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Guest opinion: Healing amidst despair

There are few things more painful than raised expectations that are either not realized in one's lifetime or seem unrealizable.

I was a little kid when the Catholic Christian bishops of the world gathered in the Vatican for an ecumenical council. As observers at the Second Vatican Council were even representatives of the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Orthodox, Methodist and Lutheran churches. I am pretty sure that bishops dialogued with these representatives, especially on Christ's desire that ...

"...all of them (His disciples) may be one." Gospel of John 17:21

The spirit of ecumenism quickly swept through all the mainline Christian denominations in the 1960s, with Christians now regarding other denominations less as heretics, and more as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Back in the day, you didn't talk about religion with colleagues and neighbors because it could really cause a lot of trouble. On so many different levels. So Christians of all creedal traditions kept their talk of being favored in the eyes of God to their places of worship, where preachers too often defined their particular faith as not being "them". That is, not being like some "heretical and wrong-minded" community of hell-bound cult members.

And so the ecumenical movement -- amped up with Vatican II, and really embraced by long feuding denominations -- was, for many Americans, something like a spiritual migraine finally lifting.

Back in the 1970s, when I was a teen, it wasn't uncommon for congregations and parishes to collaborate on ministries of common interest. I even remember pastors being welcomed into other denominations' churches to preach ... in addition to the local pastor's sermon, of course.

Here's how good it got: Most Christians even began to regard other Christian traditions as ... hold onto your seat ... Christian.

I think if you were to ask the typical Christian 40 and 50 years ago about the new ecumenical spirit sweeping the world, they would have said either "It just feels right." Or "It's just very Christian." Sort of how people reacted when they saw photos of Pope Francis washing the feet of young prisoners -- Christian and non-Christian -- in Rome.

Well, the 1980s and 1990s were not a good time for ecumenism. Mainline Christian denominations were decreasing in numbers. With many members staying home. Or fleeing to churches that too-often defined themselves as not "them". Those unfamiliar with actual research in this field would prematurely blame the ecumenical movement for this decline.

In the Catholic Christian Church, in spite of Pope John Paul's ecumenical interest -- he even asked world religious leaders to suggest how his Petrine ministry could be of use in achieving greater unity -- Catholic pastors began to focus on the growing needs of ever-larger parishes with ever-fewer priests. Adding just one more thing to an overworked Catholic pastor's workload proved to be too daunting.

So for about three decades, ecumenical initiatives were back-burnered. And not just in Catholic parishes. For a Catholic teen who actually thought Christ's desire for unity was being realized, it was disheartening to have my and others' raised expectations dashed. Or at least shelved.

You can imagine how pleased I was when I first came to Dakota County and received eight phone calls and emails from local congregations' pastors welcoming me, a Catholic pastor!

It gets better. My fellow St. Joseph Church parishioners and I have been invited to the interdenominational CrossWalk on Good Friday in Eagan as well as the Rosemount Thanksgiving Eve Service at Rosemount Methodist. And I meet fairly frequently with Community of Hope's pastor. Of course, if there's collaboration to be done between churches, I can always count on the indomitable pastor of Lighthouse Church.

Recently, just prior to a beautiful musical performance by the renowned Basilica of St. Mary choir, choral members and choir directors from local congregations gathered at St. Joe's just to get to know each other. And dream dreams of what we could do together through a possible regional choir.

What's more, come the first Saturday of October, area pastors of varying traditions have said they will come to St. Joe's annual Blessing of the Animals and join this recuperating-open-heart-surgery St. Joe's pastor in blessing snakes, birds, dogs, cats, goldfish, spiders, and alpacas.

The ecumenical and loving spirit of this area's churches began to lift my despair over unfulfilled ecumenical expectations. And then a truly Christian thing happened that actually brought tears to my eyes.

While I was recovering in the hospital from an aortic dissection, I received calls, emails, Facebook entries, texts, cards and CaringBridge notes from an incredible number of pastors and congregants all across the denominational spectrum. I even got a heart-warming message from a pastor whose denomination's national leadership still considers Catholic Christians as "them".

Not only that, but I understand that members of congregations I didn't even know existed -- as well as those very prominent in Dakota County -- were praying for me in their services, their liturgies, their prayer gatherings, their Masses, their healing gatherings, their Bible studies. Non-Catholic churches' bulletins were even listing my website so members could send their regards and prayers: (Keep on sending them. They continue to make me smile.)

You know, it's as if I had actually died and gone to heaven. Maybe, just maybe, we needed a 30-year hiatus for the ecumenical spirit to reignite and spread throughout the region. The country. The world.

It frankly was the best get-well message I could ever receive. Frankly, there are just too many pastors and congregants to thank here. Anyway, Jesus knows who you are. Please know that you are near and dear to this no longer despairing Christian. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Father Paul Jarvis is pastor at St. Joseph Church