sklbaAs the holidays approach, we look forward to many family gatherings. Thanksgiving and Christmas are occasions for going to Grandma’s house and seeing parts of the family we never seem to see otherwise. We certainly look forward to being with friends and folks whom we admire and love. We also can dread being with edgy relatives so different from ourselves.

Rewind for a minute, if you will, and come with me to last month’s meeting of the National Council of Churches in New Orleans. It was the centennial anniversary of the Great 1910 Missionary Conference of Edinburgh, celebrated in retrospect as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement.

At that meeting I had the privilege of responding as a Catholic to a keynote address given by the Secretary General of the World Council of Churches. The theme of the gathering in New Orleans was simply, “Witnesses to these things.” My point was that being a witness didn’t hang in midair, isolated from anything concrete … but rather that there was an object to our witness, an apostolic content if you will, for which and to which we were accountable. My words, out of the richest of Catholic Christian tradition, were well received and sparked some further conversation among the delegates from some 23 different churches.

We also had the opportunity during that gathering in New Orleans to sit down anew with some of the American Christian denominations with whom we find ourselves in disagreement at this point in history. After some 40 years of theological dialogue we may agree in almost every aspect of our common Christian tradition, but now differ deeply over the traditional requirements for ministry and over questions of human sexuality.

It struck the members of our Catholic delegation of observers (because we are not full members of the National Council) that we have an obligation to sit down together, precisely because we are in disagreement.

Serious new differences may change the character of our dialogue, and may even make full and final reconciliation and reunion among our churches more remote, but that can never mean that we step away from the table of Christian dialogue and simply concern ourselves with like-minded people.

Christ asks us to pray as he did that “all may be one” (John 17:21), and to take every step possible toward that goal. The Second Vatican Council asked that Catholics take the first step in this regard. So, for example, in New Orleans the Catholic delegation invited the delegation from the Episcopal Church of the United States to breakfast, and hosted a conversation about where to begin an effort to understand our differences and each other’s approach to the neuralgic issues of our day.

It is very interesting that, at the suggestion of the Holy See, and with their encouragement, both the current official dialogue of Catholics with Episcopalians, and the proposed dialogue of Catholics with Lutherans, will address aspects of decision making in our respective churches. Who makes major moral and doctrinal decisions in our churches? By what authority and by what process? How does one stay rooted in the Scriptures and still address contemporary problems never imagined in the ancient world? How does a church remain rooted in the whole of Scripture, not merely in favorite verses which reflect our personal opinions?

My ecumenical point is that the more deeply we disagree at any moment, the more important it is that we sit down together with mutual respect, Christian charity and basic civility to listen carefully to each other. Dialogues are not intended to make converts, but to discover new levels and depths of mutual understanding. Conversion, however, may occur when we see things through another’s eyes, and a new and deeper sense of unity in search of God’s truth may result.

So back to the question of family gatherings during the forthcoming holidays…. Maybe it’s time to make a special effort this year to listen carefully to friends and relatives with whom we disagree strongly. Our nation and our world have experienced far too much bitter division and harsh condemnation of those with whom they disagree. Often the bloggers say outrageous things about others, with neither regard for truth, charity or basic human respect. That has to stop, and we who claim to be Christian with a divine mandate to love our neighbors ought to take the lead.

Christ loved everyone; even those whom we might feel are unlovable. We are asked to do the same. That does not mean sacrificing truth, and it even may mean loving someone enough and caring enough to speak the truth clearly, but always in love.

The New Testament brought Jews and Gentiles together in an unprecedented fashion. The book of Revelation dreams of ancient rivals and bitter enemies being united in God’s victory over sin and evil.

The holidays are holy days. They are occasions to rediscover the goodness in others, and to see anew why God might love each person so utterly and completely. We may not be able to pull it off with complete success, but we can try. The mystery of the Incarnation starts with the real world as it is, warts and all.

The meeting of the National Council of Churches was a reminder of what the world around us needs to do. Churches ought to provide the basic example for the world. That is one of the tasks to which God calls the true Church of Christ.