Ecumenism at the Ground Level

At the 2013 conference of the Hymn Society of the US and Canada this summer there was a panel of Protestant worship leaders, moderated by Anthony Ruff, OSB, on the effects of the Second Vatican Council on all the churches. In his remarks, Dr. Michael Hawn, Fellow of the Hymn Society, told the following touching story.

I was taking a group of primarily Methodist students to the border region of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, for an immersion in Mexican spirituality in Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations.

In the Valley, Latinos/as are in the majority and Spanish is the dominant language. In addition to liturgies, we visited places of popular piety. Among the parishes we visited was a humble congregation in one of the small towns in the area. A deacon from the congregation had taken us to the nearby sacred sites during the afternoon.

We concluded the day with Saturday evening Mass. The tall mestizo priest was expecting us and welcomed us graciously, as did the fifty or so members assembled for Mass. He spoke little English, but my Spanish was sufficient to get us through the evening. Even with the minimal Spanish among the students, the welcome was evident through the non-verbal signs of hospitality that greeted our Methodist band of about twelve students.

As we were preparing for Mass, he asked if there were students who would bring the elements forward in procession for the Eucharist. He also asked if someone would read the Gospel in English for those present who needed this. The lesson for the sermon was from Isaiah 6 – with the priest focusing his homily as much on the seminary students as on the congregation in his application of that passage.

I had cautioned the students to not presume to take the Eucharist, but to approach those serving for a blessing. However, it became apparent following the Great Thanksgiving (Eucharistic Prayer) that we were indeed being invited to partake in the eucharistic elements themselves.

At the conclusion of the service, the priest invited the assembly to surround our little group of Methodists, hold hands, and offered a blessing on us and our travel. This was one of the most proleptic experiences of the Church Universal that I have ever experience – the Church as we hope it will become.

In our discussion that followed, we acknowledged that it would be unlikely to experience such profound openness in one of our Methodist congregations. Since many in the parish were first-generation immigrants to the USA, we had the profound experience of being welcomed to the liturgy by persons who were guests in our country, and unexpectedly, but gratefully, to the table by another Christian tradition.

C. Michael Hawn is Professor of Church Music and Director of the Master of Sacred Music Program at Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

5 comments

  1. “Even with the minimal Spanish among the students, the welcome was evident through the non-verbal signs of hospitality that greeted our Methodist band of about twelve students.”

    How good it was to read this article on ground level liturgy. I applaud Dr. Hawn’s initiative for bringing students to experience “at ground level”, what the Church can really be. Cultures like the Mexican Latino, bring with them qualities that are different from our North American cultures, and as in the parish where I work, all one needs to do is attend the Latino Mass on any Sunday at 11:30. Welcoming and Hospitality indeed seem to be the nature of these liturgies.
    As it becomes more evident to me that ground level liturgy is more about non-verbal than verbal language, and that adaptation to reform comes from the local community like the one Dr. Hawn has shared with PrayTell, lends continuing credence to the thought that Vatican II was indeed more than meets the Roman Catholic eye.

    The Ecumenism and Social Justice expressed in this experience of the band of about twelve inspires me. Indeed the immigrant community from the Latino culture found a way to welcome those indigenous to the land to “keep the feast” with them, and to attest to the effectiveness of ritual language which gives way to the true spirit of the liturgy. “Be not afraid” as someone once said.

  2. “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Ps 133:1)

    I know that some object to sharing the Eucharist when not all who come to God’s table share the same Eucharistic theology. Still, I think we all know from our own experience that breaking bread together brings families closer. When Jesus shared his body and blood at the Last Supper with the one who betrayed him, I think he set us a powerful example.

    1. @George Hayhoe – comment #2:
      Re: “I know that some object to sharing the Eucharist when not all who come to God’s table share the same Eucharistic theology.” I’m increasingly convinced that in situations such as this (and in light of the current crises the church and the world are facing), the principle of EPIKEIA overrides (or justifies?) sharing the Eucharist even among folks who “don’t share the same Eucharistic theology.” Offering – or withholding – the Eucharist solely or primarily on the basis of subscribing to a particular theological interpretation of the Eucharist demeans Jesus’ command to “do this in memory of me.” The stakes are too great to continue using the Eucharist as a pawn in denominational “turf wars” – whether between the Catholic and Protestant churches or even especially between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Ecumenical efforts have been around well before Vatican II. It’s been nearly 50 years after the Decree on Ecumenism – and we still have to wait for some high-level agreements by theological & doctrinal commissions before we can share at the Lord’s table? As a life-long Catholic, I’m frequently involved with Christian communities – Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran – who are attempting to re-engage the “nones” or other “marginalized” persons. And I “fully, consciously and actively participate” in the liturgies of these churches – including RECEIVING the Eucharist – so that I can BE the Eucharist to those I encounter in my life beyond the liturgy.

  3. I think the idea that we do not practice intercommunion because we disagree in Eucharistic theology is not entirely accurate. The issue really is whether you ought to have Eucharistic communion if you don’t have ecclesial communion. Unless these particular Methodist see themselves as being under the pastoral leadership of the local Catholic bishop, or unless their Methodist bishop is in communion with the local Catholic bishop (which, in RC theology, would involve being in communion with the bishop of Rome), then communio in sacris would not generally be appropriate (though there are, of course, exceptions made in canon law). Having a specific theology of the Eucharist is really a secondary, or maybe even tertiary, issue.

    I don’t think a bunch of Methodist receiving communion at a Catholic Mass is a terrible thing. And it might actually help everyone appreciate each other’s faith on a personal level. But I don’t think it goes much beyond that in advancing Church unity.

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