“We Have to Be the Bridge”: The Atonement Franciscan Legacy at 125 Years and Beyond
By Brian Terry, SA, and Aaron Hollander
The Very Rev. Brian F. Terry, SA, is the current Minister General of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Father Terry earned his BA in Psychology and Theater from Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and he began his theological studies at Pontificia Università Gregoriana. At the Pontificio Ateneo Sant’Anselmo, he completed his license and doctorate in Sacramental Theology with an interdisciplinary study on the psychology and theology of dialogue in the Rite of Penance.
Dr. Aaron T. Hollander is Editor of Ecumenical Trends, Associate Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University. In 2022, he was elected President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists; he also serves on the steering committee of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network and on the faculty of the Summer Course in Ecumenism at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome. He is a scholar of ecumenical theology and lived religion, with degrees from the University of Chicago (PhD 2018), the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin), and Swarthmore College.
Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: Fr. Brian, it’s a pleasure to sit down for a conversation with you as we approach the first celebrations for the 125th anniversary of the Society of the Atonement this year. It was in 1898 that Father Paul (then Lewis) Wattson and Sister (later Mother) Lurana White sought and received permission, under the Episcopal bishop of Delaware, to found new religious communities for men and women at Graymoor, structured by the same Franciscan vows and guided by the same vision of Atonement (or “at-one-ment”) for which Jesus gave his life: unity among all Christian disciples and churches, peace among all peoples of the earth, and harmony between creatures and their Creator.
I want to begin with the meaning of this anniversary in general, because anniversaries are not naturally occurring phenomena. There’s nothing that makes 125 years more significant than 124 or 126 years – apart from our human need to organize time, commemorate milestones, and impose meaning. An anniversary is a kind of fiction, and as such it matters because of what we do with it – how we do or don’t take the opportunity to use it as a lens for reflection on the past or imagination of the future. So I want to think with you about what kind of an opportunity this 125th anniversary should be for the Society of the Atonement: what are you hoping it will mean or do for the Society?
Brian Terry: Well, as you say, the anniversary has something like a sacramental sense of being fully present in our relationship with one another, looking intently at who we are, while also celebrating the past as a resource for the future. It’s not at all just a looking back and resting on our laurels; it is, and should be, infused with the biblical concept of Jubilee, which is about forgiveness and new beginnings. So for me, the 125th anniversary of the Society of the Atonement is less like a birthday party or wedding anniversary, and more of a moment for us to pause and reflect on the amazing blessings of our history, the trajectory of our life together that has gone beyond the imagination of Father Paul and Mother Lurana. Our responsibility in the present moment is to steward an existing vision of Atonement for the future, but also to listen in contemplation to the voices around us that indicate what they recognize us to be and need us to be for the sake of the world.
We’ve taken that time for contemplation and prayer, particularly since the 2022 Assembly of the Society, when we took stock of all our ministries in light of an extended period of listening to our networks, our communities, our colleagues, asking again and again: “Who do you say we are?” “What does the world need now that our life and work make possible?” We are taking this moment seriously as a time for renewal and forgiveness, for letting the past go and rebuilding a future. Because that’s what every Jubilee asks: that all the debts be forgiven, that we start anew as if the past is no more, so that our relationships can be built on new graces and not on old wounds.
AH: You’ve been Minister General of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement now for nine years, and you’ve overseen many changes and new opportunities for the Friars during that time. Do you see now that the Society is in a place of readiness for this moment of reassessing who and what it is?
BT: I think the reflective moment is widely recognized as necessary, but recognizing the necessity of something challenging is not quite the same as being ready for it. It’s not easy for everyone to get their head around what’s needed now, because many of us look naturally for security and stability in the structures of religious life, even as, in reality, religious life means the very lack of that. We take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – all of which are public ways of exchanging security for the radical openness to which the gospel calls us. We say we live in the in-between time of the “already but not yet” of the Reign of God. It is embracing by choice that discernment of the next step of the “not yet.” When God comes to us, it is never from the past; God always comes to us from the future that is already known to God. Stability here means a retreat to the past, looking backwards – one hand on the plow and looking backwards. Hope is choosing to leave my comfortable stability for something else; hope here is the choice for a future.
