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Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families

at Istituto Mondo Migliore, 
Rocca di Papa, Rome, Italy
24 – 28 July 2003

Introduction

The First World Gathering of Interchurch Families took place in Geneva in 1998. English-speaking and French-speaking international conferences, bringing together interchurch families from different countries, had been held regularly for many years, but this was the first time that both languages had been used at a conference on an equal basis. Following the success of this gathering, it was decided that a further conference would be held which would also include German-speaking and Italian-speaking interchurch families in the planning process.

In Geneva a principal aim was to make contact with the World Council of Churches, which includes Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant churches in its membership. This aim was successfully achieved: we held the gathering in the WCC building and were fortunate to have as one of our speakers Pastor Konrad Raiser, Secretary to the WCC, and to meet with other staff members. Our other speaker at that time was Bishop Duprey, Secretary to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the body at the Vatican responsible for ecumenism in the Roman Catholic Church.

It was planned to hold the Second World Gathering in Rome in order to make more direct contact with the Pontifical Council.

PREPROMA planning

A planning committee (PREPROMA) was set up, consisting of about 30 members drawn from six countries, including speakers of the four languages of the conference, English, French, German, and Italian. The following groups and associations of interchurch families were represented on the committee:

• ARGE Ökumene (Austria)

• Association of Interchurch Families (in the UK, also representing groups and associations in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, USA).

• Famiglie Miste/Interconfessionali (Italy)

• Foyers Mixtes (France/Switzerland)

• Netzwerk Konfessionsbindender Ehen und Familien (Germany)

The first PREPROMA meeting was held in July 2001 in Torre Pellice, northern Italy. Many of the committee members already knew each other from previous conferences, and friendly and cooperative relationships went back much further than that. The full committee met a second time in Lyon, France, in July 2002, and the coordinators of the four linguistic groups met in Lyon on two further occasions. The rest of the planning and preparation was carried out using e-mail and other forms of communication.

The coordinators of the four linguistic groups were:

English-speaking: Melanie Finch (AIF)
French-speaking: Pamela Fiévet and Nicola Kontzi-Méresse (Foyers Mixtes)
German-speaking: Rudolf and Rosmarie Lauber (Netzwerk konfessionsbindender Familien)
Italian-speaking: Andrea Lari (Famiglie Miste/Interconfessionali)

Subject and aims of the gathering

The title of the gathering was agreed at the first PREPROMA meeting:

United in Baptism and Marriage

INTERCHURCH FAMILIES
called to a common life in the Church
for the reconciliation of our churches

The three objectives of the gathering were also agreed, as follows:

• To renew and to deepen relationships between interchurch families from different cultural, linguistic, and church backgrounds.

• To deepen mutual relationships between interchurch family groups and associations and worldwide organisations responsible for encouraging reconciliation and Christian unity.

• To meet and talk with the staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome, to find out about the work of the Council, and to offer interchurch families’ shared experience as a contribution to the work for Christian unity.

Preparatory paper

Before the conference, a preparatory paper was compiled under the guidance of Rev Canon Martin Reardon, of the UK Association of Interchurch Families, with input from theologians and interchurch families from many countries around the world. It described the similar and varying experience of interchurch families in different situations, attempted to put it in a theological context, and explained what this experience might have to offer to the churches in their shared quest for unity. This paper was circulated and discussed widely before the conference, and was at the heart of the programme.

Conference centre

The gathering was held at the Istituto Oblati di Maria Vergine, Mondo Migliore, near Rocca di Papa, 25km from Rome, Italy. This is a centre for meeting, cultural and training conferences, retreats and pilgrimages. The Oblate Fathers help with the organisation of events, and administration. The conference centre, surrounded by beautiful quiet gardens, on a hill outside the pretty village, next to Lake Albano with views of the Pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, was the ideal place for the gathering: the buildings offered an excellent range of meeting rooms, and the staff were extremely helpful with what was no doubt a very complex and difficult group to accommodate, with, in effect, no one single person in charge, and a large number of lively children and young people.

