Thursday, May 12, 2016

Headline: Catholic Priest Admits, "I Love Jesus!"

Every once in a while, I hear a talk that is so good that the best I can do is simply get out of the way and let the presenters speak directly to you, the readers.

Such was the case between these two gentlemen and friends at the National Workshop on Christian Unity, held this past April, 2016, in Louisville, KY. They shared reflections on how working for Christian unity (i.e. ecumenism) has changed them and has given them a new freedom. 

Small edits were made for sentence clarity, and the reflection at the end is mine.

L-R: Rev. John Armstrong and Rev. Don Rooney.
Photo credits: Rev. Mary Finklea.

Fr. Don Rooney is a Catholic priest and Pastor of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Fredericksburg, MD. He also just "retired" after six years as President of CADEIO, which is the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Officers.

Rev. John H. Armstrong is an Evangelical minister, and has been a pastor, author and Wheaton College professor. He also is founder of the Act3 Network, which strives to promote missional-ecumenism.

Without further adieu . . . 

Fr. Don Rooney
(at the National Workshop on Christian Unity 2016, with snippets added from his talk in 2015)
I want to give a witness, because my relationship with Evangelicals has completely changed my particular ministry as a Catholic pastor. It was something very simple that happened the first time I went to an ecumenical conference. Someone sat across from me at one of our meetings and asked me point blank, "Do you mean to tell me, as a Catholic priest, that you love Jesus?"

I remember my face just went red. I felt ashamed. Where have I failed that somebody wouldn’t know that?

I finally collected myself and said, "Yes, I do love Jesus. Absolutely. That's why I am a priest--it is not for the pay!" [Laughter ensues from the crowd.]
So that weekend, I went back to my home parish. There are 3-4 times a year where I preach at all the Masses. One of them is called the Parish Life weekend. We have 10 Masses every weekend, as we have a large congregation but a small building.

So to give this homily, I decided I was going to take advantage of this experience. I got up, and I said, "In case you have never heard me say this, I want to start off by saying, 'I love Jesus,' and I’m sorry that I’ve never said that to you out loud."

People don't know that, because we [as priests] never say it. I learned that by being together [with other Christians]. I learned how to say that in public. Isn't that strange? We are just not formed like that.

I think we have so much to learn. The Catholic Church writes that we have not just the possibility but obligation to discover the seeds of truth in all peoples, especially other Christians. When we find that truth, it is refreshing and it is restoring, and it causes us to become better people. I am a better priest because I was a participant in this ecumenical process. I probably didn't think I would ever say that, but here am I saying it in public.

It just doesn’t sound Catholic to say "I love Jesus" out loud, right? And that’s where being part of this ecumenical ministry has changed me.   
Now, it has given me so much freedom.

Rev. John H. Armstrong:

I’d like to commend what my friend has just said, by affirming something. That is, if you want to know—Catholics or anyone else—the easiest way to get to the heart of an Evangelical, don’t talk about politics, don’t talk about nonsense, just state one thing: That you love Jesus.
And you’ll find that we may be really messed up folks, but when I meet someone who says they love Jesus, and when they say it with the same humility and truth that we just heard, then I start weeping on the inside, saying, "That’s it!" That’s what we ought to be founded on: Loving Him. From there can do so much that we have never even imagined. 

I think that’s the moment that we are discovering in these ecumenical talks. We can do theology, but it’s not just a theological dialogue—we can respect unity in diversity and those kinds of things you hear in the ecumenical dialogue. But do we love Jesus? Can we pray together? Can we talk together? Can we share meals together? Can we walk together?

And of course we pray, Amen.


It sounds like a headline right from The Onion to read: Catholic Priest says, "I Love Jesus!" It is both tragic and sad that such a statement could be considered worthy of a news headline.

This discussion illustrates how much Christians have lost because of our denominational divisions--we may not realize it, but we have all given up parts of our own inheritance in order to draw a hard line between "those other folks." We end up thinking things such as:

Reading the Bible is a Protestant thing to do;
Being liturgical is a Catholic thing to do.

