communion with the Catholic Church. There is communion among all those who have faith in Christ,” said the pastor.

He continued, “As Catholics we believe Christ holds something special in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church reflects certain gifts, such as teaching authority, orders, and the sacraments. The key is to emphasize the positive in what we share and not be triumphalistic or indifferent.”

Three types of ecumenical activity — common prayer, dialogue, and practical cooperation — were encouraged by Father McDonald.

Bishop Robert J. Baker led the evening prayer service. He described the year of reconciliation effort currently taking place in the diocese as an effort to build bridges among ourselves. “If there is anger or hostility in our own parishes or diocese, what do we have to give?” he asked.

The bishop stressed the need for committees to reflect the diversity of parishes. “When we sit down, we find we are much more united than divided. There is a desire for unity. It’s a very hopeful sign.”

Bishop Baker also emphasized that participants need to carry on evangelization in the midst of ecumenism. “The Holy Father has called for a new apologetics to carry the message of Jesus forward with clarity, humanity, confidence, and providence. We need to find a common ground.”

Following the service, a reception for the representatives was held at the bishop’s residence on Broad Street.

The next day, on Saturday morning, John Conway, parish ecumenical representative at Prince of Peace Church in Taylors, explained why ecumenical and interfaith efforts are natural and necessary.

He began with some statistics. Nationally, Catholics are 28 percent of the population; Protestants are 55 percent, and Jews are about 2 percent.

In the diocese, he touched on the activities of the South Carolina Christian Action Council (SCCAC), the LARCUM (Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Methodist) dialogue, and his experiences with Greenville Faith Communities United.

“Ecumenism and interfaith cooperation begin at home, just around the block,” said Conway.

The Rev. Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the SCCAC, then recounted the history of her organization, which began in 1933 as a temperance union to fight the repeal of Prohibition. In the late 1940s, its focus changed to examine issues of social justice.

And by the late 1960s, the group led faith efforts to change segregation laws in the state.

“There have been many times when the council has led the way for others through quiet, invisible efforts for race relations,” said Kneece. “Occasionally, an opportunity comes along to be at the front of the line, such as King Day at the Dome.”

She said SCCAC fought against video poker and the lottery. “The lottery vote didn’t turn out as we would like, but we have raised moral and ethical concerns to legislative committees drafting enabling legislation,” said the Baptist minister.

In addition to its lobbying efforts, the organization conducts an ecumenical AIDS ministry that trains volunteers to provide social and spiritual support to people suffering from HIV/AIDS.

“Columbia, South Carolina, ranks fourth nationwide per capita in cases of HIV/AIDS,” Kneece said.

Currently, the council is advocating in the legislature for reform of laws concerning the death penalty, an area the organization has been active in since 1984. To that end, the executive minister said she would like to hire one person to focus exclusively on capital punishment. Presently, the group is lobbying for a minimum age for people to receive the death penalty, exemptions from capital punishment for mentally ill people, and calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, similar to the one in place in Illinois.

Kneece mentioned that even Russia has had a moratorium on the death penalty for five years.

“It’s my vision that the voice of the council will be a movement from the pews rather than a pronouncement from the pulpit,” she said.