There is much discouraging news for Roman Catholics. Pope John Paul II is frail and faltering; the Benedictine Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is under siege; an embarrassing and expensive scandal has engulfed the church in America.
Pope John Paul II is frail and faltering; the Benedictine Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is under siege; an embarrassing and expensive scandal has engulfed the church in America.
In the midst of such organizational and moral confusion, I write to describe a personal transformation—a conversion of sorts—of attitude and emotion concerning the Roman Catholic Church. The result is a kind of understanding and appreciation that is the foundation of genuine sympathy.
It was not always this way.
The social and religious environment of my childhood rarely encouraged us to consider Roman Catholics as our brothers and sisters in Christ. To be fair, in those pre-Vatican II days, the Catholic assessment of us was very much the same.
This intellectual and spiritual odyssey began when I picked up a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain. The now-famous Thomas Merton wrote this narrative of his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ and his call to the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane. I was not yet 20 and have no idea what prompted me to read the book. I can only testify to the awakening it provoked in my mind and soul.
My journey was enriched by the Roman Catholic people who befriended my wife and me during our year-long residency in Israel. We were newly schooled and newly wedded, and in that condition traveled the length and breadth of the land. At every turn and in every place we found hospitality, instruction and outright kindness from those men and women who tended the sites and hosted the travelers; most lived in allegiance to the bishop of Rome.
During eight years of theological education in a Baptist seminary, I was required to read the premiere Christian scholars of the day. That included such names as Brown, Dulles, Grillmeier, Segundo, Rahner, Ruether, and of course Kung, every one of them a Roman Catholic of note. I discovered in them a love for Holy Scripture and a surprising openness to Protestant, even Baptist, influence.
Before graduating, I spent a semester on the campus of Notre DameUniversity as a guest of Moreau Seminary sponsored by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. The brothers gave me a room on the second floor and charged me almost nothing. They found and presented to me a fine three-volume edition of the writings of the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas.
Fr. Enda McDonagh taught me pastoral theology, and Fr. Ed O’Conner tutored me in Aquinas’ treatise on justice. Later, O’Conner sent me a copy of his book, Pope Paul and the Spirit. He wrote on the flyleaf: “as a memento of your semester on St. Thomas Aquinas.”
My pastoral work took me to Pittsburgh, to a congregation near LaRocheCollege, a liberal arts institution operated by the Sisters of Divine Providence. I was invited to teach religion courses like “Trends in Contemporary Christianity,” “Faith and Doubt in the Modern Era” and “The Christian Understanding of Marriage.” There are not many Baptists in Pittsburgh, and I always asked my students if anyone had ever met a Baptist; in four years, no one raised a hand.
My call to Owensboro set me squarely in the midst of the largest Catholic population of any similar-size city in the South. The Catholic churches were impressive and their ministers were popular; our pastoral paths crossed often. Yet it was a layperson who put a wonderful face on Roman Catholicism when, in the midst of a financial scandal in our own church, I hired a bright and talented accountant. Her first day on the job was also the first time she had ever set foot in a Protestant church. It was good for her and good for us. We have been good friends since that day.
Three years ago I interviewed the famous Benedictine scholar Bargil Pixner. He is the prior of the community of monks who live at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem. He took us on a tour of his archeological excavations on MountZion. Then, in the cool shade of a garden, he talked about his research (With Jesus Through Galilee and With Jesus in Jerusalem).
In response, I found renewed inspiration from his lifelong love affair with the people and places that constitute what we simply call, in the midst of conflicting claims to ownership, the Holy Land.
Such a good and gracious journey along the edges of this vast and diverse landscape called Roman Catholicism has shaped in me a genuine sympathy for these Christian friends. Not that I concur with all they teach or practice, certainly not that I am ready to convert; only this:
I pray that our great and merciful God will grant a double portion of the Spirit to Catholic Christians all over the world that their future might be hopeful and happy and according to God’s good and perfect will.