January 22, 2016, Adrian, Michigan – Adrian Dominican Sisters on the Motherhouse campus have experienced Christian unity in a number of ways: through parish work and their involvement in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE); through the Charismatic Renewal movement; through lessons they’ve learned from their parents; and even on a sick bed, when chaplains of other Christian denominations ministered to one of the Sisters.
These personal experiences came to light January 20 during the first of four events by which the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse Campus is participating in the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25, 2016. A series of prayers and conversations around Christian unity has been organized by the Motherhouse Departments of Spiritual Life and Pastoral Care.
For more than 100 years, Christians around the world have set aside an octave of prayer that one day we can fulfill Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper, that “all may be one.” This year’s theme, “Called to Proclaim the Mighty Works of God,” is taken from 1Peter 2:9. The week is organized jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Father James Hug, SJ, of the Spiritual Life Department, introduced the first session – focused on conversations on how the Sisters experience Christian unity in their personal lives – by providing background on the event. The local series of events, he said, is based on an event that took place on Reformation Sunday in October 2014, when Father Jim posted on a door of St. Catherine Chapel both Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the Joint Statement of Agreement between the Reformed Churches in the U.S. and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The statement, called “The Bread of Life,” affirms that “baptism establishes the bond of unity existing among all who are part of Christ’s Body, and is therefore the sacramental basis for our efforts to move toward visible unity.”
During the conversation, many Sisters noted that their childhood experience and understanding of other Christian denominations. Sister Betty Jenkins, OP, who had family members who were not Catholic, said she had been told in catechism that only Catholics could go to Heaven. A talk with her mother – and her own experience with Girl Scouts from other Christian traditions – helped her to understand that that statement is not true. Those experiences “put some kind of groundedness in me, that the Catholics were not the only ones who were saved, and I appreciated that.” Other Sisters noted that, even while growing up in a strong Catholic culture, they had never been told that only Catholics were saved.
Sister Jeanne Burns, OP, spoke of her ecumenical experience during her year of CPE at a Methodist Hospital associated with the Mayo Clinic – and of working with the other participants, two Methodist ministers and two Lutheran ministers. “It was a year of wonderful learning and understanding” of people of Christian traditions, she said.
Sister Rosemary Ferguson, OP, also spoke of her interfaith experience as a hospital chaplain with colleagues of other Christian denominations. “I learned beauty and the sincerity and the courage and the integrity of those men and women in other denominations, and it was a very humbling experience for me,” she said. “I learned from them what holiness is about [in traditions other than my own]. To hear them talk about the interior life was just amazing to me.”
Two chaplains in the Pastoral Care Department – both ordained ministers – spoke of their own ecumenical experience in working with the Adrian Dominican Sisters. Rev. Cathy Johnson recalled attending an intentional discernment retreat and conference for Presbyterian pastors and discovering her own four passions for ministry: “spirituality, sustainability – especially as it pertains to the environment – creativity, and hospitality.” While serving as an interim pastor at a vibrant parish community in Michigan, she felt God’s call to seek out a ministry that meets those four passions. She eventually found these passions in serving as a chaplain for the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
Rev. Diane Christopherson spoke of her early grounding in ecumenical connections. “I was formed from my earliest childhood in ecumenical circles, meeting, as a child and youth, with children and youth of different religious backgrounds, different Christian congregations,” she said. She continued that connection as an adult, working with colleagues from other Christian denominations. In coming to serve in Adrian, she said, she found common ground with the Adrian Dominican Sisters. “What particularly came before my mind’s eye before I came here was what a gift it would be to serve among women who felt a call to God from a very young age, just like I did. We’re kind of counter-cultural people.”
The prayer and conversations series continued on January 21 with a focus on the experience of unity in mission, and on January 22 with a focus on the future. The series will conclude during Mass next week, when the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity concludes January 25 with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
Feature photo: Sister Mary Rae Waller, OP, lights the candle at the beginning of the January 19 session, while Sister Rosemary Ferguson, OP, looks on.