AH: I appreciate that you bring up instability not only as one precious opportunity of an anniversary like this but also as a hallmark of religious life – which I suspect is especially the case with Franciscan life, by contrast with a charism like that of the Benedictines, whose vows include being stabilized in place and rooting in place. The Franciscan movement, the Franciscan revolution, was destabilizing to the Catholic Church – it was an evangelical movement before evangelicalism and a reform movement before the Reformation, profoundly disturbing and meaningfully reorienting the church of its time.
While we’re thinking about the opportunities represented by the 125th anniversary and the degree of readiness of the Society to seize them, I’d like also to ask about the force of this Franciscan heritage in the Society’s life and identity. You might use a different metaphor for this, but if the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement have two poles in their corporate identity, around which the life of the Society orbits and flourishes, these poles would be the Franciscan heritage on the one hand and the distinctive Atonement vision on the other. Would you speak a little about how you see those dimensions of the community’s identity being related to one another?
BT: I might describe these dimensions less like poles of a continuum and more like bifocal lenses through which we see the world and by which we are able to act in the world. Father Paul and Mother Lurana themselves had to integrate two different reasons for coming together. Mother Lurana wanted to live in corporate poverty, inspired as she was by the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. She saw the reform that was needed in the American church as a return to the profound simplicity that the Franciscan way made clear to her – where it’s about corporate poverty and relational commitment rather than “my own personal spiritual journey.” And Father Paul was moved as much by the deep and grievous pain of division as he was by a Franciscan vocation. Remember that he was born into a world of division and pain and war; you can look up the front page of the New York Times on the day he was born, and you can see the list of all of the people dying each day during the Civil War. There were so many families that were touched by the heaviness of loss and war, families torn apart by the battlelines. Father Paul was born in that time and raised during the raw period of healing; he saw the church trying to reckon with its own involvement in the Civil War, in the tragedy of Christians slaughtering Christians, and his vision of at-one-ment has its roots in the terrible pain of this period.
So, when coming together, these commitments played off one another so that the Franciscan way and the Atonement mission could come together: the Franciscan way of the richness of corporate poverty, in a space where the Franciscan story and charism could inspire a vision of healing and unity. Francis himself, as you know, traveled across the Mediterranean to meet with the Sultan of Egypt in the thick of the Crusades, to ask him face to face: Why are we having this war? Is there another way? This Franciscan mission was echoed clearly in Father Paul’s lifetime, when there occurred the Civil War, the Spanish-American war, the Philippine-American War, a number of wars waged by the expanding United States against Native American peoples… Why are we fighting? What are we doing? In a broad sense, the Franciscan way is first and foremost about fraternity – being brothers amongst brothers, sisters amongst sisters. And this sensibility pushes us to meet those who are supposed to be our enemies in the same spirit. The healing we seek knows no boundaries or property lines – it is grounded in the concept of creation, of God’s interdependent world, where we were created to be as one in all our diversity. This was Christ’s prayer too, that we all be at one and that we share the things that we have; we are here to care for one another and be related to one another – even, or especially, when we disagree.
The Franciscan way of peacemaking and reconciliation is not about being in charge of the big institutions that are going to change the world. We don’t have a seat at the UN. But we create little spaces where people can talk with one another, where people can be healed, where people can discover their own identity, where we call them to their own authenticity. If there is a Franciscan way to intervene in the tragedy of war, it is by working to put peace in people’s hearts. Of course, that’s much easier said than done, because the ongoing cancer of war is metastatic: people are hurt so deeply that their whole lives and communities are irrevocably damaged, and this damage spreads, becomes generational, through cycles of revenge and hate. It is not for us to tell people who have been broken by war to put the past behind them. We’re not here to say that the people who are trapped in cycles of intercultural mistrust and generational violence are in the wrong – what’s wrong is the cycles themselves. People don’t need blame and righteous anger – they need hope and healing and harmony, and for this they need God’s help, and God’s imagination coursing through their lives, because we simply cannot get there on our own.
