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The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Church Council of Greater Seattle-Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry
January 24, 2011
First AME Church   
            I have often wished that I could profess my faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ with the same bold and unqualified assurance as St. Paul.  The entire 15th chapter of First Corinthians, of which this evening’s verses were but a small, if culminating, part, is St. Paul’s great profession of faith in the Resurrection, his manifesto, if you will.  For Paul, everything – everything! – rose or fell on the reality of the resurrection.  If it didn’t happen, our faith was nonsense; but since it did, our faith is both grounded and guaranteed.   Simple as that, and profound as that.

            Paul was faithful and fearless in preaching that gospel -- that bedrock belief that was alive in the Church thanks to the testimony of eye witnesses, including himself whom he acknowledged to be “the last and the least.”  So unwavering was Paul’s faith in the resurrection that he could with holy defiance throw out those two questions which were for him rhetorical but are anything but rhetorical for us, “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”  Over the years, when the sting of death has come very close to me -- too close for comfort and too close to be comforted – I have found myself clinging to my faith in the resurrection, yes, but wondering mightily all the same.  Oh for the unflinching faith of St. Paul!

            Friends, it seems altogether fitting that, at this ecumenical prayer service in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we anchor our reflections in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Not only is the resurrection the foundation of our faith and the reason for  our hope, it is also the bond that binds us together as brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus, brothers and sisters in his Body, the Church.  For it is into his saving death and resurrection that we have been baptized.

            Now, to be honest with you, when I was a much younger person, I did not think this way.  I’m a ‘cradle Catholic,’ raised in what Roman Catholics commonly call the pre-Vatican II Church.  And the pre-Vatican II Church not only preached a whole lot more about the crucifixion and death of Jesus than about his resurrection, it also  preached that message in churches whose doors were closed tightly – even locked – when it came to other Christian denominations.  I know we were not unique in that regard, but I can only speak about us, and I know just how high the walls were and, sad to say, how great the misunderstandings, the misjudgements and even the hostilities.

            Since this year of 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, I thought I would let that watershed event in the history of the Church – and the tsunami of grace it triggered -- give focus to the thoughts I’d like to share with you.

            It’s worth remembering that it was during Church Unity Week of 1959 that Pope John XXIII, or “good Pope John,” as people came to call him, announced his intention to call a general Council of the Church.  And when he did, he made it clear that he wanted the Council to be for what he called “the whole Church.”  That was a new note.  Pope John was convinced that a Council could be “for the spiritual good and joy of all Christian people if the divided Christian Communities were to seek unity together.”  To make this happen, he took what were in those days, some fairly remarkable steps for the Roman Catholic Church which had long been locked up in its fortress, sealed in its ghetto.  He invited the Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox Churches to send official observers to the Council, and he chose to seat them in places of honor in St. Peter’s Basilica directly across from the College of Cardinals. He also established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity to be at the service of the observers, gave it equal standing with the other commissions of the Council, and appointed as its secretary a prominent cardinal and highly-respected Jesuit biblical scholar, Augustin Bea.  He also made it clear at that time that it was his strong conviction that the first task of the Roman Catholic Church at that moment was to renew itself.

            As with other parts of the Council’s agenda, the ecumenical agenda unfolded and developed in anything but linear fashion.  There were roadblocks and detours at nearly every step along the way – including the death, shortly after the first session of the Council, of Pope John himself, but his successor, Pope Paul VI, quickly embraced the Council and made it clear that its ecumenical agenda was a high priority for him, too.  In December of 1964, Pope Paul VI formally adopted and proclaimed the Decree on Ecumenism after it had received the overwhelming support of the bishops of the Catholic world (well over 2,000 voted in favor and only 64 against).  I was a young seminary student in Rome on that December day and I will remember as long as I live the thrill of being in St. Peter’s Basilica at that moment.  It was a new day in the Roman Catholic Church and, I dare say, a new day in the entire Christian Church.

            It was also a new day for this young fellow from Seattle who grew up in an Irish Catholic family that considered itself, when it came to religious faith, quite self-sufficient.  My family didn’t look askance at other denominations or religions, it just didn’t look at all!  So I can say without hesitation that the Council’s teaching on ecumenism opened my eyes and, thanks to some fine mentors in ministry, opened my heart. I want to say a word about each of those mentors. They were three.

            The first was a man you’ve likely never heard of: Father Thomas Pitsch, the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Tacoma and the first pastor to whom I was assigned as a young, inexperienced assistant pastor when I returned from my studies in Rome in the summer of 1967.  I will always think of Father Pitsch as a “Vatican II priest” before Vatican II ever happened.  By that, I mean, he always put people first (ahead of laws and rules),  and he was radically open to all sorts of people as well as to other points of view.  After Vatican II, he brought boundless energy, intelligence, and enthusiasm to his ministry as he became very involved with the other Christian churches of greater Tacoma and invited me to do the same.  It was through him that I came to get some idea about what  ecumenical dialogue meant, and it was alongside him that I sat – sometimes awkwardly, sometimes comfortably -- in people’s homes, Protestant and Catholic, to engage in what we called in those days, “living room dialogues.”  For me, it was a great eye-opener and a heart-opener.

