Deb Forstner, a lay certified Catholic chaplain who works at Lake Region HealthCare in Fergus Falls and member of Our Lady of Victory Church in Fergus Falls, has often worked and studied with people of various faiths during her education and training.
“I learned a lot being in those groups, not only about other churches but even more about my own,” she said. “It becomes a process of strengthening your own faith through gaining that knowledge.”
Forstner was eager to be part of a study in Fergus Falls using the document “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017,” which has been jointly written by the Catholic and Lutheran churches.
She co-led one of two five-week study groups with retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Pastor Paul Nelson on Sunday evenings. Father Alan Wielinski and Pastor Ben Durbin of Augustana Church co-led a second group that met on Thursday afternoons.
“It’s good to be updated on what is going on on the world stage, but it’s most important to have these conversations on a local level, to appreciate each other and the richness of each one’s faith and traditions,” Forstner said.
The study groups included a balance of both Catholics from Our Lady of Victory and Lutherans from five area ELCA churches. The sessions alternated locations between Augustana and Our Lady of Victory.
“At each session, prayer began around the baptismal fonts at these churches,” Forstner said. “Beautifully, the baptismal fonts at both churches are located immediately as you enter, and our shared prayer is a strong sign of our shared Christian baptisms.”
Forstner said the starting point of the study was to “emphasize how much we have in common and through dialogue, to discuss some past and/or current hurts or misconceptions as people grew up either Lutheran or Catholic.”
“I have been energized by the grassroots ecumenical dialogue,” she said. “While we acknowledge we do still have some differences in practices and beliefs, we are learning more about our own faiths and history, and better understanding the progress that has been made ecumenically.
“It isn’t an easy read,” she added, “but people were willing to tackle it and have good conversations with people from the community who are not of the same faith. It was a blessing to experience ecumenical talk, creating new friendships and better understanding.”
Participants shared their hurts and misconceptions, some referring to the difficulties in marrying outside their faith tradition. They also talked about doctrine.
“Some things have been resolved like with the Joint Declaration on Justification, but there are obviously some things that are still different in our traditions, like our beliefs regarding Mary, the difference in who is able to be ordained a minister, apostolic succession,” Forstner said.
“On both sides, people do want to make sure that their point of view wasn’t lost, that yes, we do have more in common than we have different but we can still accept and honor the differences,” she added. “We are not asking the Catholics to convert or the Lutherans to convert. We are just asking to learn from our history.”
Vanessa and Mike Swedenburg, members of Our Lady of Victory in Fergus Falls with their nine children, attended the five-week study. Mike grew up Lutheran and Vanessa grew up Catholic. Their younger kids attend the Catholic grade school and their older children attend the Lutheran high school.
“We just want to focus on the things we have in common instead of the differences,” Vanessa said. “We both learned a lot during the study, especially how much we do have in common.”
Vanessa said it was inspiring to see how much work has been done to promote unity, especially in the last 50 years.
“It was so interesting to see how the perspective of the Reformation is different from a Catholic view than from the Lutheran view and to understand how we can see the same event through such different lenses. It was really eye-opening. And the historical perspective was really fascinating. We wanted the class to keep going,” she said.
The Swedenburgs also attended the joint worship service Nov. 5.
“We could feel the unity,” she said. “We really are all Christians together and we are singing the same music, sharing the same prayers. Celebrating together is wonderful.”
Retired Pastor Paul Nelson said he enjoyed being part of the study group sessions.
“It was a great privilege to do the study,” he said. “It summarizes the last 50 years of theological conversation between the ELCA and the Catholic Church so it is really rock solid.
“Over 100 people came each week and it was amazing to witness the discipline and the joy of the Lutheran-Catholic responses to the study,” he said. “They were enthusiastic; they were serious about it. They took time out of their week to come. The frustration is you can’t get to all the pieces, but I think there’s enough energy here that something will continue.”
As for next steps, Forstner said efforts are underway to encourage people to attend different events at the area churches. One recent example was a breakfast at one of the Lutheran churches held to raise funds for disaster relief following the recent hurricanes.
“We are all Christians and we are all responsible for doing charitable work. It’s part of our ecumenical mission,” she said. “That kind of thing can be done at the local level, and I think that’s what Christ was hoping for when he prayed that we might all be one.”