Participants

Having based projected numbers on the Geneva gathering, which brought together around 200 participants from 12 countries, we were delighted to be able to register around 230 adults and 100 children/young people, coming from the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, the USA and Wales. Many church traditions were represented: Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Reformed, Roman Catholic, Waldensian and others. Among participants were many pastors, priests and clergy supporting interchurch families in various countries. A particular joy for us was the participation of the large number of children and young people, who had their own parallel programme, and contributed immensely with their enthusiasm and commitment to the conference as a whole.

Programme

Thursday 24 July
Participants registered in the afternoon, and ate together in the evening. Many group photographs were taken in the garden. During the welcome session in the auditorium, led by Melanie Finch (UK), the PREPROMA coordinators and many groups from different countries were introduced, and the aims and programme of the conference outlined. The evening ended with prayers led by Nicola Kontzi-Méresse, and social gathering.

Friday 25 July
After breakfast, participants gathered in the church for worship, a eucharistic service which shared the riches of the Methodist/Reformed/Waldensian traditions, led by Pastor Jean-Baptiste Lipp (Reformed, Switzerland) and an Pastora Teodora Tosatti (Italy, Waldensian). Those preparing acts of worship for the conference had been asked to make them accessible to participants of all linguistic groups, and many different methods were used over the weekend to facilitate this: singing and praying in different languages, preaching with translation of the text, sign, symbol and gesture, dance, music, etc.

Following the act of worship, the conference assembled in the auditorium, and was addressed by Professore Daniele Garrone, a Waldensian theologian working in Rome. He started from the basis of the conference preparatory paper. All plenary sessions were given full interpretation into all four languages of the conference by professional interpreters, most of whom attended with only their travel and conference expenses paid. The PREPROMA committee were enormously grateful to those who supported us with this service – the hire of equipment, booths and technical support for the interpreting was a huge burden on the budget, and although all groups had done a great deal of fund-raising, we could not possibly have managed without the help of our interpreters. The interpretation proceeded without any discernible hitches, and enabled all conference participants to be as fully involved as possible in plenary sessions.

After refreshments, a further plenary session consisted of a round table discussion, chaired by Pastor Jean-Baptiste Lipp of Switzerland, with clergy, theologians and interchurch couples from France, Switzerland and Italy responding to the address by Prof Garrone, and with questions and discussion from the floor.

Towards the end of this session, a group of 50 people, representing as fully as possible the range of participants at the gathering, left to go by coach to the offices at the Vatican of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. There they were received by Mgr Jack Radano, under-secretary responsible for liaison with western churches. He welcomed the group and gave a brief explanation of the work of the Council. Rev Martin Reardon replied for the group, explaining who the conference was for, the aims of the gathering, and how interchurch families felt they could be catalysts for church unity. He presented copies of the preparatory paper in all four languages to Mgr Radano, as well as a conference poster and the group photograph. We were delighted to have this opportunity to visit the Council and make ourselves known there. It achieved one of the principal aims of the gathering. The group asked for continuing contact with the Pontifical Council.

After lunch, free time enabled conference participants to rest from the heat, and to visit the AGORA, where groups from different countries had set up stands with information about their work, literature and other material for distribution and, in many cases, country reports to inform people about what they were doing and had achieved. This gave everybody the opportunity to talk informally to representatives of the different groups: the AGORA was open on several afternoons.

Later in the afternoon, a series of workshops brought people together for discussion in small informal groups on a variety of topics. Each group was asked as part of their discussion to produce a sentence, a wish and a prayer, for sharing with the other groups. These were displayed on the windows outside the auditorium after the session, and added to as the work progressed. The organisation of the workshops was extremely complex, and did not work very well to begin with! However, once people were in their groups, many interesting discussions took place, despite problems of language. Many participants felt this was one of the most interesting parts of the gathering, where people could get to know Christians from different backgrounds, and talk with them about shared joys and difficulties. With discussions continuing during mealtimes and at the AGORA, this achieved another of the aims of the gathering.

A final plenary session, chaired by Keith Lander (UK), brought together some of the products of the workshops, and heard a report of the visit to the Pontifical Council in the morning. After supper, evening prayers were led in the church by a group from Canada.

Saturday 26 July
Morning prayers were led in the church by a group from Austria, and then the conference gathered in the auditorium to hear several messages of welcome, the session chaired by Melanie Finch.

