Lessons on Ecumenism While Studying at Protestant Graduate School
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Perhaps like you, I grew up in a Catholic family. Mass every Sunday. Prayers before dinner and bed. Rosaries of different colors dangled from the lamp in my bedroom and a necklace with a golden crucifix dangled from my neck.
Apart from my church and home, however, very little of my world was Catholic. At public school, dance class, or the neighborhood playground, I was one of a small handful of Catholics surrounded by people who rarely went to church or didn’t believe in God. Naturally, I made fast friends with any other kids who actively practiced the Christian faith, regardless of their particular denomination. In the secular world, I became best friends with the Baptists, Lutherans, and non-denominational Christians. We encouraged and enriched each other’s faith journey.
So, when I decided, at age 25, to go back to school for a Masters of Divinity, I considered Protestant and Catholic programs. My ecumenical relationships had served my faith so well in the past; why wouldn’t they continue to do so? It just felt right, then, when I enrolled as a Catholic in a Protestant Graduate School of Theology in 2013.
My first year was glorious. I relished reading books, attending lectures, and even taking tests about the Old Testament and Church History. I learned a great deal from my Presbyterian and Methodist peers and professors not to mention Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
By my second year, however, my appreciation for ecumenicism was waning. I grew tired of the occasional insult about denominations that believed in the Real Presence of the Eucharist or refused to ordain women. I grew irritated by the sighs or eye-rolls I heard or saw when professors mentioned the papacy or pro-life issues. Catholicism was not the only target of such contempt. Students from other denominations faced scorn for reading scripture literally or praying charismatically. Despite all those years of friendship with people from various denominations, I had never truly appreciated the size and weight of our differences.
By the second semester of my second year, I was irritable and miserable. I went to class and just waited for someone to say something offensive. “See?!” I would say to God, “This right here! This is what I was talking about!” I obsessed over my experiences of disrespect, and I ignored all the instances when my Catholicism was welcomed or even celebrated. Rather than graciously giving people the benefit of the doubt, I gladly took their words out of context and twisted their meaning. All of this, of course, happened unconsciously. I was oblivious to the fact that my thought patterns and my pride were part of the problem.
One cold February morning, I stood in the dark kitchen of my drafty apartment, begging the coffee to brew faster. I leaned against the sink, my eyes closed and arms crossed, dreading the day ahead. Finally, the coffee pot growled and the last few drops of coffee fell into the mug. I added a few dollops of half and half and lifted the heavy ceramic mug to my lips. The hot steam warmed my face and the sharp scent filled my nose. I took a long, deep breath and a nice, big sip.
Ugh! I winced as I swallowed. Bitter! The coffee was so bitter!
Instantly, before the hot coffee had even hit my empty stomach, the Spirit spoke. That, the Spirit said, is the taste of your soul. Bitter.
Just like the coffee, I had steeped myself in memories of disrespect and offense. I had soaked myself in self-righteousness. I had become bitter.
Rather than focusing on the countless ways people had welcomed me and my Catholic faith, I had chosen to focus on the ways they had rejected me and my Catholic faith. God had invited me to this specific place at this specific time. He had uniquely situated me to build bridges and instead I had built a wall around myself. I was bad, bitter coffee in desperate need of cream and sugar.
Sisters, I know firsthand how easy it is to be offended these days. Often, the discussions on Facebook, the debates on the news, and the conversations at school or work lack civility. The Catholic Church, with its counter-cultural teachings and practices, is always an easy target. Furthermore, as the sex abuse crisis continues to unfold, we will hear more criticism. Much of that criticism will be legitimate and constructive. Mixed in, however, will be petty remarks, baseless accusations, and sarcastic comments. People will speak irreverently and ignorantly of the beliefs and practices closest to our hearts.
Please, I beg you, do not respond as I did. Do not look at these instances of persecution as points of pride. Accept them humbly. Respond kindly. Practice patience. Offer compassion. Ask questions as needed. Pray for wisdom and eloquence always.
Do not dwell on those experiences of offense. Soak, instead, in the love and grace of God.
St. Paul advises us to do just this in his letter to the Philippians. He writes, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
That bitter cup of coffee woke me up to my terrible habit of thinking only on whatever was dishonorable, unjust, and ugly. Thanks to the Spirit’s prompting on that cold morning, I began examining, monitoring, and adjusting my thoughts. I began consciously looking for and reflecting on instances where my professors and peers welcomed and celebrated my Catholic faith. Slowly, I began to see the beauty God had revealed to me all those years before. Once again, I saw that we are all brothers and sisters, made by the same Creator to love and serve each other.
Five years later, as I sat down to write this letter, I easily recalled the terrible taste of the coffee and the clear words of the Spirit. I struggled, however, to remember all the offenses that had fostered my bitterness. Instead, all I could remember were the sacred examples of God’s love and grace as embodied by my professors and peers. I thought about one of my teachers pulling me aside after class to thank me for sharing my perspective; about my friend driving out of her way each Tuesday to take me home after class; about my classmates laying hands on me and praying over me during a health scare. I thought about standing beside my dearest friend in her beautiful wedding in a Presbyterian church and receiving birthday messages from my former classmates even though we hadn’t seen each other in years.
And, of course, I thought back to our graduation. I remembered that group of Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and so many more, collecting our diplomas in our caps and gowns. I thought of us as a microcosm of the many different parts making up the beautiful body of Christ. And when I think on that moment, which is so worthy of praise, I don’t taste any bitterness. It is all sweetness.
All my love,
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Full name: Melissa Wentzel
Occupation: Parish Communications Assistant
Location: Tampa, Florida
Educational background: B.A. from James Madison University and Masters of Divinity from Emory University
How does your Catholic faith affect the way you live your day-to-day life?
On a macro level, my Catholic faith greatly influenced my decision to marry my wonderful husband and take my wonderful job. On a micro level, my Catholic faith challenges me each day to love and serve others by saying hi to my neighbor even when I’m tired, paying the extra dollar for a fair-trade coffee, or calling an old friend.
What is your favorite way to pray?
This changes a lot with different seasons. Right now, I connect most with God through Centering Prayer as well as the Litany of Humility and the Prophets of a Future Not Our Own prayer.
What’s your favorite way to spend a Saturday off?
Reading with my dog and husband while watching college football.
Fill in the blank.
My morning routine consists of: Coffee and an english muffin, feed the dog, make the bed, shower, do makeup and get dressed, kiss husband, pray a decade of the Rosary and listen to the Bobby Bones Show on the way to work
I’m currently obsessed with: jigsaw puzzles
I feel most inspired when: sitting in Eucharistic Adoration with my journal
My favorite part about my life right now is: coming home from a job I love to a husband I love
The advice I would give to the millennial Catholic woman is: You’re doing better than you think! Accept the grace God is offering you!