            A second mentor was Father William Treacy who has long been revered and respected in this community for his very public and very powerful leadership in the ecumenical movement.  Father Treacy was high in my personal pantheon early on. As a young lad back in the early 1950’s, I served Mass for him at St. Anne’s Church on Queen Anne Hill.   In the 1960’s, he made his mark on the local scene when he, along with Rabbi Raphael Levine and Dr. Robert Fine, a Protestant clergyman, took to the television waves on the highly popular and impactful weekly program known as “Challenge.” For 14 years those men engaged in meaningful and, yes, challenging ecumenical dialogue as they brought to life the meaning of ecumenism , exploring together in a mutually respectful and stimulating manner some of the great issues of the day.  Fifty years later, Father Treacy is still a leader and a gentle giant in all things ecumenical. Now in his early 90’s, he gives daily witness to the importance of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue in his ministry at Camp Brotherhood which he founded along with his dear friend, Rabbi Levine.

            A third mentor was Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen whom I had the great – I would say unparalleled – privilege of working with very closely for a dozen years when I served as his Chancellor and Vicar General.  Archbishop Hunthausen, who served here as archbishop from 1975-1991 and whom many Protestant clergy and lay people throughout the region often referred to as “my archbishop,” received his ‘on the job training’ to be bishop during the Vatican Council.  He was named a bishop by Pope John XXIII in August of 1962.  Six weeks later, he was in Rome for the opening session of the Council which unfolded over the next four years and became, along with his extraordinary family,  the most powerful influence on his life and ministry.  Archbishop Hunthausen lived and breathed ecumenism.  His innate respect for people, no matter who, and his openness to points of view other than his own, made him a natural ecumenist, so when the Church, through the Council, made ecumenism an integral part of its mission, part of its very identity, he was ready! 

            The Church in this city and this region owes some of the great strides it has made in ecumenism to this courageous, gospel-rooted, humble and holy servant of God, this prophetic leader who for countless people, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jew, believer and non-believer, was a voice for unity in diversity, for dialogue and mutual respect.   It is not in any sense an overstatement to say that Archbishop Hunthausen’s chief personal and spiritual support group as well as his trusted sounding board were his ecumenical colleagues among the denominational executives of the area with whom he met religiously (pun intended!) every Friday morning.

            All of this will, I hope, explain why, for me, Archbishop Hunthausen defines the very meaning of ecumenism.  How fitting it is that the building on the campus of Seattle University that houses the ecumenical and inter-religious School of Theology and Ministry bears his name!

            My friends, those three mentors turned ecumenism from a word to a way of life for me – a way of being church.  Thanks to them, I came to St. James Cathedral believing that ecumenism was in no sense optional and that a cathedral could and should be God’s house for all God’s children no matter what their beliefs or their differences, a place where all, regardless of creed or lack thereof, can come together in times of challenge and times of celebration, times of triumph and times of testing – come together to pray, to listen, to learn, to work for peace, to advocate for justice, to speak up for the voiceless, and to care for those who cannot care for themselves.  In other words, to do together what we could do all by ourselves, but which, when we do them together, has the greatest potential for really making a difference.

            I need to wind this up.  We began with St. Paul’s powerful, unwavering affirmation of faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “We will all be changed by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul assures us.  And so we will.  But we are still far from the change he had in mind, aren’t we?  Thank God for Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry and for the Church Council of Greater Seattle.  In a climate where ecumenism has lost much of its early steam and some of its appeal, they are keeping ecumenism alive in this community.  Very much alive!  But even so, I think it’s safe to say that, at the grassroots level we have lost the excitement of the early years when breakthroughs both human and doctrinal were the order of the day.  And to the extent that we have, we have diluted our corporate witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and compromised that great change St. Paul spoke of – the great transformation that Christ’s resurrection makes possible.

            Let me offer one example.  I have long thought that we Christians should be praying together more than once a year – more than during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Could the fact that we don’t, be responsible for the less than overwhelming numbers who take part in this beautiful annual service?  Could it be because we have no real ingrained ‘habit’ of common prayer?  It’s true that St. Mark’s and St. James both offer wonderful weekly ecumenical services on Sunday and Friday evenings. Compline and TaizĂ©, but they don’t exhaust all the possibilities or represent all the great Christian prayer traditions. Not by a long shot.  If we truly believe in the power of prayer – and we do, of course – should we not be looking for more ways to come together to pray for all the things our world needs so badly, and to pray for the unity that Jesus prayed for so earnestly the night before He died?   Something incredibly powerful happens whenever believers from across the great Christian family come together in prayer and celebration as we have tonight, something that can propel us forward along the road to unity.

            My friends in Christ, we have our work cut out for us, don’t we?  In this year of 2012, exactly fifty years after the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, it is my earnest hope and prayer that we – all of us who are the Church of Christ – will re-commit ourselves to live out Christ’s great prayer that we might all be one; to live out St. Paul’s great dream of a world transformed by Christ’s victory over death; to live out the Second Vatican Council’s great vision of Christians working together to build the City of God!  

            My friends, we do have our work cut out for us, but it’s a great work, and a work we can, with God’s grace, accomplish.  Together!

     Father Michael G. Ryan



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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