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"Next Gen" Ecumenism | One Body

Julien Hammond

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The new Cycle-Pedestrian bridge over Lisbon's River Trancão during World Youth Day 2023. The permanent bridge was built near Parque Trejo, where most major WYD events were held, as part of preparations for the gathering.

"Next Gen" Ecumenism

by Julien Hammond

The recently concluded World Youth Day in Portugal (August 1-6, 2023) included a number of ecumenical and interreligious experiences, opportunities, and lessons that garnered praise and criticism in Catholic and non-Catholic circles alike.
  • In addition to visiting and participating in events held within Catholic venues, WYD pilgrims were invited to visit significant Protestant and Orthodox churches and other houses of worship (synagogues, mosques, temples) in Lisbon and throughout the country, to “observe” how each religious denomination has its own history, content, ritual, and societal outreach. 
  • With fellow Christians, WYD pilgrims were invited also to participate in prayers, lectures, and bible studies offered by Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox Church leaders, and ecumenical communities (such as Taizé and Chemin Neuf), and to “look for signs of unity” (of faith, sacrament, and mission) between these Christian communities. 
  • On the interfaith side, organizers highlighted that “leaders of other faiths will be present at various events of the WYD Lisbon 2023 presided over by the Pope,” and indeed Pope Francis met with a number of ecumenical and interreligious leaders at significant events held throughout the week. 
  • Groups from various religious backgrounds participated in a Youth Festival program that featured “music and singing as a universal language that facilitates encounters between religions, cultures and peoples.” 
For some commentators, these activities marked a step too far: a departure from the original intention of World Youth Day “to offer all participants an experience of the universal Church, fostering a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” Organizers placed too much emphasis, they said, upon secondary objectives – interpreted as Pope Francis innovations – such as fostering “a new impulse to faith, hope and charity for the whole community of the host country” and promoting “peace, unity and fraternity among the peoples and nations of the world.”
For the organizers, notably Portuguese Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar, WYD 2023 offered no innovations. Rather, the WYD site explains that it “has always been extended to all the young people of the world, not exclusively Catholics.” In addition to being a moment of Catholic prayer and devotion, “the gathering is an opportunity for cultural exchange and dialogue.” As Lisbon has long been a meeting place of different cultures and religions, it is only natural that experiences of “social friendship” and “human fraternity” should occur within that city and in the country of Portugal. Besides, Aguiar expressed the view that WYD should not be seen “as an opportunity for active proselytism, as an event to try and convert everyone who happens to come along.”

The Value of Dialogue

Pulling back from the debate about what should or should not happen at a global gathering of Catholic youth, the perspectives espoused above speak to some profound ecclesial realities, such as mission, evangelization, and vocation. As well, they speak  to the value that we give to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and to relationships generally, within the religious formation of youth and young adults, Catholic or otherwise. To paraphrase a couple of superb questions posed in the CCCB’s 2011 resource, On Good Soil: Pastoral Planning for Evangelization and Catechesis with Adults (cf. p.164):
  • What should be the Church’s attitude toward ecumenical and interreligious realities, as it prepares children, youth, and young adults to live in contact with brothers and sisters of other confessions?
  • How can we guide young people to a respectful stance that still seeks to model and proclaim the wonder of Christ, present in our world and in our midst?
When I think about my own religious upbringing, it seems to me that the concerns expressed over WYD 2023 were also present in my hometown as I was growing up. I recall some adults of my parents’ generation expressing concerns about joint Protestant-Catholic youth activities proposed by the local ministerial association, or not wanting Catholic kids to attend Vacation Bible Schools organized by other church communities. To allay any fears, a lot of time, energy, and resources went into strengthening Catholic youth events and catechetical programming in our parish and in our local Catholic school. Our church activities were offered exclusively for and often organized with the help of Catholic youth. I cherish the memories of those church activities of my youth, as they were truly formative in my becoming a person of mature Catholic Christian faith.
At the same time, I distinctly remember watching faith-based movies at the local Alliance Church, or piling into the car to attend a Fall Supper at some small-town United Church, or participating in umpteen music festivals that took place at our local Lutheran Church, or visiting a Hutterite colony with my parents to pick up seasonal produce. In each instance, I suppose that I was observing, unwittingly perhaps, how each of these Christian communities had their “own history, content, ritual and societal outreach.” 
Later on, when I went away to high school and then to university, these experiences became invaluable. I learned for myself the extent to which we live our Catholic faith within the context of a wider world of believers and non-believers, of those who agree with us about some things and those who oppose us in everything; and the importance of seeking common ground beyond differences. I am quite certain that I would not have been able to live out my life as a professional ecumenist, except that my parents, teachers and catechists understood innately what is spelled out in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, #61: “Catechesis will…have this ecumenical dimension if it sets out to prepare children and young people as well as adults to live in contact with other Christians, maturing as Catholics while growing in respect for the faith of others.” 
Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism, fleshes this out:
Each new generation of young Christians inherits the burden of past divisions. Their human and spiritual education is often marked, consciously or unconsciously, by prejudices and misunderstandings of divided Christian communities. It is confusing to hear the one message of the Gospel through many conflicting voices. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that young Christians be given the opportunity to make friends with Christians of other traditions, to read the Gospel and to pray with them, to grow in understanding and appreciation of their particular gifts. However humble and small-scale these shared experiences may be, they are genuine steps toward greater unity among Christians (#52).
This year’s WYD pilgrims have returned from Lisbon with many rich, new insights. I hope they will be given opportunities to share with their home parishes and dioceses all the many things they may have learned and experienced through ecumenical, interreligious, and intercultural encounters that took place there. I hope they will be able to tell us in their own words the impact of those encounters as moments of clarity, questioning, or growth in their Catholic Christian identity. I hope their experiences and testimonies will encourage a future generation of ecumenists and interreligious specialists to develop new friendships with members of other faith communities and to explore new directions in dialogue, all in the name of human fraternity. Indeed, the Church has much to gain and to learn from her “next gen” ecumenists. 

Julien Hammond has been the ecumenical officer for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton for over twenty years. He has served as a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-Roman Catholic International Consultation. He is currently a member of the Jewish-Catholic national dialogue, co-sponsored by the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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