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This week, as they have for nearly 35 years, Minnesota's Lutheran and Catholic bishops are heading off on an annual retreat, away from daily duties and the prying public, to talk.
These unconventional, private meetings allow leaders of the state's largest religious denominations to discuss theological issues and more concrete work such as addressing social issues like poverty.
"I appreciate getting to know my Roman Catholic colleagues," said the Rev. Jon Anderson, bishop of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "I appreciate sharing our dilemmas as we try to guide God's church into the future."
The two groups have their differences. This year's retreat on Thursday and Friday at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., comes as Catholic bishops have embarked on a campaign to get Catholics to support a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would define marriage as a union between a man and woman.
Meanwhile, the ELCA -- the largest Lutheran body in Minnesota with nearly 800,000 members -- is applying its two-year-old policy to allow openly gay clergy in committed relationships to be ministers. Lutherans for decades have also ordained women as ministers while Catholic leaders don't allow women to be priests.
Such differences, however, matter little at the meetings, bishops say.
"When there are differences, we need to sit down and talk them through," said the Rev. John Kinney, the Catholic bishop of St. Cloud. "I don't see this [gay marriage] as straining it or ending the dialogue or discussions. I believe that we are all committed to this. I think it's been a great gift."
Bishops say they are not aware of any similar meetings in other states; they consider them unique gatherings aimed at fostering greater understanding between the two faiths.
"One of the most important things we do when we're together is we pray," said the Rev. Lee Piché, auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "When there's been topics where we have differences of opinion or ... in our understanding of teaching, it hasn't been tense at all. It's a genuine desire to understand each other's perspective and try to see it from that perspective as best we can."
Started in 1977, the overnight gatherings grew out of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church in the 1960s, which encouraged Catholics to dialogue more with other faiths.
The Minnesota meetings began at the urging of the Rev. John Roach, former Twin Cities archbishop, and Lutheran Bishop Elmo Agrimson, among other leaders. The gatherings initially included bishops from different Lutheran denominations, though bishops of the six ELCA area synods in Minnesota participate now.
On the Catholic side, bishops from the Twin Cities archdiocese and five outstate dioceses take part in the meetings -- representing the state's nearly 1.1 million Catholics.
"Given the fact that our meetings were not covered by the press, public or church press, our dialogue was open and frank," said the Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, former bishop of the Minnesota Synod of the Lutheran Church in America.
Bishops discuss theology
Agendas for the meetings include listening to Catholic and Lutheran theologians, then discussing commonalities and differences in theology and doctrine. This year, bishops are discussing the subject of joint dialogue between the two faiths on the common belief of Jesus Christ's promise of eternal life.
"I have found it valuable to have my Roman Catholic friends teach me in the theological conversations we have about how they think deeply about different dimensions of the faith. I understand them better and hopefully they understand us better, and we learn from each other and our differences," Anderson said.
Marc Kolden, retired professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, who has studied Lutheran-Catholic relations, said U.S. Catholics and Protestants have had a history of working together to help people during natural disasters and to fight poverty. He notes Lutherans and Catholics particularly worked effectively together in the 1980s and '90s to assist struggling family farms in the Midwest.
"It's better they know each other and talk to each other and find their common concerns," he said. "I think the whole issue of gay marriage and homosexuality generally is being solved in one way, by the country and the culture, and the churches are going to have to deal with it. But it's too hot an issue to deal with in a format like the dialogues."
Bishops say they enjoy the annual meetings and often gain support from one another. They don't foresee them coming to an end anytime soon.
"I'm sure we will be talking about [the marriage amendment] although the main thrust of these discussions is to get some theological input either from a Catholic theologian or a Lutheran theologian on the issues that relate to church unity and the issues where we have been separated in the past," Kinney said.
Rose French • 612-673-4352