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What can Catholics learn from Evangelicals?

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski


SASKATOON — Beginning with his own conversion story, Dr. Robert Stackpole explored What can Catholics learn from Evangelicals? at a gathering Feb. 4 at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Saskatoon.

Organized by the Saskatoon Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue, the event was a followup to the April 2015 lecture What can Evangelicals Learn from Catholics? by Dr. Gordon Smith of Ambrose University, Calgary.

The son of a “classical, liberal Protestant” minister, Stackpole described growing up with an idealized understanding of Jesus as the greatest inspired prophet and a shining example of love of God and neighbour. “We believed that with the help of God’s Spirit we too could learn to love God with our whole hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves.”

However, as he began to see the sin and corruption of the world, and to experience something of that corruption in his own heart, Stackpole began to understand that humanity needed more from Jesus than a strong example.

“We need more than just a wise teacher and a moral example to follow. We need a Saviour — we need someone to rescue us from the debt and the burden of our guilt; the guilt we all carry around like a ball and chain from our failures in the past to love God and our neighbours. We need someone to radically transform and heal us from deep within from our chronic inability to do any better.”

As a teenager watching a Billy Graham Crusade on television, Stackpole experienced a call to conversion that many Evangelical Christians would recognize; kneeling down in the basement, Stackpole gave himself to Jesus. “I accepted Christ into my heart, and my life has never been the same since. For the first time I knew Jesus not just as a wise teacher, not as a shining example from the past, but as a living and personal Saviour, right now, in the present, and no farther than my own heart.”

Although he never became an Evangelical Christian, this conversion experience marked a step on a lifelong journey of faith that included formation through the writings of C.S. Lewis. “Jesus convinced me that salvation is not just a moment, but a whole life process.”

He began to study Christian doctrine — first the trunk of the tree, all the basics of “Mere Christianity.” Then, with the help of Anglican writers and eventually the Catholic writers that he also began to read, he studied and accepted other doctrines that Evangelical Christians might not accept as part of the Christian “tree” — the sacraments, the nature and mission of the church as the Body of Christ, the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, the communion of saints, the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her heavenly intercession for us, the role of the successor of St. Peter as bishop of Rome, and the purification of purgatory for those who die not fully sanctified.

Ordained an Anglican pastor, Stackpole eventually became a Catholic in 1994. He married a Catholic, and they went to Rome together, where Robert obtained a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum). In 1997 he began work as the research director, and then director, of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, based in Stockbridge, Mass.

Stackpole’s interest in ecumenical dialogue with Evangelical Christians grew during his 10 years of teaching theology to undergraduates at Catholic (Redeemer) Pacific College, which is affiliated with Trinity Western University, established in Langley, B.C., by the Evangelical Free Church of America. Beginning in 2012, Stockpole served as assistant director of formation at St. Therese Institute in Bruno, Sask., and became a Catholic member of the Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue in Saskatoon.

Continuing with the analogy of a tree, Stackpole said that Evangelical Christians remind Catholics of the importance of paying attention to the roots — of “keeping the main thing the main thing.”

“Seen in one way, Catholicism might seem like a great flowering, fruit-bearing tree, but the danger is that those who live from that tree and who tend that tree can sometimes spend so much time looking after the lovely leaves and fruit, that we forget about the roots from which that tree mainly draws its life,” he said. “The root of the tree of the church is supposed to be that life-giving Gospel, the same Gospel that I heard for the first time on my basement TV as a teenager, namely: the saving life and death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Evangelicals as a rule spend much more time and attention than Catholics pondering, preaching and spreading that “main thing” — Jesus Christ who died and rose to save us from our sin, said Stackpole. “It is the message and reality at the heart of every Catholic mass, of course, but it is astonishing how few of us Catholics really get the message from the liturgy, and how rarely that message is preached from Catholic parish pulpits. But the main thing is the kerygma — the heart of the Gospel, the primary life-giving root of the whole tree.”

Stackpole continued: “Thanks to our Evangelical brothers and sisters for continually calling us back to the roots and the trunk, and thereby helping us to keep first things first.”

Reflecting on his time at the first Catholic college since the Reformation to be part of an Evangelical Christian university (Trinity Western University), Stackpole said: “There are all sorts of ways that we can become better Catholics by learning from our Evangelical brothers and sisters.”

He suggested that every great community of faith, including the Catholic Church, “suffers from collective amnesia — and one of the best things we can do for each other, with the help of ecumenical dialogue, is to help wake each other up to life-giving aspects of our own heritage that we are forgetting, or ignoring, or just plain failing to appreciate.”

Stackpole cited four ways in which Evangelicals help Catholics become better, more spiritually healthy Catholic Christians: through a focus on the primacy of God’s grace; in an emphasis on the privileged expression of divine revelation in Scripture; by modelling the fullness of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; and operating with a profound passion for evangelization.

“Our Protestant Evangelical brothers and sisters discovered long ago the New Testament and early church principle that every member of a Christian community, every member of the Body of Christ is called to be an evangelist, in ways great or small. All of us to follow Christ’s great commission: go and make disciples of all nations,” said Stackpole. “Yet all too often Catholicism has neglected to promote this aspect of lay discipleship, seeing evangelism as a task largely reserved for the clergy or those in religious orders.”

He cited Vatican documents calling for a new evangelization by all the baptized. “I believe Catholics can learn more effective means of witnessing to Christ in the world and gain a more heartfelt zeal for bringing all souls to the love of Jesus Christ from frequent contact with Evangelicals, and by sharing with them, as conscience permits, in missionary endeavours as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Stackpole also explored the principle of the development of doctrine and its promise for ecumenism, including ways in which his own understanding of Genesis, creation and evolution and the mystery of the doctrine of the cross have been challenged and enriched by the emphasis and insights of Evangelical Christians.

Jeromey Martini, president of Horizon Bible College, Saskatoon, responded to the talk with brief reflections, as did Nicholas Jesson, ecumenical officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, followed by a question and answer session.

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