SASKATOON — Saskatoon was host to 12 members of the International Consultation between the World Evangelical Alliance and the Catholic Church Aug. 31 - Sept. 4. The meeting was the occasion to discuss commonalities and differences between these Christian traditions, as well as to consider opportunities for collaboration through joint mission and prayer. Events included a public panel discussion on the International Evangelical-Roman Catholic Consultation Sept. 2.
Co-moderated by two members of the local Evangelical-Catholic dialogue in Saskatoon, Nicholas Jesson (Ecumenical Officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon) and Jodi Kozan (an Evangelical member of the local dialogue and the founder of Women’s Journey of Faith), the panel discussion featured four members from the International Consultation.
Msgr. Juan Usma Gomez of Columbia, who works at the Vatican, and Rev. Rolf Hille, a Lutheran from Germany who is director for ecumenical affairs for the World Evangelical Alliance, began the session by commenting on the history of Evangelical and Roman Catholic relations and the nature of the current discussions.
Speaking to the Catholic perspective, Gomez noted that “Evangelicals and Catholics are two strong faith communities around the world. They both have a strong presence in the world but in the past they have not recognized each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. They have long lived in isolation from one another.
“Our communities have been separated by different histories and theologies as well as unhelpful stereotypes and mutual misunderstandings. We suffer from misapprehension, hostility and conflicts that continue to divide the work of Christ.” Pointing to the goal and work of the consultation’s meetings, Gomez added, “We are trying to address these issues in the spirit of the Gospel. In this consultation, we are trying to give room to a new era of relationships.”
Among points of historical development in dialogue with Evangelical communities, Gomez highlighted the significance of the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on Christian unity and the emergence of the first consultations between Evangelicals and Catholics spanning 1977 - 1984, which focused on mission. The document produced from this first phase of conversations was entitled, Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission. According to Gomez, “the 1970s was a time of pioneers.”
Evangelical-Catholic relations on the local level were tenuous. “The situation was not just a separation over theological matters,” he explained; rather, it was a more profound issue centring on the question of recognizing one another as being Christian without fear of persecution. These early international initiatives gave rise to greater local dialogue, understanding and collaboration.
“Evangelicals and Catholics realized that we can look together for a new understanding of controversial issues and thus a second series of consultations began,” Gomez continued. The report stemming from the work of a second Consultation, held between 1993 - 2002, was entitled Church, Evangelization and the Bonds of Koinonia.
While recognizing the progress these earlier phases of consultation produced, Gomez also noted areas of continued misunderstanding and stressed the need for additional dialogue.
Commenting on the nature of the dialogue and sharing his personal experiences as a World Evangelical Alliance member, Rev. Rolf Hille said that in these discussions “we have developed a new method of dialoguing.”
Noting the existence of differences between the churches, he explained that “we always start with common ground to figure out what we can say together — which is a lot. Second, we encourage each other to go forward as disciples of Christ. Then we refer to all those questions that are in dispute. We ask the tough questions, giving the partners a chance to react and to find better answers than have been given in the past.”
Speaking to one of the main themes highlighted in the newest document, Hille said that within the secular world “Christians are a minority and we should stand together in this situation of secularism and agnosticism. This is a world without God in many ways and this pushes us together to find answers and to be a witness to our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hille continued: “Another aspect highlighted within the document is that of moral disorientation.” Issues of abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide were discussed, as was the way in which each tradition addresses these realities. “These are issues on which we should stand together and be strong in our societies to witness to the truth of the Gospel.”
Hille expanded on the work of the Consultation: “In situations of pluralism and secularism we found a good deal of common ground, mainly in terms of our common faith. We believe in the holy Scriptures as inspired by God and we discovered through our discussion that we all have our roots in the early church.”
The Consultation group’s meeting in Saskatoon was the last of six meetings held in this third phase of international consultations beginning in 2009.
Rev. James Nkansah-Obrempong of Nairobi, Kenya, vice-chair of the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission, spoke about how Evangelicals view Catholics in the Global South, particularly in Africa. Bishop Rodolfo Valenzuela Nuñez of Guatemala concluded the panel presentations by speaking about how Catholics view Evangelicals in Latin America.
“158 million Catholics and 100 million Evangelicals live in Africa,” explained Dr. Nkansah-Obrempong. “We are huge bodies, which is why it is important for us to work together so we can procure the task God has given us.”
One of the issues at play in how Evangelicals view Catholics at the grassroots level, according to Nkansah-Obrempong, is that Evangelicals think the majority of Catholics do not have a personal relationship with Christ. “They see a lot of nominalism in the Catholic Church.” Juxtaposed to this notion is amazement and appreciation at the level of devotion and commitment Catholics have to their faith as well as their commitment to social services, he said.
There are also issues of contention surrounding the perceived practices of idolatry propagated within the Catholic Church. “Seeing people buy images (of God) becomes problematic” for Evangelicals, Nkansah-Obrempong commented. “It is an issue we struggle with and it has come up in our discussions.
“There are serious questions we are trying to address,” said Nkansah-Obrempong, “and I’m not sure if we will be able to resolve all of them but at least we are making an attempt to bring them to the fore.”
He went on to say that “we should not let this destroy us. Even in our disagreement, we can still be together, live together and work together to fulfil the purpose God has called us for.”
Echoing Nkansah-Obrempong, Valenzuela emphasized that “we have learned in this ecumenical dialogue and experience that we must recognize each other as people, as Christians and as sinners.” However, as in Africa, Evangelical-Catholic relations are more tense at the local and grassroots level in Latin America.
According to Valenzuela, a major historical development changing the face of Guatemala is that approximately half of the population has converted from Catholicism to Evangelicalism within the past 50 years. The same is true, he said, of Brazil. This has had a historical, political and sociological effect on the continent.
As Nkansah-Obrempong pointed out earlier, one reason for this dramatic shift has been the preponderance of nominalism throughout Catholicism in that region.
“The religious splitting of our country is of great concern,” said Valenzuela, “because it goes against everything that the Lord wants.” Secondly, it is of great concern to the Latin American bishops because it has required the church to ask itself where it has failed in the encouragement of her people to have a personal relationship with Christ. As Valenzuela noted, “this split is happening because we have not supported or reinforced this personal encounter with Christ.”
Those attending the panel discussion heard that at the heart of the consultation is a desire to grow more closely together for the sake of the Gospel message. “Our international consultation must not forget that we are here, not just to discuss our problems, but mostly as believers in Christ, recognizing that we are being called to make every effort to ensure the Gospel is being spread throughout the world,” said Gomez.