AH: You raise this question posed by Francis to the Sultan, this very basic but deceptively simple question: why are we fighting? This is a question that is at the heart of ecumenical research – the kind of scholarly, ecumenical work that accompanies and supports the theological dialogue, the collaborative social action, and so forth. One of the basic priorities of this research is to ask this very question, why are we fighting, not as a rhetorical question or a platitude (“why are we fighting? We should just get along!”), but as an earnest and courageous look into the breach: why are we fighting? Can we get beneath the rhetoric and the talking points and look without flinching at the raw, still unhealed wounds in our history together? This is indispensable because we often lose track of what the real issues are – often they’re subterranean, they’re invisible, they’re subconscious. I even think there’s an element of this perspective in St. Paul, in his question to the Corinthians – “has Christ been divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). This is often taken as a rhetorical question in how it’s interpreted, but I don’t think it needs to be. Has Christ been divided? What are we doing in our relationships to one another that is widening real wounds in the body of Christ? And what are the consequences of this? For St. Francis to take this kind of genuine inquiry as his approach to a catastrophic global conflict, for Father Paul and Mother Lurana to take this approach with respect to the corrosion of American social fabric – that strikes me as particularly significant to the vocation and identity of the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement.
Now, our Ecumenical Trends readership is for the most part already attuned to this world of theological and ecclesiological inquiry – and already familiar with ecumenical history, vocabulary, and priorities. But one of the great challenges that keeps coming up, as what was once known unambiguously as “the ecumenical movement” is aging and dwindling for a variety of reasons, is that many of the old problems, which once seemed urgent, are no longer animating us, even as new forms of intercommunal solidarity, interreligious exchange, and intercultural identity – ecumenical realities all! – are increasingly in the foreground. As a result, it is pivotal that not only ecumenical networks in general, but also the Society of the Atonement in particular, consider how we go about translating ecumenical history, study, labor, and ethics into terms that are recognizable by the broader public as urgently needed. How would you, or how might you describe the ecumenical ministry of the Friars of the Atonement to someone who had never heard the term “ecumenical”?
BT: That’s a good question. We know that the past century has been full of remarkable achievements in interchurch relations, and I think it’s clear that, today, that same fervor and experience that animated these earlier generations are hard to find. So it isn’t surprising or unreasonable that we are often inclined to look at the past with a bit of nostalgia. But when we look back at the ecumenical agenda of the past, we see that many of the smaller goals have actually been accomplished. Part of the difficulty of explaining ecumenism as something which is still needed is that the lower, more visible bars have been jumped over and people think that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. We can stand side by side for a photo-op or sit down to tea together, and we can issue joint statements on areas of theological or political agreement, and we can recognize one another’s baptisms, so isn’t it about time that we get on with more pressing matters?
So how do we communicate what’s important about continuing to cultivate an ecumenical heart, an ecumenical perspective? What are we doing here? I think that, at a very basic level, ecumenism is trying to make us aware of our social selfhood – not in the sense of my highly individualized and bespoke sense of identity relative to others, but in the sense of a strong awareness of how we are bound up with others in our lives, whether we like them or not, whether we are like them or not, and bound up together with the presence of a God who calls us not to mere tolerance but to actual reverence of one another as children of God. Especially for us Franciscans, an ecumenical perspective is one that isn’t just asking us to accept one another as equals and have civil conversations with one another – in the Franciscan way, we become minor to one another, the lesser brothers in God’s family, taking less so that there’s more for you.
Ecumenism is about conversion: conversion from a way of meeting others in terms of what they can do for me, or what they’ve done wrong to me in the past, or how they fit into my map of whose identities are acceptable to me, to a way of meeting them that begins with hospitality to their otherness and opens into their presence in our lives being divinely willed. It’s easy, relatively speaking, to identify something in the world that needs to be fixed and then get a coalition of people together who agree it needs to be fixed and go about trying to fix it together. Much more difficult is when the thing needing to be fixed is ourselves – our fear and hatred, our lack of reverence for one another’s humanity, our urge to leave one another behind and look out for our own. Our institutions don’t usually show us an alternative to putting ourselves first, and our governments certainly don’t; but our scriptures are asking us to do something more than the bare minimum of ceasing to kill one another over our differences. Ecumenism is a way of understanding and working and praying together for that something more.
AH: Pope Francis’ encyclicals make much of humanity sharing “a common home,” or being “brothers and sisters, all.” This is ecumenical language. It’s not about giving up what makes our tradition unique or giving up our particular communities; it’s about seeing one another sacramentally rather than anthropologically, about belonging to one another rather than jockeying for power over one another.
