January is a month full of observances that turn our minds toward one of the core messages of Jesus: unity.

Throughout our lectionary cycle, Jesus prays that we all may be one. We hear in Acts of the Apostles that the community was of one heart and one mind. Paul writes extensively how we are one body, echoing Jesus’ vine and branches sermon.

Being unified in God is one of the most basic themes in the Bible. Right smack in the middle of January we have a week that begins with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, followed by the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and concluded with Ecumenical Sunday.

All of these shine a light on God’s message and shine a light on the fact that we are not actually unified. The Body of Christ is fractured, and we often feel it in our families.

Years ago, one thing Catholics could more or less rely on was that the rest of their family was also Catholic. Everybody belonged to a parish, went to Mass, had the same basic understanding of what living their Catholic faith meant.

We all had the same religious vocabulary and patterns of life that revolved around being Catholic.  But, now it’s far more common to have very mixed faiths within a family – those who married someone from a different denomination or other faith altogether, who are one of the “nones” we hear so much about – folks who don’t identify themselves as belonging to any faith tradition, who are “spiritual but not religious,” who don’t believe in God at all.

Navigating these differences, especially at holidays, can be a little tricky. It can cause some discomfort or even heated conversations.

Ecumenical, interfaith, or even non-religious relationships present many wonderful opportunities for our own spiritual growth. Some of the most enlightening moments of faith I have ever had were times when I was asked to clarify, or even defend, what I believe.

Explaining our faith and tradition to someone who has no experience with it can get us thinking critically about our own understanding – and maybe uncover some incorrect understandings that we have held without challenge since we were children.

I’m married to a Baptist pastor and boy have we had some (respectful) theological debates! I have actually come to appreciate the Blessed Virgin Mary on a new level because of our discussions.

Engaging in respectful dialogue with people of other faiths can lead us to a broader and deeper appreciation of who they are and strengthen our relationships. By having conversations with people of other faiths, both by finding common ground and acknowledging the differences between us, I have found more acutely why I love my faith so much.

How do we foster these relationships without sacrificing who we are? How can we grow closer together while sharing our different ways of knowing God?

  • Visit your houses of worship. Take a tour and notice what is different and what seems the same. Ask questions and offer answers about what various things mean.
  • Worship together. Invite them to come to Mass with you and go to one of their services. Go to breakfast and talk about what you experienced.
  • Pray together. That can be a little weird at first, but if you have a conversation about how each of you prays, you can work out something that complements both.
  • If the person(s) in question are not believers and you have occasion to pray, explain to them what you are doing and why. Give them the option to participate or not to – in my experience, asking the question makes them feel more comfortable saying yes.
  • Be respectful no matter what. Reflecting love back to intolerance can only let God shine.
  • Attend ecumenical events together.
  • Teens, invite your age-appropriate family or friends to youth group.

So often, people just want to be understood and respected. If we approach our relationships with that in mind, offering curiosity and respect can go a long way. We never have to hide our faith; but showing love to someone who disagrees with us can have an impact on both sides.

Jennifer Elsensohn serves as pastoral associate in the St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.

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