United but Unique

“Papist! Romanist!” The harsh words would echo through my father’s home congregation, composed largely of Scots and Ulstermen … all Orangists! As a boy, I would often attend — and wonder.

My family was United Methodist, and the hostility toward Catholics seemed strange to me. Most of my friends were Catholics. Something seemed wrong. And I struggled with this while growing up. I also wondered why my Catholic friends were forbidden to participate in my senior year baccalaureate service. Something indeed was wrong!

I also vividly recall how, at the University of Pittsburgh, I wrote a senior history honors paper on “The Sacramental Theology of St. Anselm and His Political Statecraft.” I translated most of Anselm’s letters from Latin to English. I argued against classmates who were economic determinists and, incidentally, had to struggle with the theology of the medieval Church.

After Pitt, I matriculated at the theological school of Drew University in New Jersey where there was a new openness. One of our professors, Dr. Bard Thompson, who taught liturgy, was an observer for the United Church of Christ at the Second Vatican Council. I learned an appreciation for the Latin Mass and, of course, where there were differences in doctrine.

I also started to read John Wesley, the founding father of Methodism. In 1749, Wesley wrote a pamphlet entitled “A Letter to a Roman Catholic.” This was a time when Catholics enjoyed few privileges in Georgian England.

Later, Wesley wrote a sermon (No. 39) titled “On a Catholic Spirit,” and argued, “If thine heart is right, as my heart, then give me thy hand.” When I read those in seminary, I felt a new understanding.

Serving Together in Christ

As I continued in my ministry, one day a United Methodist laywoman phoned me to invite me to teach a seminar on the spiritual life at a United Methodist women’s conference. I was honored, and accepted, and then realized I was woefully inadequate. Sure, I prayed. Sure, I had a rich upbringing in hymnody and Scripture. So I started reading the classic teachers of prayer and spirituality: St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, Brother Lawrence, many others and, of course, Protestant divines. My spiritual life became greatly enriched as I learned from the rich heritage of our common faith.

In my first appointment as a young pastor in a community with a United Methodist church and a Roman Catholic church, I discovered many opportunities for joint ministry.

Our choirs performed a joint performance of a Haydn Mass (my 83-year-old retired steelworker organist played … he called Bach “my finger exercise!”), and I met other young priests who became friends of my wife and me. This pattern continued all through my ministry in subsequent appointments, as parish priests and I would discuss local issues, work on ecumenical marriages and speak at one another’s churches. After all, as we shared together, we understood that we could be perfectly frank with one another, for neither priest nor pastor knew one another’s ecclesiastical superiors! Indeed, in the 1960s and ’70s, I was often the first Methodist pastor to preach in local Catholic churches. Later, in the 1990s, the senior pastor of a large Catholic Church near Pittsburgh and I led groups from our neighboring churches in pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to Oberammergau, Germany. I would borrow statues of the Virgin Mother for ecumenical marriage ceremonies … drivers would cross themselves as I carried the statue of Mary the 1,000 yards between our two large church buildings near Pittsburgh. But above all, I came to know so many priests as friends and fellow pastors, struggling to lead our congregations in faithful discipleship.

Ecumenical Journey

One of my appointments was as a district superintendent. My bishop, George W. Bashore, assigned me to represent the Western Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church to Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a regional ecumenical body of 23 judicatories. I chaired the finance committee and worked with the future (now current) Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh. In a couple years, I became chairperson of the Board of Delegates and thus also a member of the Council of Executives where I grew a deep appreciation for then-Bishop Donald W. Wuerl (now Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington). Both our fathers were near death. I recall him inviting us to pray for one another and our families.

When appointed to a downtown church in Erie, Pennsylvania, I found myself soon president of the regional ecumenical body. Bishop Donald W. Trautman of the Erie diocese invited me to participate in the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II. The Protestant representatives sat in the front pew, and another executive whispered to me, “Pinch me … I must be dreaming.” From that small chapel as a child listening to the accents of Ulster condemning papists to the front pew of St. Peter’s Basilica was quite a journey.

Moving Forward Together

Now I am retired and have been appointed a chaplain at Asbury Heights, a retirement community of Methodist heritage near Pittsburgh, and the journey continues. About 40 percent of our population is Catholic, and I find myself again working with the priests of the same church whose parishioners went on pilgrimages with me and also with a Catholic deacon who is assigned to Asbury Heights.

As we share with residents who suffer from terminal illness, dementia, or who are still active and vital, the dimension of our common Lord looms so important.

Yes, there are still significant differences between Protestants and Catholics. They are well-known. But what unites us is so much more important. We are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, worshiping the Triune God, uniting in prayer under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, through the Son to the Father. We share in the calling to repentance and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Our traditions enrich one another! Indeed, let us “give our hands” to one another, and in this increasingly secular age let us proclaim the message of the apostles: Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

And someday, let us pray, we shall indeed fulfil Our Lord’s high priestly prayer “that they all may be one!”

Rev. Dr. Andrew C. Harvey is a retired Methodist minister who serves as chaplain of Asbury Heights Nursing Facility in Pittsburgh.