Mgr Eleuterio Fortino, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council, who has worked on mixed marriages for several decades, delivered a warm welcome from Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Council, which ended by requesting a report of the gathering. We had originally hoped Cardinal Kasper would be a principal speaker, but he was attending the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Canada. Mgr Fortino introduced the message by explaining that he had first met Martin and Ruth Reardon at a conference in Bossey while they were on their honeymoon exactly 39 years earlier!

Rev Gregary Cameron, Director of Ecumenism in the Anglican Communion, and Secretary to the International Anglican/Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), delivered a greeting from the co-Presidents of IARCCUM, a group set up in Mississauga, Canada, some years ago, to study questions of unity between the two traditions. Gregory had flown in from Canada the day before, direct from the Lutheran Assembly.

Gregory’s wife Claire then read a greeting from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Gregory was formerly secretary to the Archbishop when he was Archbishop of Wales. We were pleased to welcome his whole family to the gathering.

The session ended with a brief address by Mgr Chiaretti, Bishop of Perugia and chair of the ecumenical committee of the Bishops’ Conference in Italy. Mgr Chiaretti was attending the conference as a visitor, and kindly agreed to address the gathering at very short notice when, at a late stage, it was unclear whether or not we would have a speaker from the Pontifical Council. The summer dates of the gathering proved extremely difficult in this regard. Cardinal Kasper was unavailable, the former secretary to the Council, Bishop Ouellet, moved back to Canada in the new year, and other Council staff were also not available.

The contact, represented by these messages, with several organisations from around the world concerned with Christian unity, helped us to achieve another of the aims of the gathering.

After the break, another round table was held, chaired by Ray Temmerman (Canada). Clergy, theologians and interchurch couples from English and German-speaking countries responded to questions from the floor, on the position of the Roman Catholic and other churches raised by Mgr Fortino and Bishop Chiaretti and by the messages received. The discussion at this session was particularly lively and forthright.

In the afternoon, the AGORA was open, and there was a further workshop session, with participants in the same groups as before, which enabled them to share more fully with each other. The evening act of worship brought together the Anglican and Lutheran traditions, and was led by Pastor Eberhard Aebischer (Switzerland) and Rev Canon Martin Reardon (UK). It was held in the auditorium as there was a wedding taking place in the church. This meant that there were some wonderful floral decorations left in the church for the next day’s worship.

Various linguistic groups met informally amongst themselves later in the evening. A group of English-speaking participants heard from Ray Temmerman (Canada) about plans to hold the next English-speaking international conference in Australia, and discussed the possibility of couples attending from the northern hemisphere.

Sunday 27 July
Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated in the church by Père René Beaupère (France) and Don Mario Polastro (Italy). For all three main acts of worship of the conference, we used the beautiful African altar cloth which was presented to interchurch families at the English-speaking international conference in Edmonton, Canada, in 2001, by Fr Gregory Eduah, a Ghanaian priest who was able to attend that conference while studying in Canada. Unfortunately none of the African interchurch couples and pastors who wished to come to the Rome conference was able to obtain a visa, which was a great disappointment. The altar cloth was a reminder to us of them all.

After Mass, coaches left for the short journey along the lakeside to Castel Gandolfo, where a large number of conference participants attended the midday Angelus in the courtyard of the Pope’s summer residence. The Holy Father welcomed many groups by name, including interchurch families. Coaches also went to Rome, where a small group was able to visit the Anglican Centre in the Doria Pamphilj Palace, to be welcomed by Bp John Flack, recently appointed Director of the Centre, who explained something of its work. The Centre contains a fine theology library, and Bp Flack has regular contacts with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. There was also afternoon tea, English-style.

Other conference participants visited sights in Rome and elsewhere, enjoyed themselves at the lakeside, or rested back at the centre.

