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Home : News : Nation and World
Ecumenical challenges, possibilities vary by region, speakers say
Catholic News Service

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — Just as the divisions among Christians have a different history and have provoked different levels of tension in various parts of the world, the steps toward Christian unity will have geographical differences, said speakers at a conference promoting "receptive ecumenism."

Christians from Europe exported their divisions to Africa in the great age of missionary activity, sometimes even dividing up territory among themselves or in agreements made with colonial powers or local leaders, said Jesuit Father Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, the Kenya-based provincial of the Jesuits' East Africa province.

In Latin America and among Latinos in North America, the church scene has moved from almost complete unity -- with the overwhelming predominance of the Catholic Church -- to fragmentation with the growth of mostly independent Pentecostal communities. And, on a continent once known for its deep and varied devotion to the Mary, differing attitudes toward the mother of God are the most evident sign of Christian divisions, said Peter J. Casarella, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

Casarella and Father Orobator were among the speakers June 11 at the third International Receptive Ecumenism conference, a project to promote Christian unity by encouraging churches and Christian communities to recognize that they must be honest about their own struggles and need for conversion; at the same time, they should recognize that what they need to grow often can be learned from the tradition, practices and organizational structure of other Christian communities.

In conference discussions about the state of ecumenism in both Latin America and Africa, speakers mentioned the arrival of new, unaffiliated and often virulently anti-Catholic Pentecostal and evangelical preachers as a major challenge to coexistence and the promotion of Christian unity.

With the exception of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, the role of Mary is or has been a contentious point in every ecumenical dialogue the Catholic Church is engaged in, said Msgr. Juan Usma Gomez, an official at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

"The trilogy Latin American Catholics, Latin American Pentecostals and Mary appears to be explosive," said Msgr. Usma Gomez, who is from Colombia. "There are accusations of idolatry, paganism and even (violent) acts against religious signs and symbols that still occur in Latin America.

"Catholics and Pentecostals in Latin America don't even look at each other as brothers and sisters in Christ," he said. But at the same time, "the only group of Catholics that is not declining (numerically) is Catholic charismatics," which means "we have Pentecostals in our own family. We are receiving already" some of the practices and insights of the Pentecostal movement.

Using his experience on the international Catholic-Baptist dialogue, Casarella said many of the more evangelical Christians, especially in Latin America, believe that while they worship Jesus, Catholics worship Mary.

"The dearth of writing about Mary in Pentecostalism and the abundance in Catholicism" serves to support such views, he said. The Catholic-Baptist dialogue's statement on Mary cautioned against a Marian devotion that seemed to eclipse the unique role of Christ in salvation, but also recognized Mary as a model disciple who showed maximum openness to the work of the Holy Spirit in her life.

Nestor Medina, a Pentecostal pastor and a professor of theology and culture at the Regent University School of Divinity in Toronto, said the dialogue obviously did not resolve all differences regarding teaching about Mary. Pentecostals and many other Christians cannot accept the Catholic doctrines that Mary was conceived without sin, that she remained a virgin her whole life and that she was assumed, body and soul, into heaven.

While Catholic charismatics share with Pentecostals an emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and on the Bible, Medina said, "Mary has become crucial in distinguishing between Catholic charismatics and Pentecostals."

In the conference discussion about Africa, Father Orobator said the "denominational rivalry" probably promoted the spread of Christianity on the continent by encouraging missionaries to work harder in evangelizing.

While the formal international theological dialogues have not had much African participation or much of an echo in Africa, he said, Christians yearning for unity can learn from African Christians who have tended to embody the African values of hospitality and mutual recognition, leading to a situation in which a huge variety of Christian communities exist side by side, with almost none of the tensions that mark denominational differences in Europe.

Anglican Bishop James Tengatenga of South Malawi said Father Orobator's point is seen clearly in many African families that include members belonging to different Christian churches or communities and even Islam.

"To what extent can you see each other as 'different' when you are intermarried?" he asked. "It is real in a family and OK; the only time it is not OK is when it comes to breaking the bread" at the liturgy.

The situation, Bishop Tengatenga said, has been complicated in recent years by the arrival of "American-style nondenominationalism which does not recognize 'church' in the mainline churches." The evangelical preachers, who establish their own churches across Africa, are not interested in Christian unity because they believe the others are not Christian at all, he said.

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