Living Ecumenism

Six sisters from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant orders have come to live together at the Ecumenical Institute Bossey,  outside of Geneva, Switzerland. In a quiet way, are providing a subtle but radical witness  for students and visitors alike.

The sisters coordinate the worship and prayer life at the Ecumenical Institute, participate in classes – and embody a sense of ecumenical spirituality in daily life.

Their presence alone, in their striking habits, is noticeable to all who use the Institute for meetings and events. Visitors come from church or development groups to secular organizations like Rolex or the regional Swiss television company, all of whom are invited to take part in the prayer life at the Institute.

But their main role over their year at Bossey is to provide pastoral support for the students.

Rev  Emmanuel Twahirwa, a graduate studentfrom the Anglican Church in Rwanda, appreciates their worship facilitation. He said:  “When you come, you find yourself lost in academic study, you may end up forgetting your spiritual life. We have to balance the two.”
Dealing with the tensions generated in the classroom is one way the sisters model ecumenical relationships. Sister Pina describes how after heated discussions, they would walk from the classroom to the kitchen for a meal, and the sisters would smile and talk.

“It is a very delicate way of knowing which is the border between academic discussion and spiritual relationship or friendship”  she said.  “I hear about Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants. It is totally different when I meet a Catholic, when I meet a Protestant…. The
person makes me love what the person does.”

before they came, the sisters themselves were uncertain how it would work living together. Sister Sperancia Mulashani Thadeo, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, reflected that she had met other Roman Catholic sisters but “could not imagine”  how it would work living with them. “I thought perhaps they would stay in other parts,”  she said  ruefully. The reality she found,  was that it is possible to live together, and the “happiest of times is sharing about our life, what we are doing and our spiritual life."

"For us," said Ivy Athipozhiyil, a Dominican sister from India, "ecumenical spirituality is living together. We are sharing everything, laughing. This we offer, without knowing, to others, like the students. For them it is a sign."

Their tangible witness is noticed not just by the students. Sister Ivy recalls overhearing a member of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, who were meeting at Bossey. "One bishop looked at us walking together, and he said [to another participant], ‘we are talking, talking, talking – and there – you see!"

"What I have realized is that when we talk about unity, it doesn’t mean to change somebody’s faith," said Deaconess Agnes Simbo Lema, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. "It means to sit together, to share, to love each other and to accept each other."

Maria Elena Romero Molina, a Missionary Dominican sister from Guatemala, said it most simply: "Ecumenism is not a concept. It is a way of life."

Sister Pina reflected: "The motto of the life and work commission, back then, was doctrine divides, service unites." Now, she states, "I could say doctrine divides, spirituality unites."

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