It happened one Sunday in morning worship several years ago. After the sermon, instead of a Pastoral Prayer, the liturgist led the congregation in a responsive litany that sought to gather our collective praises and prayers. Then, without warning, the liturgist prayed: “Lord, we pray for the church universal, for Pope John Paul II, for sisters and brothers of other communions, and for the unity of your church across lines of nationality and denominational lines; Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.“
The ministerial intern who had served as liturgist for the morning had crafted a prayer with my assistance, and I had specifically requested this type of prayer for unity to be included. Immediately following the service, a few members of the church pulled me aside in earnest: “Pastor, you need to spend some time working with our new intern. Why did he pray for the pope? Is the pope sick or something?” What followed was a fascinating exchange about Protestants and Catholics; an exchange that was chalked full of perceptions, misconceptions, and convictions born of generations of Protestant protest. I was reminded of the reaction to Sunday morning prayers that had followed September 11 and the beginning of the Iraq war – prayers that interceded for enemies, terrorists, and their families even as we prayed for victims, soldiers, their families and loved ones. In both cases, reactions were immediate and visceral.
I have a sneaking suspicion that is it not prayers for unity or prayers for peace that many find objectionable. It is the more specific prayers for enemies, for specific people and for specific individuals – those who have long been objects of our collective derision – that we have difficulty uttering.
As Steve Long points out, the Protestant tradition has 500 years of protest under its belt; not to mention an ecclesial identity that was founded more on what we were “against” than what we were “for.” Though there are a lot of groups, orders, and dialogues that are striving to change such things, United Methodists still have a ways to go beyond putting an asterisk on the dated language in our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Indeed, the other asterisk in our hymnal demonstrates that there is still a lot of fear with all things catholic, regardless of whether the c is lower case or capitalized.
Which brings me back to Peter, or at least his successor in Rome. Why should we not begin ecumenical dialogue on our knees rather than in arm chairs or behind the desk and pulpit? Christian unity, if we are to take our cue from Jesus, begins with intercession for and with our sisters and brothers in other communions and denominations. I long for the day when our disunity is no longer a badge of honor to parade our superior righteousness, but a painful and disorienting source of shared grief, breaking our hearts as it surely does God’s.
And while we are at it, I think we should not only pray for Peter but listen to him as well. Want to read a passionate account of the church’s mission and mandate to make disciples of all people? Read redemptoris missio. Need some fodder for an upcoming labor day sermon that takes into account the theological implications of human work? Read laborem exercens. Want to peer into a true pastor’s heart and hear him echo Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Be not afraid?” Then read “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.“
Furthermore, it shouldn’t take a theological genius to realize solid, biblical doctrine when we see it, but it does take a healthy dose of humility, especially from us Protestant types. I know of at least one UM Theologian who recommends the Catholic Catechism to all his students, telling United Methodists students that they might need to stow it away in their secret liquor cabinet with the rest of the unmentionables.
Here is my radical proposal for Protestants in general and United Methodists in particular. Let us be intentional in both listening to and praying for Peter. Lets take the time to read encyclicals, apostolic letters and addresses, and other catholic teachings – and not just when we realize that others in the media have declared open season on the pope or the Catholic Church. Perhaps the real work of unity might be served better on our knees with our heads bowed then behind closed doors with our backs up.