Event seeks to explore common ground between Catholics and Protestants

by Bill Tammeus

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About two years ago, before I knew that a sermon series my pastor was leading would yield a book the two of us would co-author, I mentioned the series (with a link to it) in this NCR column about the popularity of Pope Francis among us Protestants.

NCR readers lit up our church’s server, and our pastor, Paul Rock, started getting e-mail from Catholics and Protestants all over the world. The editors at the national Presbyterian publishing house, Westminster John Knox Press, then asked Paul and me if we’d put the sermons together into a seven-week study book. We did, and it was published this past September as Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

I’ve been intrigued by how both Catholics and Protestants to whom we’ve spoken since the book’s publication have been engaged by the different (and often similar) ways they’ve experienced Pope Francis and how all of that relates to their core faith in Jesus Christ. In the book’s study questions and our suggestions for next steps to be taken toward ecumenical and interfaith understanding, we’ve sought to draw out those similarities and differences so we can help find where the Venn circles of Christianity intersect to form common ground.

This summer I’ll be moving that process one step forward by leading a week-long seminar the week of July 10 at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian education and retreat center in northern New Mexico, where I’ve taught almost every summer since 1995. I hope some of you will join me.

The course will be called "Conversations with Jesus and Pope Francis," though truth in labeling requires me to disclose that as far as I know neither of them will be there in human bodily form. Neither, for that matter, will my co-author. Paul will be on a well-earned sabbatical at the time, though I’m hoping we can Skype him up a time or two to join our conversation.

As the course description notes, we will “explore Catholic-Protestant relations -- past and current -- as well as interfaith relations in a conversational format that will draw from the words of Jesus and Francis. Class members will be encouraged to use writing and conversational skills to find ways to engage people of different faith traditions so everyone can learn and learn to live in religious harmony.”

Even if you can’t join me in New Mexico in July, you can help me shape the week by telling me what ecumenical and interfaith questions you’d like to see discussed in such a format. Should we focus on old, long-debated Catholic-Protestant differences over the Eucharist or should we look for harmonies between the words of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament and the words of Pope Francis as recorded everywhere -- from Twitter to official encyclicals?

And which words of both should we use?

Although I’ve been thinking about the shape of the week, I haven’t locked down everything I want to do. But I have been imagining holding the Sermon on the Mount up against some of the more engaging words from Pope Francis, whether that’s his encyclical about the environment or his reading the riot act to the Roman Curia in late 2014.

But I’m certainly open to other ideas, and I hope you’ll give me some thoughts either in comments left here or by e-mailing me.

One of the things I love about Ghost Ranch, which is where the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted, is that its high desert beauty encourages open discussion and open hearts. There is a peacefulness there, a sense of the divine presence, that leads to unexpected insights, often from unexpected people.

In a class I taught last year, one of the members I most enjoyed was a Jewish psychiatrist from New York. Maybe this year you will be the serendipitous gift to our class.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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