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World Congress of Families: grass roots ecumenism at work
While media attention is given to ecumenical initiatives by church leaders, little notice is taken of growing ecumenical co-operation by the laity on pro-family issues.
An example of such ecumenism was the World Congress of Families, the fourth of which was held in Warsaw in May. Inaugurated by Dr Allan Carlson, a Lutheran, previous World Congresses were held in Prague (1997), Geneva (1999) and Mexico (2004).
Attended by 3,300 delegates from 75 countries, WCF IV was held in an ornate building formerly known as the 'Josef Stalin Palace of Culture & Science'. Commissioned by Stalin, it was a gift to Poland from the Soviet Union but liberated Poland has dropped 'Josef Stalin' from the name - it is now simply 'The Palace of Culture & Science'.
I found it delightful that speaker after speaker at the WCF opening ceremony quoted Pope John Paul II. I remembered Stalin's sarcastic question from an era long ago, 'Where are the Pope's divisions?' They were there in force in the Palace that no longer bears his name.
Many of the speakers were Catholic clerics and from the (conservative) Polish Government. For Protestants, Evangelicals, Baptists and other delegates, it was a kind of 'deep immersion' in Catholic culture. No doubt some of them were a trifle bemused but it was great exposure to the best of Catholic thought on family issues.
It was poignant when everyone in the great hall stood as a message was read from Archbishop Kazimierz Majdanski, sponsor of the Congress, who died shortly before the Congress opened. Archbishop Majdanski, a concentration camp prisoner of the Nazis, it was said, 'bore witness to the martyrology of the Polish Catholic clergy in World War II.'
He was a distinguished moral theologian, specialising in the theology of marriage and family. Significantly for this ecumenical gathering, the Archbishop was a member of the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Believers and the Episcopal Commission for Dialogue with Non-Believers. There was a tremendous feeling of sadness in the Congress hall at the loss of this great man.
Encouraged by the large gathering at WCF IV and the stirring Congress declaration in support of the natural family, pro-family Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) considered strategies for combatting the anti-life, pro-homosexual agendas being promoted by the European Union. Poland is (again!) in the front line of the battle for the Christian soul of Europe.
Catherine Vierling, a French MEP, said that when members of the European Parliament want to promote 'faith, life and family,' they feel isolated. She cited Rocco Butiglione of Italy, who was to become EU minister for justice, freedom and security but was rejected for opposing abortion and calling homosexual behaviour sinful.
Allan Carlson was pleased with the formal and informal networks established at WCF IV. Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy of the Family Research Council, Washington, DC, said it was beneficial for Americans 'to meet with pro-family leaders from around the world and realise that they are facing the same issues we are.'
Another non-Catholic group at WCF IV was Focus on the Family, founded by Dr James Dobson. It was represented by Vice President, Tom Minnery, who spoke on the battle against same-sex marriage in the US. He was inspired by Poland which has passed an amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.
A book distributed at the Congress was The Natural Family: a Manifesto, co-authored by Allan Carlson and Paul Mero, President of the Sutherland Institute, a public policy think tank in Salt Lake City. The book carries a warm endorsement from Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, who describes it as 'Nothing short of a blueprint for Western survival'.
A Lutheran, a Mormon and a Jew - it would be difficult to be more ecumenical than that.
At the time of WCF IV in Warsaw, 1.7 million Italians gathered in Rome demonstrating against a law giving legal recognition to homosexual couples. Over 1,000 American rabbis joined with pro-family demonstra- tors and Rabbi Yehuda Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US and Canada, sent a statement of support and solidarity to the organisers of the Rome demonstration and to WCF IV.
The Rabbi applauded the millions of moral, family-orientated Italians who reject legislative efforts to recognise homosexual unions. 'Homosexual activism', he said, 'undermines the most basic values of society, a reverence for innocent life, and the Biblically ordained family unit'.
Today religious divisions are not so much between denominations as between orthodox and liberal elements within each denomination. Orthodox Catholics may have more in common on many questions with pro- life Protestants - who no doubt long for a leader like Pope Benedict - than with liberal and dissenting Catholics.
As I left Warsaw I asked a Protestant colleague, 'Well have you got over some of your hang-ups about Catholicism?' With a smile he replied, 'Oh yes - buying indulgences is no different to Al Gore buying carbon credits to offset global warming caused by his above- average electricity consumption!'
With such ecumenical insights, there is hope for unity not only between denominations but even with environmentalists. Meanwhile, the Rev Ian Paisley is making common cause with Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland in opposing the liberalisation of abortion laws in that province. Miracles do happen.
Babette Francis, a speaker at WCF IV, is the National & Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc., a pro-life, pro- family lobby which includes members of several denominations.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 20 No 7 (August 2007), p. 8
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