On October 15, The Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown sponsored an evening prayer centered on the Lutheran-Catholic Covenant, whose goal is to reunite faithful Christians.
Worship leaders at the event, held at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Alliance, were Bishop Laura Barbins, bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Bishop David J. Bonnar, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown. Bishop Barbins presided and Bishop Bonnar delivered the homily.
Bishop Bonnar’s homily focused on the persistent need for harmony in the human condition, and the ways in which Lutherans, Catholics, and other Christians have responded to this need. After discussing the Catholic approach to ecumenism, as established by the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Bonnar went on to say, “The Catholic Church, of course, is not alone in this effort. As Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican Christians, we have been laboring together in this work of Christian Unity rooted in dialogue and prayer.”
Bishop Bonnar emphasized, “Our conversations over time have not lessened our individual identity. Rather, they have made us richer and our coming together has made us stronger and more vital.”
Spurred by advances in ecumenical dialogue, the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown and the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into Covenant on October 29, 2000. That formal event took place in St. Columba Cathedral in Youngstown with a signed Covenant by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Diocese of Youngstown, and Bishop Marcus J. Miller of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. The Covenant professes a common Confession of Faith, grounded in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification agreed to by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation.
The Covenant has been renewed several times in the past 23 years, including by Bishop Bonnar and Bishop Barbins at their first Covenant event in April 2022, also hosted at St. Columba Cathedral.
One of the notable elements of the local Lutheran-Catholic Covenant is that it dedicates the Diocese and the Synod to pray, study, and act for Christian unity. To execute this mandate, a “Lutheran-Catholic Covenant Commission” was established, with members that continue to be appointed by bishops of both bodies to this day. Currently, Dr. Thomas Sauline (Catholic) and Rev. Mark Williams (Lutheran), serve as Co-Conveners of this Commission.
Bishop Bonnar celebrated the vision of Bishop Tobin and Bishop Miller, saying, “Even though they are no longer our bishops, their legacy for dialogue, prayer, action and Christian unity lives on. Please join me tonight in thanking Almighty God for the faith and vision of these men and all those who have followed them and contributed to this important effort.”
Toward the end of the homily, Bishop Bonnar reflected on the continuing relevance of the Covenant, and all efforts to promote unity and dialogue, stating, “The time in which we live is marked by the challenge of polarization that has poisoned our country, divided our individual faith communities, and affected our families. For me, this polarization became so rampant and real in its aftermath of the last presidential election.” He added, “Just days following [the presidential election], I was named the sixth bishop of Youngstown. I was so struck by the discord and disharmony of our country and world that I chose as my Episcopal Motto Jesus’ great priestly prayer from John 17, namely, ‘That all may be one.’”
“That all may be one” is also the motto for the Lutheran-Catholic Covenant, and a key scripture text for the ecumenical movement.
In closing, the bishop asked, “How could two different Christian traditions come together to live out a covenant? It may indeed be a surprise, but within this surprise is always the element of God’s grace—the same grace that already binds us together in that great covenant, namely baptism, and continues to lead us to a surprising future that we have not yet dreamed, but God has.”
Bishop Bonnar added, “All of this brings home the reality that time and again, like Moses and so many others in the Scriptures and Christian tradition, God uses us to be his agents of surprise. Let us go forth together renewed in our covenant to be unifiers in the spirit of Jesus and instruments of the God of surprise!”
Partaking of refreshments after the service, Monsignor Robert J. Siffrin, Vicar for Partnerships and Ecumenical Officer for the Diocese of Youngstown, recalled the beginnings of the Covenant 23 years ago. As recalled by Msgr. Siffrin, he and fellow Youngstown Rotarian, Dr. Y. T. Chu, talked about getting the bishops of the regional Catholic and Lutheran churches together. Ever since, the monsignor said, he has been attending local covenant events. Likewise, Dr. Chu served as a longtime member of the Lutheran-Catholic Covenant Commission.
In an interview, Rev. Timothy Muse, pastor of the hosting St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and who served as cantor for the evening, said, “It was a great time. It was a great opportunity to come together with our Roman brothers to pray.”
The service included music by the church choir as well as a presentation by the church bell ringers. One of those attending, Norita Webb, an Alliance resident and a St. Paul’s member, noted in an interview the “wonderful singing” that is so often heard at the church. The final song for the prayer service, “Christ, Be Our Light,” for example, was sung with gusto. Muse commented, “We like to sing here; we like to lift our voice in song.”
Justin Huyck, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Youngstown, and an appointed member of the Lutheran-Catholic Covenant Commission, also complemented the music. Mr. Huyck noted that both Catholics and Lutherans were able to fully participate because the songs were so recognizable. He said some Catholic parishioners had approached him after the service enthusiastic about the closing song, “Christ Be Our Light,” which is by Catholic liturgical composer Bernadette Farrell. Huyck commented, “We sometimes forget how much of our musical heritage is shared today. Catholic and Lutheran composers write for one another’s hymnbooks, and Christian assemblies of various traditions are often singing the same hymns. This too is a fruit of ecumenical dialogue: when we can express our commonly-held faith beliefs through our singing, even as we all understand that what makes us distinct is also a gift to one another.” Huyck added, “I’m so glad that both Lutheran and Catholic parishioners came to this event. Our presence together really was a sign of our shared identity through baptism.”
Participants in the service included Dave and Donna Muse, ushers; Kathy Sloan, organist; and Kathleen Thompson, acolyte.