It sounds like you’re saying that we need to rethink or at least articulate anew what ecumenism is and what it’s for at the ground level. At that level it starts not with institutional reconfigurations or formal dialogues but with people learning to see each other again and think differently about one another in an everyday sense. And for this we need training in “habits of the heart,” as Archbishop Justin Welby put it,1 so that we can be realigned toward the existence of other persons, not simply as encapsulations of their tradition (“those Protestants,” “those Muslims,” and so forth), but as human beings worthy of our attention and reverence. I see some of this return to ecumenical fundamentals even in the choice of Atonement/at-one-ment for the key concept on which the Society’s vision and life are founded: where “unity” can evoke a sense of administrative synergy, “at-one-ment” would seem to locate the state of our being-together and being-toward one another as much more fundamental than any agenda item that we might pursue collaboratively – even on an agenda like the famous “visible unity.”
BT: I think that’s right. You mention how we are often tempted to reduce people to their affiliations – when we see a person and immediately identify them as Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, I am trapping my relationship with that person within a history of loss, where we have lost a connection that we once would have had. Starting there means we’re taking our wounds as a given. At the same time, I’m not at all saying that the only way to have a good relationship is to emphasize what we have in common and work to diminish our differences – I understand why people want this, because it feels safer and simpler, but it’s not going to the core of Christ’s call that we be at-one with one another. Rather, we need to meet people in the reality of our respective histories of pain, resentment, and mistrust, without closing off the possibility of seeing each other as God sees us, as more than what we have become as a result of those histories.
We are seeing, in every single tradition of faith, forms of fundamentalism that operate out of fear and create idols out of what used to be truths. An idol is an object of faith that cannot support or respond to that faith – and this is what we are doing when we make our own narrow configuration of faith the ultimate object of our devotion, instead of viewing it as partial and provisional compared with God’s own irreducible self.
AH: And so much of what passes for ecumenical dialogue seems like my asking you to set aside your idol so that you can get on board with my idol – rather than helping each other and supporting one another in a process of conversion to that larger whole that relativizes (without ever denying) the partial particularities of our understanding.
BT: It’s easy to trade one idol for another. It’s much harder to set aside the idols that keep us secure and go out from our certainties looking for that core experience of faith that God is giving us. We can live comfortably within the worlds illuminated by our idols – whether that’s a book, or an ideology, or a subculture – because they give us something tangible to hold onto, but they won’t ultimately support or nourish our faith, and they won’t provide grounds for the reconciliation of our relationships, our at-one-ment with God and our neighbor.
AH: This impulse that you’re describing – to idolize the things that we care about and make us feel safe, or to enclose ourselves in worlds of our own making – it reminds me of Augustine’s warning about allowing the heart to become “curved in on itself” (incurvatus in sē). This is one of the fundamental phenomena of our distorted psychology and spirituality that ecumenism is dedicated to healing. We become closed in upon ourselves in this way not because we are necessarily malicious or evil, but because we are afraid or resentful or hurting, or indeed because of our love – love gone astray from where it belongs. It’s one of the first things we forget when facing the others of our history whose misdeeds we remember and whose values and ideas we find repellant, that they too are seeking what they believe to be good, and that’s a starting point for contact: not to excuse anyone’s poisoned morality but to recognize that it is still a framework for survival and meaning in a broken world. And if we fail to trust that these others are also trying to make things right for themselves, then we too quickly turn them in our imagination into mere representatives of evil rather than participants in the same household of life – whom we still might think have gone terribly astray but who are human beings, not demons.
BT: I can’t remember exactly where the image is – I remember seeing it on one of the tours I was on in Italy – but you can see two Christs on the wall when you walk in, and only when you get up to the first pew do you see that one of the two Christ-figures has talons and a little tail coming out from his robe, and the other has feet. Evil is not always going to look like a devil, where well-meaning people can see it plainly and push it away. No, as often as not it will look to us like goodness, like something that will help us or our family or our community, some fix that will make our pain go away. It will look like an answer. And so we can become agents of destruction and division through our very efforts to restore and rectify. That’s why we need what the Franciscans uphold as the third pillar of our spirituality, contemplation, because only by continually scrutinizing my own intentions and working to recognize those intentions for where they fit within larger contexts and values can I purify my intentions and avoid fooling myself – or being fooled by ruinous ideologies, by tempting illusions of control. Remember the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the desert: if you are really the Son of Man, then turn these stones into bread. The people need bread! You’ll make their lives better and they’ll worship you, and it will all be easy. But that easy way, that quick fix, isn’t the Way and the Truth and the Life.