Having a personal relationship with Jesus is an Evangelical thing to do; 
Valuing the historical tradition is a Catholic thing to do. 

And so on and so forth.

Yet, those activities belong to all of us. There is nothing in the Catholic Church which is not steeped in the Biblical tradition. It was unthinkable for early Church Fathers and Mothers not to pour over Scripture in their personal reflections. 

In the same way, some Protestants and most Evangelicals may be looser about utilizing liturgy, but even celebrating Christmas and Easter acknowledges a value for the whole community to gather together at a single moment to commemorate a specific part of the faith.

Those are just two examples, but they illustrate a point.

We are so silly that we end up giving up what is rightfully ours just to maintain our divisions. It boils down to cutting our nose to spite our face. Divisions among Christians are ultimately self-defeating: It is very unlikely--if not completely impossible- to put up a wall between another group without also putting up a wall inside of yourself.

We become so invested in these divisions, hatreds and misconceptions, that we would rather blow up our own inheritance than acknowledge the legitimacy of someone else. Even people who do not maintain any conscious hostility to other denominations can end up living a more limited expression of their faith along these lines, as Fr. Rooney's example shows.

It should not feel like a person is giving up his Catholic identity to say, "I love Jesus," yet that is what happens when we invest more in our divisions than in our unity.

We are raised to believe that Catholics do "Catholic" things and Protestants do "Protestant" things. We forgot that those other things are often a part of our tradition, too. A Catholic could end up thinking that by reading the Bible he is watering down his Catholic identity. An Evangelical could think she is watering down her Evangelical identity by seeing her faith experience through the lens of Church history.

The ecumenical movement teaches us over and over again that a Catholic often feels more Catholic and a Protestant feels more Protestant when they reach out across denominational lines.

Ecumenism reminds us that the journey out is ultimately a journey in. In reaching out to others in charity, we end up healing a part of ourselves. By opening ourselves up to others, we learn that they hold long lost gifts of our own to give back to us.

It is like visiting an aunt that has been estranged from the rest of family for 50 years. You reach out to build a bridge and attempt to heal an old wound. When you go to her house for the first time, she shows you a shoebox of old photos and letters about you that reveal missing pieces of your past that you never knew.

I am reminded of Abraham trusting God so much he was willing to sacrifice his only son (Genesis 22). Abraham discovered that through trust in God he ended up not having to lose anything at all but in fact gained a lot.

Likewise, when divisions run deep, it can feel like sacrificing your own flesh and blood for a Catholic to reach out to a Protestant, or visa versa. It can feel like you are giving up everything you hold dear. When you base your identify on being opposed to another group or person, then there is some truth in that. Yet, just like Abraham discovered, trusting God did not bring the gloom and doom he imagined. In fact, God just opened up the Promised Land and a perpetual future of abundance for Abraham and his descendants.

The Abraham story is complex, because I wouldn't want to suggest that Christian discipleship doesn't come with its share of sacrifice. But the story does illustrate the importance of trusting God, because what we perceive as an inevitable outcome of misery often does not turn out that way at all when we trust in God. We simply can't see it yet with our limited human vision, which is why faith is so important to help us over that hump.
All enemies hold a key to ourselves in this way, whether they be religious, political or social rivals. This is why when you love your enemy, you heal yourself and find your fullness.

The example of Fr. Rooney shows how entering into the process of ecumenical reconciliation between denominations can help us all reclaim the pieces of the Christian experience that we have either lost or have become afraid to embrace because some other group has embraced them so strongly. Saying "I love Jesus" is not a Protestant thing to do--it is something all Christians can and should claim as our birthright!

It is a surprising paradox--in an attempt to reach out to another group, we end up reclaiming a lost part of ourselves. This is why ecumenism is not some nicey-nice icing on the cake, but it is central to the Christian mission.

The Body of Christ is One. Attempting to cut off a member of that body has the same impact as cutting off a limb from your own body. In the midst of our anger and defensiveness, we can lose sight of that. But we all lose on a personal, visceral level, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, when the Body is divided.

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