Saints without Borders

“Saints without Borders: Ecumenical Reflections on the Great Cloud of Witnesses” was the theme for the 47th annual Summer Seminar. Over 60 participants from 25 countries and many different churches came together to hear a wide-ranging group of speakers address the question of saints, martyrs, and witnesses. Despite the historic disagreements on the subject of the saints, speakers and participants alike found a great array of convergences and common perspectives, giving us hope that this topic, at least, need not be church-dividing.

dsc_0954aProf. Akma Adam (US-UK/Anglican) started us off with a study of the “hagioi” in the Bible, finding that “the saints” is generally used in the New Testament to refer to all the faithful in Christ, yet at the same time there is certainly reference to exemplary believers and actors in the history of salvation. The church-historical scene was set with the account offered by Prof. Arnold Angenendt (Germany/Catholic) of the development of the cult of the saints in the early church.

Prof. Klaus Baumann (Germany/Catholic), who is both a priest and a licensed psychologist, then addressed the need for models in the religious life and how they shape Christian identity and action. Two further lectures took up test cases of widely admired saints: Prof. Elisabeth Parmentier (France/Lutheran) of the Institute looked at Mary, and in particular the ecumenical convergence and ongoing disputes about her in Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, while Prof. Stephen Haynes (US/Presbyterian) presented compelling evidence for the reception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a saint by Protestant Christians in America and elsewhere.

Distinct confessional approaches to the question of saints had their place in the Seminar, too. Prof. Michael Plekon (US/Orthodox) presented the story of Maria Skobtsova, a highly unconventional Russian nun who ministered among the destitute in Paris and died in a concentration camp, as an example of canonization in the Eastern church today. Prof. Aimable Musoni (Rwanda-Vatican/Catholic) presented the process of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Catholic Church, speaking from firsthand experience. Prof. Jeremy Bergen (Canada/Mennonite) described the role played by Martyrs Mirror, a seventeenth-century martyrology, in the formation of Anabaptist and Mennonite identity and life. Prof. Theodor Dieter (Germany/Lutheran) of the Institute rounded out this overview with an explanation of the Reformers’ critique of the invocation of the saints and questions about the church’s authority to canonize, while hinting at Luther’s own constructive approach to the questions of saints. Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson (US-France/Lutheran) of the Institute continued this line of inquiry by exploring parallel and alternative versions of saint veneration in Lutheranism and made proposals toward an evangelical understanding of the saints for the churches today.

Complementing the confessional perspectives were three explicitly ecumenical approaches. Prof. Marc Lienhard (France/Lutheran) formerly of the Institute recalled the witness of several Catholic and Protestant ecumenical pioneers, and Archbishop Alfons Nossol (Poland/Catholic) recounted his own active role in the ecumenical movement and efforts toward bridge-building between Germans and Poles after the Second World War during a special evening presentation. Finally, Brother Guido Dotti (Italy/Catholic) described the process that led to the ecumenical Monasterio di Bose’s martyrology, which remembers and honors Christians who gave their lives for Christ across all denominational borders. 

In addition to the usual excursion on Sunday—this year to the Oberlin Museum in Waldersbach and Mt. Ste. Odile, which are pilgrimage sites for Protestants and Catholics respectively—the group had an opportunity to visit the European Parliament and speak with Rainer Wieland, a Vice-President of the Parliament from Germany, about the challenges of European unity and the hopes for the churches’ role in peacemaking.

While this year’s Seminar topic was about the great cloud of witnesses, for once we had no clouds in the Alsatian sky but day after day of sunshine! After such a cold winter, it was greatly appreciated and added to the conviviality of the week’s activities.

The lectures from the Seminar are available here.

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