AH: There’s clarity here too for the question of how we go about explaining what ecumenical encounter is or should be to people who are unfamiliar with it. I always want to emphasize that ecumenism (like interreligious dialogue) isn’t some arcane pastime for academics – it’s first and foremost a religious practice. It’s spiritual exercise more than intellectual exercise: a practice of winnowing out ways of being in ourselves which are destructive and divisive, patiently sitting with perspectives that are unfamiliar and more intimately getting to know worlds which aren’t curved in around our own selves, and collaborating with others who are attempting to do the same thing. There’s a sense in which ecumenical encounter is, along with everything else it is and enables (like collaborative social action or reconciliation of formerly incompatible doctrines), a mode of contemplation and purification.
Now, so far, we have been focused specifically on the ecumenical charism of the Society of the Atonement – sensibly enough, since we’re publishing this conversation in Ecumenical Trends. But of course, the ecumenical charism is not the only raison d’être of the Society. And so, in the same way that we’ve spoken about the relationship and the integrity of Atonement identity and Franciscan identity, I want to ask you about how the ecumenical charism of the society resonates with and mutually enhances the other ministries of the society, especially that of charity, in light of Father Paul’s sense that unity and charity are profoundly integrated. How then would you describe the shared foundation or the shared orientation between our ecumenical institutes and the great and sacred responsibility of St. Christopher’s Inn and its community of recovery?
BT: At St. Christopher’s Inn, human need is the only consideration. It’s of no importance whether somebody is Catholic or not, whether someone is Christian or not, whether someone is a believer of any kind or not – it only matters that we recognize the person standing in front of us as the person that God has sent to be served by us. Granted, there is the pragmatic fact that the Friars’ recovery ministry involves dormitory living and so for now it remains men-only. But we say very clearly that everyone is welcome; no one is turned away, so long as there is a bed left to give them. We encounter these men not through our presuppositions about who they are, but through our convictions about who we are: children of the atonement whom God is asking to bring healing to those who need it. In the same way, we encounter religious others – including members of other churches from whom the Roman Catholic Church has been severed in the course of history – in terms of this mentality of what service and healing we can offer, rather than what we expect or assume of them. In the recovery ministry and the ecumenical ministry alike, we understand that healing takes work, and maybe penance – we want to clean up our present out of the wreckage of our past, but we need to live with the fact that we may have broken some relationships that cannot be repaired. We can’t simply expect to be forgiven – and still, we go and ask for that forgiveness and we are ready to change our lives in order to be worthy of it. As the spiritual work at St. Christopher’s Inn involves the men penitentially reflecting on how the disease that’s pulling at them has hurt them and damaged their relationships, so too, ecumenical work has to entail penitential reflexivity on how we have created and deepened divisions in the household of God. Something has been shattered that should have been whole, and we can’t simply go to our counterparts in ecumenical exchange and expect everything to be forgiven at once. We have to begin with taking responsibility for the ways we have hurt one other and then put in the reparative work. And maybe the new wholeness that we seek in the church – like the new wholeness that is possible on the far side of ruinous addiction – is not going to look like what it was before it was shattered, but if we are no longer allowing the power of sin to continue to define our life and our relationships, then what results will be something new, and good, and worth living for.
Over the past 114 years of working in recovery ministry, we have learned – and we say this with all humility, recognizing the power of God’s grace in turning people’s lives around – that a recovery of wholeness is possible. We have just walked across the Walkway Over the Hudson with so many of our St. Christopher’s alumni and their families to proclaim to the world that recovery is possible. But we have to be the bridge – we cannot wait for someone else to come along and help re-establish the connections that have been broken. This is the Atonement Franciscan legacy and enduring message: that recovery and repair are possible, that hope and healing and harmony are possible, that unity is possible – in the church and in the world. With the grace of God it will happen. Wasn’t this Christ’s message as well?
