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Bishop emeritus offers reflections on call to ecumenism


At a recent Coffee and Contemplation series at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, Bishop Emeritus William Skylstad gave an overview of points in Pope John Paul’s 1995 Encyclical, “That All May Be One,” related to the Catholic Church and the ecumenical movement.

The 2014 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity theme, “Is Christ Divided?” suggests that at times the church is polarized, he said, but ecumenical and interreligious relationships are essential.

The encyclical was written to prepare for the jubilee year, 2000, understanding that reconciliation arises recognizing faults, he said.

“It was a time for the Catholic Church to ask for forgiveness and to work to be more Christ like,” he said, noting that more is happening since Pope Francis became pope in 2013.

Bishop Skylstad, who now leads Marriage Encounter and retreats for sisters and priests, said the introduction to the encyclical offers the theology and spirituality of ecumenism.  It reminds that Vatican II calls for Christian unity.

“It calls for new vigor and progress in theology and for purification of memories, because as a church we were once standoffish to Protestants,” said Bishop Skylstad.

That, however, was not his experience, growing up in a world of non-Catholics in the Methow Valley.  His grade school setting was ecumenical with few Catholics. 

Bishop Skylstad quoted Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who said, “We need to be ecumenical because Christ loved everyone.  We need to work together with other churches.”

On Pope John Paul’s 40 trips around the world, he met with ecumenical and interreligious communities.  He developed a special relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Both respected each other as theologians.

Chapter 1 of the encyclical says, “God’s purpose is to gather all in unity.”  It uses Ezekial 16, telling that putting two stacks of sticks together is stronger, like the many strands in a rope.  The Gospel of John says Jesus died for all and wanted all to be together as one.

“In Catholic theology, we are all made in the image of God. Each is made like a unique part of God,” Bishop Skylstad said.  “Ephesians 2 said Jesus reconciled all nations to God, so we need to reconcile all people. 

“Chapter 1 also calls for unity of the divided humanity.  Divisions are contrary to Christ’s desire and a stumbling block to the world,” he said, noting that many years of politically based conflict have spilled into religion and damaged preaching, as people see preachers preaching “a nice word” but not living it.

“The way of ecumenism is the way of Christ,” he said.   Cardinal Caspar said Jesus’ prayer was a call to conversion and renewal.

“To believe in Jesus means to desire unity in institutions, because institutions—like government—help us lay hands on life and make things operate,” Bishop Skylstad said.

“To desire unity means to desire communion,” he said. One bishop said that after Jesus told the disciples to distribute loaves and fishes, “people, who had come as a crowd, left as a people.  We as the church are to be people.  Divisions in the U.S. make us a crowd.”

Vatican II called for recognizing and appreciating the gifts of others.

“That means Catholics may admire Mormons’ sense of family and Protestants’ focus on God’s Word,” Bishop Skylstad said.  Since Vatican II, Catholics began to follow the three-year cycle of liturgical readings with three scripture readings, not just two scriptures in a one-year cycle.

“That has given us more exposure to the Scriptures,” he said.  “That’s how gifts of others can touch us.”

The encyclical speaks of the primacy of prayer, because common prayer brings Christians together, along with fellowship, such as at Thanksgiving and Easter services, he added.

The encyclical says, “we need to think about dialogue not just as an exchange of ideas but as an exchange of gifts in a mutual relationship.”

“Dialogue presumes the good intent of others,” Bishop Skylstad said.  “Dialogue examines the vertical dialogue with God, as a means to resolve human disagreements.”

The second chapter of the encyclical on “The Fruits of Dialogue” is about rediscovering relationships with other people as brothers and sisters and a sense of working with and respecting one another.  Catholic Relief Services, for example, works in solidarity with other groups to meet people’s needs and serve humanity. 

Bishop Skylstad sees the rise of community in small towns as preachers meet to discuss the common schedule of scriptural readings.  He added that the Northwest Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Columbia River Watershed also brought people together to discuss faith related to protecting the region’s river. 

When he was bishop, he attended what was called the Octet, eight Christian leaders who met for breakfast Wednesdays and became close friends, supportive of each other as they talked of the people and issues they encountered.

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Copyright © February 2014 - The Fig Tree