After the evening meal, the conference session was led by a large group of young people aged 14 – 22, children of interchurch families from several countries. They presented some of the products of their own conference programme and led us in prayers and singing. The 14 – 17 age group consisted of about 30 young people, approximately 50/50 French- and English-speaking, with one Austrian. It was led by Cathy Harvey (Canada) and Laura Finch (UK), and assisted by many of those in the 18+ group, another dozen or so young adults. Their programme consisted of discussions, prayer, crafts, sport, and other activities. The central part of the programme was an all-night prayer vigil for unity in the family, the wider community and the Church, which was held in their meeting room in the basement. Three prayer stations, decorated with candles, greenery and some of the group’s craft work, and other items important to the young people, focussed the prayers which were accompanied by quiet music. Different sections of the meditation during the night ended with said prayers and readings. Some of the youngsters stayed up all night, others attended different parts of the vigil. Some of the adults attended for part of the time and found it a real opportunity and privilege to share with the young people their hopes and prayers for the future. It was abundantly clear that in their activities they had been learning to communicate across language and cultural boundaries in both simple and profound ways, which had enriched them all.

Monday 28 July
The final plenary session in the auditorium was chaired by Rev Martin Reardon, and summed up the main conclusions of the gathering. The preparatory paper was formally adopted as the official conference paper, expressing both how interchurch families see themselves, and also the rôle they can play in helping to foster the unity of their churches. A message from the gathering as a whole, which had been circulated in draft form the day before, was discussed further.

Considerable discussion was held regarding future international conferences. Some preliminary discussion took place about establishing a means of contact and coordination between the various groups, networks and associations around the world. It was agreed that this was necessary not only to arrange another world gathering, but also to enable interchurch families across the world to consult one another if a major issue of common concern arose, and also to maintain continuing contact with our various world communions. The gathering, however, did not wish to set up an international association. It was left to the national groups, networks and associations to develop and appropriate means of contact and coordination.

Four points were mentioned as important in planning a future world gathering:
• There should be a strong local group able to be an active focus for an international planning group

• It should ideally be held in a region where there were many interchurch families, but as yet few groups, networks or association (eastern Europe and Africa were specifically mentioned)

• It should be in a country which would allow people from the developing world to attend the gathering

• The gathering should have clear and agreed aims

It was however recognised that not all these four points were readily compatible!

Thanks were given to many people and groups who had contributed to the success of the Rome conference.

The gathering ended with a final celebration in the chapel, led by Fr Franck Lemaître and Nicola Kontzi-Méresse (France), with a short sermon by Père René Beaupère. Coloured handkerchiefs, like those used at the Geneva gathering, were used symbolically to highlight parts of the celebration. During the service, the younger children showed the craft work they had done during their own programme, with an explanation and talk given by Pastor Davide Ollearo.

The groups of children aged 3 – 13 were led by a team of Italian Waldensian youth leaders brought by Davide, whose wife Daniela is also a pastor. The UK group had actually made contact with Davide in England during a church meeting in north London, which was a very happy coincidence. We were delighted that he warmly agreed to bring his team to work with the children. As all groups contained children of at least three, sometimes four, linguistic groups, this was a very complex task, and we were grateful to a number of parents who assisted in the groups. An overall theme was ‘Water’, and the presentation at the service by the children of an Ark with animals they had made, individual drops of water brought forward to make a flowing stream, and a rainbow made up of many coloured balloons, was a beautiful culmination of this presentation.

A significant and very moving finish to the celebration was the final Blessing, pronounced by the priests, pastors and clergy of many church traditions, about 20 in all, who had attended the gathering, friends who walk alongside interchurch families in the quest for unity, offering support when needed and sharing joys and tensions.

After a final meal together, conference participants dispersed in many directions. The PREPROMA committee became the POSTROMA committee during a meeting in the garden to draw up a list of post-conference work, in particular the collating and distribution of conference papers.

The Gathering was conscious of the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout, despite many setbacks and difficulties. Many close relationships were made and renewed. We were challenged and encouraged by speakers, messages and discussions. We were uplifted by prayer and worship, and the commitment and perseverance of many people, some over several decades, and not least our young people. We pray that we shall continue to be inspired to carry forward the work of the interchurch family movement, which has been enriched by this gathering. We pray that we may continue to move on together, offering ourselves as catalysts towards a growing unity of all Christ’s people, as Christ prayed, that the world may believe.


September 2003

Melanie Finch
Coordinator, English-speaking groups
PREPROMA/POSTROMA Committee