Southern California Roman Catholics and Episcopalians joined one another in prayer and praise, music and reflection about the hope, courage, and freedom evoked by Mary, the mother of Jesus, during a solemn Evensong service September 20 at St. John's Pro-Cathedral near downtown Los Angeles.
Fragrant incense filled the church as the Rt. Rev. Frank T. Griswold III, former presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, told about 150 worshippers that Mary continues to evoke hope because she "is creeping into places where she wasn't known before."
The Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, ecumenical and interreligious officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, who organized the Sunday afternoon event, said she invited Griswold to preach because he had served as a co-chair of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) that crafted Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, an agreed document on the place of Mary in the life and doctrine of the church, which included discussions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
But sadly, said Guibord and her Roman Catholic counterpart after the service, most people in the pew are unaware that the document even exists.
"This is why we have these gatherings, to raise awareness," Guibord said of Sunday's event, the fourth annual event commemorating the document.
The service was also part of an ongoing series of ecumenical and interreligious events that help Anglicans and Roman Catholics "discover we have more in common than not," Guibord said. "It's an opportunity for us to be together and envision what might be possible."
"This is an international agreement," added the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, ecumenical and interreligious officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who also participated in the service. He expressed hope that Roman Catholic and Episcopal congregations will pair up and use the study guide accompanying the document as a way of strengthening ecumenical ties.
"It's one of the reasons I asked that Bishop Griswold's comments reflect upon the history of the document," said Smith. "Most people are unaware of it, but he did a marvelous job of lifting up the nuances and challenges and opportunities it represents for Episcopalians and Catholics in this country."
Flauribert Takwa, 27, said he wants to explore some of those opportunities. Until Takwa, a Catholic member of the Focolare Movement, a group of people who live in community and further the work of the Gospel, attended Sunday's service he had never even heard of the document, he said.
"I want to dedicate some time to studying it now," he said. He attended the service because of his interest in ecumenical events and "the opportunity to get to know him [Griswold] better. He was very inspiring," he added.
Griswold recalled how the Second Vatican Council and Liturgical Movement, which emphasized renewal of worship within the Catholic and other churches, fueled recovery or "re-reception" of Marian devotion and led to the document's development.
It also fostered within Anglicanism the expansion of holy days, including designating August 15 to commemorate the Blessed Virgin Mary and a "new appreciation for the communion of saints and the fact that the saints pray for us," Griswold said. "Just as we can ask one another to pray for us, so too we can ask the saints to pray for us.
The meetings, worship and meals experienced by members of ARCIC, who represented equal numbers of laity and clergy, Anglicans and Roman Catholics, Scripture scholars, theologians and many others, "created a profound sense of unity among us," Griswold recalled.
That unity and experience led to new realizations of the Immaculate Conception and the bodily assumption of Mary, and ultimately to Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, he said.
The group realized that "in Mary we see the grace of baptism anticipated and that the Immaculate Conception is really a way of underscoring basically what the angel Gabriel says in the annunciation: that she is highly favored by God, blessed by God, that the grace of God is already operative in her life. You might say the grace of baptism is already realized in Mary," Griswold said.
The commission's exploration included, in part, the understanding "that virginity is not simply a physical state but an attitude of soul. So, Mary's virginity also has to do with her openness or undefendedness before the mystery of God's word seeking to find a home in her and through her, to take flesh."
Regarding the Assumption, "it really is a celebration of the hope we all share of our being taken in glory and union with Christ" as the ending point of our baptismal incorporation into Christ, Griswold added.
Recovering those attributes in Mary helped reveal what is true of everyone, essentially, and made her "less a remote figure and more a sister and friend" and also a symbol of justice and empowerment for women and the oppressed, he said.
Mary's "pattern of faithfulness" is an example to everyone baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he said.
Re-reception of Mary is part of a whole force moving and touching the lives of men and women and opens the way to "what has yet to unfold," Griswold added. "And so we may call upon her in moments of our struggle and searching as she herself was no stranger to moments of struggling. And we can invite her to pray for us and be a companion to us as we seek to be faithful to what life is calling forth from us at that moment."
He noted that shrines to Mary have cropped up in Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in England, and that "St. Thomas' Fifth Avenue in New York even has a shrine dedicated to 'Our Lady of Fifth Avenue.'"
"It is symbolic of how in a very integral way Mary is sort of creeping into places where she wasn't known before," Griswold told the gathering.
He has noticed while directing Ignatian retreats, he said, that experiences of Mary have begun to find their way into the meditations of retreatants "in ways that shock and unsettle them."
"I've now learned the look of someone smitten by Mary," he said.
Griswold, the 25th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, was co-chair of ARCIC from 1998 to 2003. His term as presiding bishop ended November 1, 2006, but he said Sunday that he "hasn't learned a thing about retirement."
He has been invited to deliver the Williams Lectures, named for the Rt. Rev. Channing Moore Williams, missionary bishop to China and Japan, at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He will lecture and preach throughout Japan from mid-October through mid-November.