Hundreds gather to seek unity among churches
By Lois K. Solomon, Sun Sentinel
5:20 a.m. EST, January 29, 2013
Can Christians shed their denominational loyalties to become one church? Hundreds of South Florida congregants who have high hopes for unity gathered in Palm Beach County churches last week to pray for a single Christian faith.
Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists: All asked for guidance, respectful dialogue, cooperation and an emphasis on what the denominations have in common.
"The differences between us are not that great," said Kenneth Vianale, a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church west of Boca Raton who is studying to become a deacon. "There has been foolishness on all sides, and we are ready for a thaw."
Each denomination believes in the Trinity and Jesus Christ as their savior, and reads the same 27 books of the New Testament, Vianale said. But differences persist on issues such as the primacy of the Pope and the sacraments.
Vianale, an attorney, reached out to a former colleague, the Rev. Russell Silverglate, a former attorney and pastor of Hammock Street Church, a Presbyterian congregation west of Boca Raton. Silverglate attended a Week of Prayer ceremony at Vianale's church and said he was thrilled to speak at a Catholic church for the first time.
"Our differences are more like a family squabble," Silverglate said. "We are all supposed to be one. We're not supposed to be divided."
Although a Great Schism in 1054 split the Latin-speaking church based in Rome from the Greek-speaking Eastern churches, the 16th-century Reformation initiated by Martin Luther spurred the separation of Catholics and Protestants. That split led to wars, family divisions, new churches and new Christian religions.
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council urged Catholics to embrace fellow baptized Christians without sacrificing their own beliefs. They were encouraged to pray together and learn from each other. The council's Decree on Ecumenism listed Christian unity as a primary goal.
Although many say the ecumenical enthusiasm of the 1960s and 1970s has waned, many Catholics still seek to find common ground with Christians and non-Christians. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, begun in 1908 by the Graymoor Franciscan Friars, has become the focus of interfaith activities at many churches.
Still, the week is not the only outreach program in the Diocese of Palm Beach. Year-round activities include monthly meetings among pastors and rabbis, social justice events and holiday gatherings such as an interfaith Thanksgiving service.
"We are building relationships," said Dennis Demes, a deacon and chair of the Diocesan Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. "Hearts are moved through these relationships. I just keep learning."
The Rev. Steven Thomas, of St. David's in the Pines Episcopal Church in Wellington, said the interfaith services he has attended for the past few years have taught him to be patient about the goal of unity.
Thomas said he was hopeful after the Second Vatican Council but thinks Christians have entered an "ecumenical autumn," with less enthusiasm and hope for a single church.
"It may not happen in our lifetime," Thomas said, "but you don't give up."
Lsolomon@tribune.com or 561-243-6536