CGSUSA has deep roots as an ecumenical body. The first Level I course in the country was interdenominational, and by the time we formed ourselves into an association in 1984, Red and Martha Fisher, Episcopalians from Jackson, Mississippi, had joined Maria Christlieb and Betty Hissong’s Level 1 course in St. Paul Minnesota. Starting in 1988, the Fishers held courses sponsored by the Episcopal diocese of Mississippi. Carol Dittberner and I led back-to-back Level 1, 2, and 3 courses in Jackson over six summers.
By the time we finished, we had met Episcopalians from Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and California, including Karen Maxwell, Tracy Gaestel, and Morgan Merrill, who went on to leadership positions in their parishes and dioceses as well as in CGSUSA. A few Catholics joined these Episcopal courses as well. By 1988 I was familiar with the Book of Common Prayer as well as the Sacramentary, and had learned some Episcopalian lingo: vestry, aumbry, rector, Eucharist (instead of Mass), and altar guild. I was comfortable addressing the specific details of liturgical materials and presentations for each denomination.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, the friendship of Tina Lillig (RC) and Carol Nyberg (E) under their respective bishops, Cardinal Francis George and Bishop Frank Griswold, modeled an interdenominational partnership in our National Office, and supported interdenominational courtesies and courses around the country.
The essentiality of the content of CGS creates a common bond among us: the heart of our Christian faith found in the Incarnation, the Kindom of God, Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, Pentecost, and the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. This made room for Orthodox Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Evangelical, and Anabaptist catechists to join Catholics and Episcopalians in CGS courses over the years. I’ve led more than 150 courses since 1987, and only two have not been interdenominational. My last course, ending during the pandemic, included Roman Catholic, Orthodox Catholic, Methodist, and Episcopalian catechists. A rich experience indeed.
This experience is a gift for all of us in many ways:
- It engages us in the work of Christian unity, to fulfil Jesus’ prayer “that they all may be one.”
- It broadens our understanding of Christianity and the church and allows us to discover the gifts of one another’s denominations.
- It prepares us to support children from interdenominational families, and children from other denominations in church schools.
- It helps us find the essential proclamation of each material.
- It prepares us to welcome children and sisters from every denomination in our atria and courses.
- It assures us of freedom as an association from hierarchical supervision by any denomination.
We are uniquely situated to promote Christian unity with our common commitment to the spiritual life of children and the heart of our Christian faith. We can cherish and foster this gift, or ignore it and allow it to wither. As our membership becomes more Roman Catholic, how can we maintain and grow our interdenominational experience? How can we welcome one another? What courtesies and experiences can we offer? I suggest that we commit ourselves to:
- Strive to treat non-Catholic denominations as full and equal participants in CGS, not “exceptions” or “adaptations.”
- Include interdenominational or welcoming liturgies and prayer at national and regional gatherings.
- Use the broadest possible language, such as “Eucharist” instead of
“Mass”, “Reverend” instead of “Father”, “pastor” instead of “priest”, “congregation” instead of “parish”…
- Use interdenominational courses as opportunities for all present to learn about one another.
- Be sure the CGSUSA board and staff are interdenominational.
- Help catechists to introduce or expand understanding of CGS in their own denominations.
- Include adaptations for all denominations in materials manuals and formation courses.
We also should establish a full complement of sub-groups for every denomination, including Catholic, to lead denomination-specific tasks such as adaptating materials and addressing challenges that pertain to one denomination. These sub-groups could welcome others or not, as is wise, but should be led by members of the named denomination. A Catholic sub-group would accommodate Catholic-specific work such as exploring the Roman Catholic Directory for Catechesis and allow Catholics to have their own necessary conversations about inclusion of Catholic prayers, the Latin Mass, rosaries, devotions, and the devastating sex-abuse scandals.
The responsibility for this work lies largely on the Catholic membership and leaders. We can relegate others to sub-groups, or join them in a circle of denominational sub-groups. We can have Mass and let others go elsewhere for liturgy, or celebrate a liturgy that welcomes all and let the Catholics who need to go elsewhere. We can ignore the fact that other denominations are under-represented on our board and staff, or vote and advocate for leaders of many denominations.
Sofia Cavalletti was joyfully surprised by the adoption of CGS within many denominations. She welcomed their catechists to Rome, and let CGS liturgies there reflect their presence as well. I hope we can all echo her love for each of us in our love for one another.
May our interdenominational life bless us all, helping us to grow in love, hospitality, and Christian unity.