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Boston celebrates rich history of ecumenism

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Methodios light candles at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople during the Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical pilgrimage to Rome, Istanbul and Russia they led in September 2007. Pilot photo/ Gregory L. Tracy

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BOSTON -- Approaching the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, archdiocesan representatives spoke about the importance of ecumenism in Boston’s Catholic history.

As part of the wider celebration of the bicentennial, the archdiocese is highlighting ecumenism and interreligious dialogue this January. Each month of the bicentennial celebrates a different part of the life of the Church.

Father Edward M. O’Flaherty, SJ, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told The Pilot that the Catholic Church has a “serious obligation” to work toward Christian unity.

“We recognize the importance of ecumenism in the life of the archdiocese,” he said, adding that Boston has cause to celebrate the Christian relationships built here.

To mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an interfaith ecumenical prayer service will be held at St. John Chrysostom Parish in West Roxbury on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. The guest homilist will be Father Jim Loughran, SA, director of the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute.

A member of the Society of the Atonement began what was then called the “Octave of Prayer” for the Christian church in 1908. It was held from Jan. 19-25 because in the old liturgical calendar those were the feast days of Sts. Peter and Paul respectively.

Boston has always been an intersection of many different Christian communities and remains an important ecumenical center, said Vito Nicastro, associate director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

“Most people date the resurgence of ecumenical activity to the time of the Second Vatican Council,” he said. “However, the roots of Boston’s ecumenical dialogue go much further back than that.”

Members of the Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syro-Malabar and many Protestant faiths have long lived together in Eastern Massachusetts, said Nicastro.

“The richness and variety of the Boston landscape has made ecumenical dialogue not only a necessity but an extraordinarily fruitful area of ministry for the Catholic Church,” he added.

Through the Massachusetts Council of Churches (MCC), founded 100 years ago, the archdiocese has had long relationships with the mainline churches that belong to the organization.

Nicastro said the most fruitful phase with the MCC began shortly after the Second Vatican Council, which brought into clear focus the importance of the mission of Christian unity. Dioceses were encouraged to devote more resources to ecumenism, and the archdiocese instituted the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Father O’Flaherty became the director in 1992 and as director serves on the board for the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

Catholic one-on-one dialogue with other Christians became more frequent soon after Vatican II as well. In the 1960s and 1970s the archdiocese participated in one of the earliest Catholic-Lutheran dialogues, which took place in the New England region. During the same time period, the local Church had significant contact with the United States Episcopal Church. In the early 1990s, more dialogue with evangelicals took place.

In the 1980s, the archdiocese began a seminary exchange with the Greek Orthodox Church in Boston. Prior to that, Boston was also an important part of the national dialogue between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, which began 45 years ago. Half of all the meetings were held in Boston because the city is the location of the Greek Orthodox Seminary.

Additionally, the two churches have long gathered together for evening prayer on the feasts of St. Andrew and St. Peter. It is customary for a representative of the Archdiocese of Boston to join in the Greek Orthodox celebration of their patron saint, St. Andrew. In return, a representative from the Greek Orthodox Church attends a Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on the feast of St. Peter, St. Andrew’s brother. Since 1996, it has become a tradition for the archdiocese to invite the Eastern Orthodox to join in the celebration of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, patron saints of the Church of Rome.

Through the decades, the two communities have grown closer and last year participated in their second joint pilgrimage to Rome, Constantinople and St. Petersburg. The original pilgrimage to Rome and Constantinople occurred in the late 1990s and was the first of its kind, Nicastro said.

Father O’Flaherty said on the local level ecumenism brings a higher level of understanding.

“What we try to do is first to have greater understanding and to try to promote as best we can prayer together,” he said.

Regular dialogue has helped Christian communities in Boston understand the different theological and doctrinal positions as well as the beliefs they hold in common, he said.

In addition, the churches have had the opportunity to work together on public policy and humanitarian issues, especially through the Massachusetts Council of Churches. The MCC has stood against gambling, physician assisted suicide and the death penalty, he said.

Nicastro said ecumenism is about drawing closer to Christ, and therefore, drawing closer together as Christians.

“Ecumenism is absolutely essential and integral to the Christian life,” he said.

The ministry of ecumenism, with the ultimate goal of full unity among Christians, is not only restricted to dialogue, he added.

“It’s also a matter of daily cooperation, of sharing our spiritual experiences, of building friendships, trust and relationships, of serving other churches in their time of need,” he said. “Dialogue by itself without relationships suffers.”

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