(Vatican Radio) On day three of an International Receptive Ecumenism conference taking place at Fairfield University in the United States, Christian leaders, theologians and ecumenists from the six continents have been discussing how this particular model of learning from another denomination can bring new life to the often difficult dialogues between the different churches. Philippa Hitchen has been finding out what receptive ecumenism means in the Latin American context:
Not very long ago Latin America was the most Catholic continent in the world, with Marian devotion as one its defining characteristics. Today, numbers of Catholics are declining sharply across the region, while the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are growing fast, amid what one Vatican official here described as “a vibrant missionary activity.” Reacting to this challenge, Catholics have often disparagingly described these communities as new Protestant sects, with no attempt to understand their history, ecclesiology or liturgical practise. Pentecostals, meanwhile, have seen themselves as the true Christian believers, determined to convert others so that they too can be saved. Ignorance, prejudice and fear on both sides have led to an explosive confrontation, with Mary often identified as the focal point of conflict.
That’s why it was particularly gripping to hear Catholic and Pentecostal participants describe just how difficult the situation can be and, more importantly, suggest ways to improve relations between the two sides. Colombian Msgr Juan Usma Gomez, who works on dialogue with Pentecostals at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, explained how conflict can even break out within families, when one member converts and others fail to follow suit. Pentecostal professor Nestor Medina from Guatemala, who teaches at Regent University in Toronto, explored the way a focus on the virginity of Mary is seen in his tradition as reinforcing a model of patriarchal oppression of women.
Both agree on the vital importance of theological education for priests, teachers and people in authority to help create conditions for a better understanding of the other tradition. Thinking critically and learning from each other about Mary’s role in the Church and her relationship to the Holy Spirit, they believe, could bring real benefits to both sides of the theological debate. But Professor Medina also told me that Pope Francis’ recent i-phone message to a conference of Evangelical leaders, asking them to pray for him, made “a sea change of difference” to the way these people now perceive the Catholic Church. Having the first Latin American Pope, he confided to me, has made a huge impact, with people saying they do pray for him in a way that would simply never have happened before. “He’s one of us”, Medina told me with a broad smile, and that has suddenly “opened a door for these kinds of conversations to continue.”