Pray for unity; celebrate diversity

I was raised in an ecumenical family. My father was Lutheran until he converted to Catholicism after I was born. My uncle is a lay Lutheran minister. My cousin is a Protestant minister; another uncle is Orthodox; another cousin married an Episcopal priest; and my sister married a Presbyterian. In the Erikson household, we fondly refer to this diversity as the United Nations of Christendom.

Today begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a tradition that began 100 years ago to help guide us closer to living Christ’s prayer: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are.” (Jn 17:11) The quest for unity is not an easy one. However, having been raised in an environment of religious diversity, and having served in ecumenical settings as a priest, I have come to understand and appreciate that unity is not uniformity and that it is possible to be a wonderfully faithful Catholic while honoring other faiths. Indeed, to not respect others is contrary to what it means to be Catholic and Christian.

Diversity is a treasure. Our differences are blessings from God. There is no one else in the world today, nor will there ever be, exactly like you. In December’s column, I talked about how every person is precious to our Catholic community. We can expand that to say that every person is precious to our larger community. We all contribute our own gifts, God given, to build his kingdom. That these gifts are different is a cause for celebration and presents an opportunity to grow.

There’s an old Johnny Mercer song that states: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Faith is a great joy for all who have found it. This is a week to celebrate the common bond all Christians share in Jesus Christ and to rejoice in our diversity. One place where I witnessed the consequences of Christian unity was in Iraq. As military chaplain, I experienced the joy of working closely with chaplains of many denominations. Our call was to serve people of different faiths who were far from home. Our chief of chaplains, Chaplain, Major General Charles Baldwin, speaks of this diversity, not in terms of tolerance, but in terms of respect and honor. He encourages all airmen to respect each other’s choices and to honor the commitment each of us has made to our faith. In the Air Force Chaplain Service, where I serve in the reserve, we are committed to cooperation without compromise among all faiths.

This same week we honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King also urged us to celebrate our differences. The King Center Web site states: “On this day we commemorate Dr. King’s great dream of a vibrant, multiracial nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation...” Diverse, but united.

Our diversity can be a wonderful source of strength. Diversity in my family, and in the places I have served, has helped me to grow spiritually. Surrounded by examples of people living other faiths, I became a Catholic priest. When I go to other Christian services, I leave glad that Catholicism is where I have found Christ. Diversity has affirmed my own faith, my own choices. My Protestant family members and the Protestant chaplains with whom I have served have been a great source of encouragement in my journey as a priest. Cooperation and respect does not mean anyone has to compromise his or her own core beliefs and practices. We uphold the Catholic faith by living it fully and by respecting others. Through living wonderful Catholic lives, we have the ability to inspire others, perhaps even to invite them to join our Catholic family.

Jesus’ prayer that we be one speaks clearly and to the heart. We are far from realizing that prayer. But every time we accentuate the positive, and show honor and respect to others, we take another step forward in our journey toward unity in Christ.

Father Richard M. Erikson is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.