By Damian MacPherson, S.A.
Ecumenists were particularly delighted when, in his first address to the College of Cardinals following his election, Pope Benedict XVI clearly put the Catholic Church on notice that he would work without sparing energy to bring about the unity of the Christian Church.
It proved nothing short of embracing ecumenical continuity, giving testimony to an endeared legacy of his predecessor Pope John Paul II. To date evidence of that energy has clearly manifested itself throughout the early years of Pope Benedict's active pontificate.
A recent gesture, which points to a continuation of that unsparing energy, is the Pontiff's announcement of the Jubilee Year of St. Paul. The year commenced on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, 2008, and will be carried on through June 29, 2009. The year commemorates the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the apostle, which historians place between A.D. 7 and 10.
If the wishes of Pope Benedict for this special jubilee celebration are to be upheld in their fullness, it is clear that we need to begin to think ecumenically. In the early announcement of the Jubilee Year, the Holy Father highlighted the fact that the Pauline Year will be characterized by its ''ecumenical dimension'' because the Apostle to the Gentiles, particularly dedicated to bringing the Good News to all people, concerned himself with the unity and harmony of all Christians.
A series of ecumenical celebrations is scheduled for the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall throughout the bimillennium year. Given this emphasis, being ecumenically engaged throughout this year of grace and favor is not simply a choice we arbitrarily make but a responsibility we must necessarily assume.
Benedict has further signaled his own ecumenical seriousness for this Jubilee Year by opening an ecumenical chapel in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul in Rome. History has no record of such a similar ecumenical gesture, though numerous events of an ecumenical nature have taken place here since the time of the Second Vatican Council.
The 1993 Ecumenical Directory (No. 133) opened the way for this and similar arrangements. By this expression of ecumenical hospitality, non-Catholic Christians are being invited, indeed encouraged, to come and pay tribute to the Apostle to the Gentiles who belongs to our common heritage. Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox will be free, with some limitation, to celebrate their rituals, pray and commemorate for themselves the apostolic heritage of St. Paul within this ecumenical setting. This is an idea worthy of modeling possibly within the cathedrals of local dioceses.
More often than not, successful ecumenical initiatives occur when leadership at the diocesan and parish levels are able to excite, motivate and bring the faithful together for such gatherings. The laity always look toward, and rightfully depend upon, pastoral leadership when engaged in ecumenical activities. The partnership of laity with pastoral oversight makes for genuinely successful ecumenical initiatives.
Hopefully every diocese and, consequently, every parish will respond positively to Pope Benedict's invitation, challenge and expectation to foster the ecumenical dimension of this unique year of celebration. To assist in promoting such initiatives, one or more of the following ideas may help those parishes keen on marking the year of St. Paul with some ecumenical activities.
1. For those whose financial means allow, consider participating in or helping to plan a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul. As a first step, visit http://www. stpaulssteps.com or www.annopaolino.org. Or contact the Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs, Toronto archdiocese, at 416-934-3400, Ext. 344.
2. Local parishes and neighboring ecclesial communities, whose place of worship is named after the Apostle Paul, should consider a series of joint ecumenical prayer services during the liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent and, of course, during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January.
Planning committees of dependable volunteers from participating communities should be called together early so as to ensure broad participation, making for meaningful celebrations. Ideas and resources for planning can be found by visiting www.weekofprayer2008.org. Keep in mind that this year commemorates 100 years of Prayer for Christian Unity.
3. Establish a committee that will work with a neighboring Protestant community to partner in developing common prayers, praying for one another. These prayers could be used at Sunday worship throughout the entire year.
4. Establish a youth essay contest. Invite a Catholic and non-Catholic to co-author an essay on a selected theme found within the Pauline corpus. Consider offering a modest prize for the winning essay.
5. Suggest that your pastor invite one or two Protestant neighboring pastors for lunch/dinner in order to explain the year of St. Paul. Ask for their ideas and share with them your own.
6. Establish an ecumenical book club. Members would agree to read and discuss a book or article on St. Paul once every two months. Ask your pastor to provide appropriate resources. Or, divide up the letters of St. Paul and spend the Jubilee Year reading and discussing them.
7. Using Pauline sources and The Acts of the Apostles, form an ecumenical youth group whose task will be to develop a personal profile of who Paul the Apostle was. Members could be assigned an individual letter. Each would contribute to the final profile.
8. Zones or deaneries could be brought together to organize a workshop on the preaching of St. Paul. This could be done in partnership with neighboring Protestant ministers.
9. Invite parishioners to join a learning group whose final goal is to be able to quote one passage from each of St. Paul's letters and make a personal application to the selected quote. This could easily be done ecumenically.
10. Make an inquiry from within your diocese to see what events are being planned for the celebration of this Jubilee Year. TP
FATHER MACPHERSON, S.A., is the Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto