This note comes as something of an ave atque vale: a farewell since I have been invited by Dr Paul Zeleza, Dean of LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, to take over as director of our Catholic Studies program. As part of this changeover, I am therefore relinquishing the post of Acting Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute which I have held since its formal inception in 2007. My letter also comes as a greeting to all those who have supported the work of the Institute since it has gradually burgeoned into life. I’m very grateful for the vision and generosity of Mr. Michael Huffington, whose hope for restored communion between East and West continues to inspire the work of the Institute; to a host of colleagues at Loyola Marymount whose work keeps us on track, to other donors; to the many speakers at our events; and especially to those many people – members of the public, faculty, staff and students, lay and clergy, Orthodox and Catholic, who have attended our symposia.
American Catholics and Orthodox live in a land of religious freedom and tolerance, and which welcomes the expression of ideas. Relations between the sister Churches of East and West are particularly warm on this side of the Atlantic, reflecting our national “can-do” pragmatism. Indeed, the official dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Christians is probably more advanced here than in any where else in the world, which makes of America – and Los Angeles in particular – an ideal platform for inter-Church dialogue in the quest for unity. In Ancient Greece, a symposium was a drinking party – not so much a chance to get drunk as an opportunity to spend time with friends, to present and to listen to ideas, and to let new ideas emerge from those conversations. A Catholic university such as LMU is not a church, a metropolis, diocese or parish, and should not attempt to replicate them. Its own particular role is to be a place for the emergence of new ideas and new friendships, in the common search for truth. Consequently, what we seek to do with the symposia of the Institute is to complement both top-level ecumenical dialogues and the many grassroots ecumenical initiatives which flourish in Southern California and beyond.
There’s a reason why a Jesuit university in particular has a keen interest in ecumenism, and a particular approach to it. From the very beginning, the Society of Jesus has sought to dialogue with people whose faith traditions are different from its own. In his Autobiography, we see the founder of the Jesuits himself, St. Ignatius Loyola, frequently engaging in what he calls “spiritual conversations.” These encounters often happen over meals, and they are not attempts to proselytize but to find common ground with the other. For reasons which are eminently pastoral, we have first to focus on what we have in common before we can consider what separates us and take steps to be fully reconciled. Orthodox and Catholics live in the same neighborhoods and speak the same language; our children play together, and we work and play in the same places. We know similar joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties. Such human experiences provide the starting ground for all ecumenical encounters, official and unofficial, theological, academic, or pastoral.
St. Ignatius thought that gratitude was at the heart of all prayer, and gratitude is indeed what I feel in looking back at the work of the Institute – gratitude for conversations and fellowship. I’m also entirely honored that I as a Latin Catholic am able to hand over the direction of the Institute appropriately, to an Orthodox Christian. The disappearance of the word “Acting” from the new Director’s title indicates that LMU’s Huffington Ecumenical Institute, although still young, is coming into age as a regional and national institution. Son of immigrants from Ukraine, Dr. Nicholas Denysenko is a native of Minnesota, who has studied and worked in New York and Washington, DC. In previous incarnations, Dr. Denysenko was a full-time music director at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis, and worked as a marketing professional for Augsburg Fortress and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As an academic, Dr. Denysenko has taught at The Catholic University of America, George Washington University, and at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Grandson of a priest, he is an ordained deacon of the Western Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America. In Fall 2010, serendipitously, we were delighted to have Professor Denysenko join LMU’s Department of Theological Studies as assistant professor of sacramental theology. His current areas of research include the Blessing of Waters in the Byzantine Rite; ecclesiology in ordination rites; contemporary pastoral liturgy; herpetology; the Christmas and Lenten Liturgical cycles; Mariology in Liturgy; the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, and Faith. He is a prodigious scholar and has published many articles in such prestigious journals as Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Studia Liturgica, Theological Studies, and St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly. On campus, Dr. Denysenko has already become a wonderful resource for Orthodox students and has begun building an LMU chapter of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship – one of the few in a Catholic university and the first one in any Catholic college west of the Rockies.
Although this letter is in part a farewell, I will not be disappearing however from the work of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. In fact, in my new position in Catholic Studies, I look forward to even greater collaboration between Catholics and Orthodox - on this campus, in Southern California, and beyond. I’m happy to say the work of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute is international in its ambitions: this summer I will be traveling to Bucarest to present a paper on Eastern Rite Christianity in the United States, at the 21st Congress of the International Society of Jesuit Ecumenists. We also look forward to welcoming international speakers in future events hosted by the Institute.
One of the joys – as well of the challenges – of the Institute’s unique work is that it has no established road map. Each of our events is a first of its kind. The poet Antonio Machado wrote,
As we walk along, there is no path.
We make it as we walk it.
It is by walking a path that we make it.
Only when we stop and look back
Can we see that path
We no longer have to discover again.
Much of these words apply to ecumenism, the hard work of finding the path of love. I ended the groundbreaking 2010 "Women and Church, East and West" symposium with the Spanish saying nuestra casa es su casa. Literally, “our house is your house,” the words also mean “welcome and please make yourself at home.” As such, the simple phrase is a reflection of the Incarnation, through which the Trinity invites us to make our home in God as God makes his dwelling in our humanity.
This year, my concluding comments at our War and Peace symposium – the first ever such ecumenical conference on the topic – made use of another Spanish saying: dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres. “Tell me who you walk with, and I will tell you who you are” expresses in folk wisdom what theologians say in technical jargon: communion indicates being. When we are fully in communion, we are fully alive. In various ways, that is true of the great mysteries of - the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the salvation of humankind. Ecumenical progress as a sort of walking together, and becoming together. It’s also a mystery, not only in the usual sense of something unknown, but also in a more technical sense. Our conversations – the very fact that we are gathered together around a shared concern – are mysteria. In Catholic dialect, they are sacramental signs and instruments of grace. So let us keep on walking together, whether two steps forward and one back or sometimes the other way around, but together in being, and together in faith.
Rev. Dorian Llywelyn, S.J.
Acting Director, 2007-11