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From competition to communion: Friendship with Roman Catholics

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted National Socialism, he called on the riches of the Catholic tradition to provide spiritual strength. Bonhoeffer viewed Finkenwalde Seminary, the school he founded to train Confessing Church pastors, as an evangelical monastery. He asked his friend Eberhard Bethge to serve as his confessor and offer an adapted sacrament of penance. He required all his students to practice ancient spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina. Catholic spirituality was so central to Bonhoeffer’s theology that Karl Barth, while praising Bonhoeffer’s book Sanctorum Communio, “detected a quality of ‘homesickness’ – a longing for the church catholic and its tangible consolations” (Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 57).

By “the church catholic” Barth means, of course, the church universal. As Christian Courier readers approach another “Reformation Day” (October 31), we do well to join Bonhoeffer in his longing for the church catholic. One way to nurture that longing is to nurture friendships with Roman Catholics. And among these friendships, we can number literary friendships with Roman Catholic writers.

Reformation-era competition:  Evangelical Catholicism vs Roman Catholicism
When Reformed and other Protestant Christians long to unite and embody the church catholic, we stand in continuity with our Reformation era founders. When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and developed the doctrine of justification by faith alone, he “did not intend to found a new church but only to renew the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in which he had been baptized” (David C. Steinmetz, Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective, 63-64). And when John Calvin debated Cardinal Sadoleto regarding the right theological direction for Geneva, Calvin claimed that the evangelical party, rather than the Roman party, represented authentic Catholic teaching (see Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto). True heirs of the Reformation remain loyal to the ecumenical creeds, which we share with Roman Catholics, and we long for the unity among believers for which Jesus prays. How can the world believe in the one Saviour apart from the witness of a church that is one, as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:20-21)?

Evangelism by fascination
To experience the power of literary friendships with Roman Catholics, Christian Courier readers could begin with Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In this book, Merton portrays a life that began with his birth to consciously secular parents in wartime France and leads to his entrance into the Gethsemani monastery near Lexington, Kentucky. Included in the memoir is a heart-rending depiction of what it was like for six-year-old Thomas Merton to receive a written note from his terminally ill mother. As Merton explains it, his parents, wanting to spare their child from exposure to sickness and death, did not take him to visit his mother when she became bed-ridden with a fatal case of cancer. Instead, one day his father gave young Thomas a note to read. After puzzling it out for some time, Merton discovered that his “mother was informing me, by mail, that she was about to die, and would never see me again.” When the meaning of the message sank in, Merton writes, “a tremendous weight of sadness and depression settled over me. It was not the grief of a child, with pangs of sorrow and many tears. It had something of the heavy perplexity and gloom of adult grief, and was therefore all the more of a burden because it was, to that extent, unnatural.” Merton concludes poignantly:

Prayer? No, prayer did not even occur to me. How fantastic that will seem to a Catholic – that a six-year-old child should find out that his mother is dying, and not know enough to pray for her! It was not until I became a Catholic, twenty years later, that it finally occurred to me to pray for my mother (14).

Merton’s memoir includes equally poignant depictions of his father’s illness and death some years later and, finally, of his younger brother’s death while serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. While converting to Roman Catholicism and learning to live as a monk, Merton offered an intelligent and effective witness to his family and friends, and most readers of The Seven Storey Mountain will find themselves utterly intrigued not only by faith in Christ but also by participation in the body of Christ. Merton elicits a love for God that inspires also a longing for reconciliation in the human family, and that reconciliation can express itself in friendships between Reformational Catholics and Roman Catholics.

In addition to Merton, many other Roman Catholic writers, such as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day, elicit love for God. Paul Elie tells the story of all four of these writers in his enthralling work, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Taking his title from a short story by O’Connor, Elie expresses his own pilgrimage to God by exploring the lives and works of these four mid-20th century Catholic writers whom some call “the school of the Holy Ghost.” Each one of these writers can inspire readers to experience Christ in endlessly creative ways. In regard to Merton, Elie says that “he tells us what it feels like to be in the grip of God. And he does so in such a way as to make the reader feel not only that such an experience is real and possible, but that it is necessary, vital, and attractive, the center of life, just as the Catholic tradition insists it is” (170). Elie’s description of Merton’s autobiography applies also to Elie’s own four-part biography of these soul searching writers. By depicting them in the empathetic and imaginative way he does, Elie carries out evangelism in the form of fascination. Like his subjects, Elie makes us want to know Christ and his body.

Communion as experience and hope
To love these Roman Catholic writers who help us to love God does not mean we deny serious theological differences with them or the sad divisions that continue to dismember the body of Christ. Instead, such love moves us to expand our friendships in ways that could, in God’s time, serve the cause of Christian union and therefore mission. In what Charles Taylor (another Roman Catholic friend) calls “our secular age,” the practices of friendship and fascination offer two of our best hopes to renew our own relationships with Christ and to welcome others into the communion Christ gives us. In 2017, the world will note the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In 2015, the hundredth anniversary of Merton’s birth, we can nurture the kind of friendships that will build on the giant strides toward unity we have been taking for the last 50 years. Perhaps we can transform Reformation Day into a day that celebrates our journey from competition to communion in Christ.


  • Joel E. Kok has served as pastor of Willowdale Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont. since January 2010. Prior to Willowdale, Joel served churches in Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Joel graduated from Calvin College & Calvin Seminary; he also earned a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from Duke University. Joel is married to Tricia (Timmer) Kok, and they have three children.

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