AH: I love this image of “being the bridge,” especially when it’s put alongside the profound and fundamental Franciscan call to “repair my house” – the vocation of the community is not only to roll up its sleeves in ecumenical or healing ministry, nor only to educate and form others to do the same, but to live a life of reconciliation and peacemaking in such a way that our communities (local and global) can see quite concretely that it is not just a beautiful vision but a living reality in which they too can take part. This is an area in which, I think, the witness and discipline of religious orders is especially important for ecumenical exchange: because it’s not just the church which is broken and in need of repair, it’s human persons as well, the human persons of which the church is constituted all the way down. And that’s what the ascetic tradition makes possible, through the practice and process of breaking down the ossified corruption in human persons, breaking down the idols of our hearts and the false perceptions through which we don’t even realize that we are encountering the world.
BT: You know, a prayer is just a bunch of words on a page if it’s not prayed. The Bible is just a bunch of words in a book if it’s not lived. It’s the action that makes it all alive and visible and tangible for everybody. When Father Paul and Mother Lurana were struggling to get the property at Graymoor, Father Paul took two pieces of pine wood and climbed up to the top of the hill and dug a hole and stuck into it this cross that he had made with his hands, and he said: “I claim this for the Christ, for this to be a space for the Christ to be encountered.” And this was the reality that Paul, Lurana, and their community lived for the rest of their lives: they referred to the men who came to rebuild their lives at Graymoor (as we still do) as “Brothers Christopher,” because they are the “bearers of Christ” to us. In our healing ministry to them we are recognizing and reverencing the Christ in them. But the alumni who come back to Graymoor after completing their time at St. Christopher’s Inn are teaching us all the time that this is a special place: a place that can be a home for those without a home, or a place of pilgrimage between a home left behind and a home yet to be discovered. And it has been a home of this sort – a home of unity, of at-one-ment, of a spiritual alternative to the hatred and resentment of those on whom we are accustomed to pile our blame – for 125 years now. We’re not huge, not a factory or shopping mall of atonement (!), but that doesn’t make what happens here less potent. Graymoor is a hearth, not a power plant. What’s happening here may not be loud and flashy, but it is making a real difference – most immediately for the men who come through St. Christopher’s, but also for the church and the world more broadly. We have been hearing about the “ecumenical winter” for decades now, and it’s normal to become doubtful or to seek shelter when the weather turns harsh. But we don’t need to fear the winter – we need to find an ecumenical fireplace, and sit around it together, and give thanks for the blessings that God has given us in one another.
We’re suffering in so many ways from the shortage of this kind of community. There are not enough opportunities to open our arms and our hearts to strangers, to be welcomed even when we feel we cannot be welcomed for who we are. But 125 years ago, ten people on a mountaintop dedicated their whole lives to making a place where it would be possible to treasure God in one another, especially in those whom we have been told by the world to hate and resent. They prayed for Christian unity at a time when Catholics and Protestants still despised each other – and now dioceses and churches all over the world pray and work for unity. They made a home among themselves for alcoholics and down-and-out people with nowhere else to go – and now St. Christopher’s Inn is a nationally recognized community of recovery, with efforts being made to replicate its model around the world. In a sense, everything on the mountain is built atop the pain of division, the pain of addiction, the pain of alienation from one another and from God and from ourselves. That’s the foundation. But as the men say, the Holy Mountain is so tall because we bring all this baggage and pain here and leave it behind, and it’s just been piling up over the years, raising the mountain’s beacon of hope ever higher.
You know, when you stand up at the top of the hill, where Father Paul’s tomb lies, it’s about 700 feet above sea level. It’s about the same elevation where the planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11, and on that cruel, clear day it was possible even from Graymoor to see the columns of smoke rising from far down the river. I imagine the cross lifted above the tomb of Father Paul, at that same height, as if he is standing there still with the bronze serpent out of the Exodus narrative, saying look! Healing is possible with faith. Being broken down in horror and despair wasn’t, and isn’t, the end of the story.
AH: It’s especially clear how the prayer for unity is of a whole with the prayer for healing when we revisit the roots of ecumenism and, again, try to get away from the jargon and the professionalized language to think clearly about what this vision actually entails. What is this ecumenical ethos and why and for whom does it matter? Why might church unity matter? What is it for? When we speak about how Graymoor has been a place where we preach and practice breaking down all that stands in our way of being at home with one another, it’s a powerful manifestation of something that is needed far more broadly, and may be more urgently needed in the years to come.
