Reflections from an Ex-Diocesan Ecumenical Officer
Retirement is such an ominous word. The decision to retire was made a year in advance, allowing plenty of time to say goodbyes, but what does one say in parting from colleagues with whom one has ‘shed blood’? Time and again I have marveled at the many wonderful people I met through my work. Nine months after retirement, I am still rejoicing in the unexpected blessings bestowed upon me during my journey into the ecumenical and interreligious world. This article is about some of the ups and downs of that journey.
The first challenge beckoned through an invitation in 1990 to my parish’s Pastoral Council as a member for ecumenism. Ecumenism? I didn’t even know the meaning of the word! Then, with feet barely wet, I was called to venture more deeply into the ecumenical waters by yet another invitation: Would I be a Roman Catholic representative on a committee to develop a Lutheran-Anglican-Roman Catholic covenant for Southern Alberta? I was to be the ‘voice from the pews’.
Voice, indeed. I was intimidated as I looked at the caliber of people seated around the table at that first meeting, spoke hardly a word but instead had to fight the urge to run. The stay-at-home mom was in over her head – but pride and a touch of stubbornness kept me in place and I managed to at least tread water. It is with deep gratitude that I look back on that and the ensuing meetings. Yes, we fleshed out a covenant that was eventually signed first by congregants and then by the bishops. Just as important was that, on a personal level, along with the sense of accomplishment came a sense of fears overcome and of friendships birthed as new adventures awaited exploration.
During the years of the Covenant committee, I was blessed to meet and work with people of faith and integrity who set me on a journey of learning, stretching beyond my comfort zone, and growth in faith. It was also during that time that I first experienced, in a heartbreaking way, the brokenness within the Body of Christ. Since that time, I have been blessed many times over by the gifts of ecumenical partners and by many more assaults to my heart from the pain of division. Yes, blessed by pain. Just as pain in one’s own body eventually cannot be ignored and sends one to the doctor for diagnosis and cure, this spiritual pain sends one to the Healer who, in turn, guides us along the path to wholeness.
The greatest joy in my time spent with Christians of other denominations was in the deepening of my understanding and appreciation of Scripture in general and of Christ’s teachings in particular. Not so much something new, as “old” through new perspectives. And if this was true of listening and dialoguing with other Christians, imagine the impact of working with our local Conservative rabbi for many years! My appreciation of the Hebrew Scriptures grew in leaps and bounds, leading me to appreciate in my heart what had been resting in my brain relatively undisturbed over the years.
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
In spite of an overriding sense of joy, I cannot say there were no tough times, no tears and heartaches. Those there were a-plenty! Yet somehow they, too, nourished. Working with the Calgary Council of Churches (CCC) on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity brought with it many more gifts than challenges. Of course, the greatest challenge arose whenever a hosting congregation wanted to include Eucharist. Together the members of the CCC, recognizing the need to accentuate forms of prayer in which all could participate, learned gentle ways of encouraging away from Eucharist toward prayer that would both celebrate our common ground and pray for the wherewithal to overcome our differences. And pray we did, in both word and song, that someday soon we may share Eucharist.
So many times people have asked whether spending so much time with people of other Christian traditions was a danger to my rootedness in Roman Catholicism or if working with people of other religions might not be detrimental to my faith. The answer to both questions is a resounding “No!” How could working with members of the Councils of Churches, the Evangelical Ministerial, the Interchurch Families, the faithful and faith-filled members of other religions lessen my faith? On the contrary, the sharing of spiritual journeys and accompanying struggles have served to deepen my personal commitment and my recognition of the many ways in which my church supports me in my life with God and neighbor.
It is with deep gratitude that I acknowledge those from other denominations who allowed me to discover my spiritual closeness with them. Each has challenged me, called me to task, and supported me into a deepening awareness of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I will be forever grateful for their guidance and love.
It is also with deep gratitude that I acknowledge those of other faiths who have shared their beliefs with me: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Bahä’is; all of whom have shown me the truths to be found in their religions and, thereby, deepened my personal relationship with God. For example, I re-learned from Buddhists the value of letting go of worldly attachments; from Hindus, the presence of God in every corner of our lives; from Muslims, the importance of constant prayer; from Jews, the significance of our history and personal relationship with God; from the Bahä’is, the urgency of finding a path to the unity of humankind. One can only feel blessed by these gifts.
My recent experience attending an Ismaili funeral was a lesson in faith and love. The respect and tenderness shown for the body of the deceased was testament to their strong recognition of the relationship between Creator and created. It made me freshly aware of the presence of holiness in our world and of the power of the Spirit to speak to us in unexpected places, through new eyes and new ears. There were many frustrations in our Muslim-Christian Dialogue, but they were a small price for the relationships formed and opportunities explored.
I know that much of the work I started will take new paths under new leadership and that is as it should be. It is not my dreams but the work of the Holy Spirit that determines what the future holds. If each of us strives to be open to the prompting of the Spirit we will live in awareness of the presence of God in each of our fellow sojourners. We will learn to discover and appreciate the gifts of other’s faith journeys that enrich and enliven our own. In return, we will share the gifts of our own faith so that together we will help build God’s kingdom.
Imagine a world in which we ‘love one another as God has loved us.’ This is the world I glimpsed through the relationships and love of those of all faith journeys who have been, for me, sacramental signs of God’s kingdom!
Anna Tremblay served as Director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary from 2000-2009. A wife and mother of three, she has also been an active member of the boards of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, Alberta Region, and the Calgary Council of Churches, and is the past president of the Western Diocesan and Eparchial Coordinators of Ecumenism. In 1997 Anna received the Canadian Ecumenical Leadership Award from the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism.