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A dialogue gets renewed

Scholar hopeful ecumenism to expand under Pope Francis

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More than just friends, not quite a family, a dozen Christians who gather regularly to share their faith over a meal are quietly setting an example for new ecclesiastical relationships.

After 14 years of meeting in parish halls and church basements, the members of Winnipeg's Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue have no plans to end this long-running liaison between their two faith traditions.

"I've tried now and then to shut it down, but then people remind me they see value in this," explains Helmut Harder, a retired Mennonite theologian who has participated from the beginning.

"It (the dialogue) keeps me abreast of what is going on in the Catholic Church."

Whether in basement gatherings or meetings between high level faith leaders, Christians should expect more initiatives of this type under Pope Francis, says Catholic theologian Catherine E. Clifford of St. Paul University in Ottawa.

Clifford speaks on the Pope's deepening ecumenical commitment and what that means for the Catholic Church at the Hanley Memorial Lectures sponsored by St. Paul's College at the University of Manitoba. Clifford delivers the opening lecture 7 p.m. Sunday, March 23 at St. Mary's Academy, 550 Wellington Cres. Monday lectures take place at 1 and 7 p.m. at St. Paul's College.

"With the new pope, there's almost the same sense (of renewal) as with Vatican II," Clifford says of the openness Francis has shown since his election a year ago.

An expert on the history of the Second Vatican Council, which issued a decree on ecumenism in 1964, Clifford says the decisions made there five decades ago are slowly bearing fruit in the Catholic church today.

One of the profound shifts was moving away from treating Protestants as fallen Catholics who should return to the fold to acknowledging the value in other expressions of Christianity, what Clifford calls an "ecumenism of recognition."

"We discovered that we share even more than we imagined 50 years ago and do we not need to be generous in recognizing what is happening in these churches," says Clifford, who has been influenced by studying and teaching in ecumenical settings.

She's hopeful for more discussions and relationships between Christian denominations under Francis, but whatever their shape, Clifford remains adamant about the need to work toward Christian unity.

"It's a contradiction to be Christian and not be in communion with each other," she says.

"We contradict our message if we fail to live together in harmony. It contradicts the nature and the message of the church to be divided."

Years of explaining Mennonite beliefs and practices to Catholics and learning about Catholic doctrines and teachings has convinced Harder that people in the pews are keen and willing to learn about each other.

"I think there are more pockets of ecumenical conversation in Winnipeg than there were 20 years ago and I would like to think our dialogue was part of it."

Although the Pope may be open to broader ecumenical ties, grassroots initiatives have to happen locally, and right now no one in the Catholic archdioceses is actively organizing new dialogues, says Rev. Robert Polz, ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg.

In the past, the Catholics have had formal dialogues with several denominations, but now the focus is on developing interfaith relationships, says Polz.

"We're still partnering with others, but the circle is wider."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 D15

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