I’d like to conclude, then, by looking to the future, especially as we’ve taken our impetus from talking about the value of the Society’s 125th anniversary as a sort of decorative display of the past that allows us to come to an appreciation of the richness of the present and look forward to what is to come with new momentum and resolve. Having addressed some of the history of how we got to be where we are, can I now ask you to prognosticate a little bit? How do you envision the charism of the Atonement Friars and Sisters becoming different in the years to come? Where are we going from here that may not only maintain the successes we’ve seen but open us to possibilities we haven’t yet seen?
BT: It’s a fair question, but whatever I might envision, it will be different when we get there. I can put my expectations in a box and hand them over, but that’s just an artifact of the present. What the charism will really become can only grow with the history that is forming around it. If we can stay in tune with what God is asking of us, trying to listen to God’s voice coming through different events and people, we’ll be more nimble and flexible as we follow. Again, we cannot take refuge in the stability of what we assume we should be doing or feel comfortable doing. We’re not the ones who design or lead our own vocation. I take heart that even Father Paul found his path by listening to the pain of the time and being willing to follow that pain where it needed him to be.
We don’t know what the future is going to entail, but we have to be ready to embrace it when it comes. So we’re always positioning ourselves to be receptive. I suspect that the traditional models of religious life as we know it are not going to survive, even as new models of religious life are growing and flourishing. And this is as enormously interesting as it is frightening. This kind of reimagining goes to the heart of the Franciscan heritage, from the time of Francis and Clare onward – they were willing to try modes of religious life that didn’t fit within existing paradigms. Those reforms were an upheaval – and we’re still never ready for real reform. Vatican II made that clear, when all of Roman Catholic religious life was turned upside down. The point was for religious communities to re-found themselves, not just to embrace the freedoms of the modern world but also to discover new forms of discipline to keep their structures together while breathing new life into them. And we have to be doing this now, after 125 years, when the founders of the community are dead and everyone who knew them personally are dead. We have to found ourselves anew, to find our own ways of articulating our purpose in a way that is faithful to our foundation but authentic to our own moment. It’s daunting, but it’s an enormous opportunity – one of the greatest opportunities in the lifespan of a community, to pass through that generational shift and to spring forward renewed.
We have to make this passage carefully, humbly, but with readiness to spring as we recognize how we are called to do so. And we do believe we are doing so: Central and South America are calling for us. Young people are calling for us to manifest a form of faith grounded in hospitality, healing, and authenticity, which they are desperate to see can still be a reality in a time so mired in hypocrisy and decadence. Even in Europe, a renewal of faith is happening in which we are participating. So will we succeed at all these growth edges? Well, we don’t even talk about success – God doesn’t call us to success, God calls us to faithfulness, to putting one foot in front of another and trusting in the call. I think that this 125th anniversary, as a moment of life and love and celebration, should also tune our spirits in hope toward the next anniversary – in 150 or 200 years – when we’re continuing to reach out in love to our neighbor, wherever we may find ourselves at that time.
But more important than the speculation is choosing, right now, to take the path that God is putting in front of our feet, and discerning how best to do so. How can we be a better service to the world so loved by God? How can we have the world come to a better understanding of what it was created to be? How can we become ambassadors of the at-one-ment for which Jesus prayed and gave his life? God only knows where this path will take us, but we’ve already embraced a couple things that we never thought we would be doing, such as having the Anglican Franciscans join us as Friars of the Atonement in full communion. We’re also building our lay tertiary community, and now we’re trying to make room for an intentional (and ecumenical!) Franciscan community of young people who want to live together as Franciscans, sharing a common rule of life that dovetails in different ways with their own traditions, and taking on ministries that flow from their common life – the groundwork was set before COVID. It’s the old tertiary way, but reimagined. There are new properties around the world that have been given to the Friars, and we have to imagine what to create with them.
So there is enormous potential right now, and I just have to give thanks for how life-giving it is to a community which is changing, aging, but also maturing and expanding in previously unexpected ways. We mustn’t become addicted to newness, to the next flashy program or technology, but we should be legitimately excited by seeing how God’s hand is working in the opportunities for healing and servant-leadership that are right before us. These opportunities to be part of God’s love for the world, in ever-new and ever-meaningful ways, are why we are here.
1. See Justin Welby and Aaron Hollander, “Habits of the Heart: Ecumenical Formation and the Way of Reconciliation,” Ecumenical Trends 52.1 (January/February 2023), 29-31.
This interview originally appeared in Ecumenical Trends 52.6 (November/December 2023), a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.