My experience of attending meetings billed as opportunities for persons of different beliefs to seek common ground has, more often than not, been an exercise in one group attempting to batter the “other” into submission to a not-so-hidden agenda. It pains me to think of the times I’ve been treated as being a pariah, a bigoted close-minded rube for not being willing to surrender my beliefs so that a so-called liberal compromise — one that had been dictated without give and take — could go forward as the consensus position. Though I’m considered a very sociable person, being a token conservative invited to serve as window dressing (the person who is invited so the organizer can claim that a wide spectrum of views are represented) is not a role that I embrace with hopeful enthusiasm even when the sponsor is a prestigious Ivy League institution or leftist D.C. think tank.
Thus, last week I attended an ecumenical event with low expectations. But the two-day “retreat” sponsored by the new Urbi et Orbi Foundation, “Building Bridges,” was, to my surprise and delight, exactly as it was a billed – an opportunity to build friendships and forge connections across the barriers of different languages, nationalities, ideologies, and church memberships. Our unity of faith as international participants – Christians all – provided the context for our unity as we shared a common belief that the Christian faith is of paramount importance in solving the problems and conflicts of today’s world. The overarching theme of the retreat was that political ideologies and nationalistic posturings fail, but personal interactions over coffee and conversation does, indeed, build bridges and provide a context for collaboration that has the potential to overcome the divisions that separate various branches of Christendom.
The opening breakfast at St. Matthew’s cathedral in downtown D.C. included spiritual reflections on the power of unity from the Prior of the Benedictine monastery of Norcia, Italy, Father Cassian Folsom, who has been fighting a personal battle with cancer at the same time that he has established a new order of monks. The elegant dinner at the Papal Nunciature and the hospitality of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano embodied the goal of the retreat: to facilitate moments of conversation that would draw people closer together to strengthen ties and build bridges to follow believers from different parts of the world and different branches of Christianity.At the panel discussion on the implications of Christian-Orthodox unity in the current world situation, the Urbi et Orbi Foundation founder and president, Robert Moynihan, Ph.D., summarized the intent of the session by using the Italian phrase “stare insieme” which loosely translated, he said, into being together for the sake of being together without any special purpose other than mutual support and interaction, with the “being together” sufficient motivation without any other agenda. That simple phrase described the two days of interaction between representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the United States who are believers from the Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic faith traditions. Our mutual Christian faith bridged all other barriers so that as followers of Christ we shared a common foundation and saw life through a shared faith perspective.
The distinguished panel at the National Press Club focused on religious freedom. One panelist, with profound insight, declared that Christian persecution “cannot be discussed in the abstract.” Another provided the sober analysis that Christian persecution has the potential to eliminate Christianity, especially in the Middle East, if current levels of war and persecution continue. The panelists agreed that the role and importance of family and faith is crucial. War has destroyed so many families and faith has fallen victim to political concerns. Indeed, there was a sense of T.S. Eliot’s great poem, “Murder in the Cathedral,” in that everyone must align their priorities as they determine their allegiances – whether to rely on faith or politics as the solution for the world’s problems.
The “retreat” atmosphere amplified the event’s significance as the power of personal reference enhanced the intimacy and experiential connections among participants. One panelist talked about his emotional response to political issues in the context of his close relatives being killed in the Ukrainian invasion; it was not a political event to him but a personal one requiring Christian forgiveness. Yet another panelist pointed out that political situations require that Christians “practice forgiveness;” that is, love our neighbors and be willing to view conflict from a Christian perspective — not from a national or ideological perspective, but a faith perspective.
Others talked about the importance of learning from each other about how to live out our faith during increased globalization — where conflicts are viewed from an increasingly more secular way and the moral authority of the church is becoming increasingly more irrelevant to world leaders.
Still, despite being ignored by political elites, the church is growing at the grassroots level in regions as disparate as Africa and China. Participants were reminded that for almost 3 decades (27 years!) Russia has been experiencing a religious revival where 3 churches per day are being established! So there is a complexity about international relations that goes much deeper than the political realm. One consequence of this dynamic reality in Russia is the growth, too, of the pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-family movement. The vitality of the pro-family movement in Russia is unparalleled in Western nations; despite the Russian government’s misadventures, Russian believers are setting an example for the Western world in promoting life, marriage, and family.
First published at AmericanThinker.com
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