Bishop Floyd Begin meets with the Rev. Billy Graham on Aug. 2, 1971.
Catholic VOICE FILE photo
Interfaith good feeling,
openness part of our diocesan heritage
Rev. Dan Danielson
Most of my memories of 50 years in the Diocese of Oakland go back to when I was first ordained and the 15 years under the leadership of Bishop Floyd Begin. He was the founding bishop of the diocese. He came to us from Cleveland, where he had been an auxiliary bishop. He had never been West of the Mississippi in his life before coming to Oakland. He was an unknown entity to us as we were to him.
He had pictures taken of all the priests in the diocese before he arrived. And he used those pictures like flashcards, memorizing the priests' names. When he got off the helicopter at Oakland airport, he knew the names of all the priests whom he met.
Shortly after his arrival, much to the surprise of many pastors, he invited all of them to the Claremont Hotel for dinner and they were to bring with them two Protestant ministers from their parish areas along with their wives. It was a total surprise — among other reasons, because many of the pastors didn't know two Protestant ministers in their parish areas. But they quickly got to know them and brought them along to this dinner.
At the dinner, the bishop warmly welcomed the ministers as fellow Christians in one faith and one baptism. He recognized them as ministers of the Gospel. They were separated brethren and as John XXIII said, we tended to put too much emphasis on the word "separated" and not enough emphasis on the word "brethren." First of all, we are brethren, though tragically separated. This dinner was the beginning of ecumenism in the Diocese of Oakland — one dinner and one talk by our new bishop. I ran into ministers 20 years later who still talked about that evening and the effect Bishop Begin's graciousness had on them.
Many of the pastors, now that they had gotten to know their fellow ministers in their areas, continued to meet with them and work with them on common projects and concerns. Many priests were active members of ministerial associations throughout the diocese. I was never in a parish after that where I wasn't part of a ministerial group.
Many parishes introduced Living Room Dialogues (there were two sizeable books available to guide these dialogues), conversations and sharing between the laity from the Catholic parish and neighboring Protestant communities. And this was all before the Vatican II Document on Ecumenism.
Prior to this document, there was almost no ecumenism in the Catholic Church. The official stance was very cautious and anything but encouraging. Priests were very careful about not overstepping their Catholic bounds. Pope John XXIII changed all that by inviting Protestants to be observers at the Second Vatican Council.
When that Document on Ecumenism came out, I was asked to give a presentation on the document to the priests of our deanery (Southern Alameda County). There were about 50 priests at the gathering.
I studied the newly issued document and simply set forth its main points, its key teachings. I didn't draw any conclusions or recommend any actions flowing from it.
After the talk, one of the more venerable priests of our deanery came up to me and said: "That was really a very fine talk. I have never heard heresy presented so effectively in all my years as a priest!"
Bishop Begin's support of the interfaith Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, with the Catholic participation of three Catholic Theology Schools, was a further major step in Ecumenism in our new diocese.
Since then, ecumenism has been a presumption in our diocese, but unfortunately not fostered or developed significantly further.
The good feelings and openness that exists today between most of our Protestant brothers and sisters and ourselves is a heritage of those early years. It is the common feeling, not only among our priests, but also among most of the laity of our parishes. What began under Bishop Begin has become infectious. My prayer is that the spirit of ecumenism will continue to grow and develop in the service of building up the Kingdom of God for generations to come.