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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:
Ecumenical officer says it’s time for churches to emerge
from decades of focus on their internal lives

The Catholic Diocese of Spokane’s new ecumenical officer, Father Patrick Hartin, has been stepping slowly into his new part-time role, as successor to Father Tom Caswell, who served for 25 years.

His ecumenical background ranges from social action under apartheid in his homeland of South Africa to Anglican-Catholic dialogue, as well as teaching the students of diverse faiths at Gonzaga University.

Patrick Hartin
Father Patrick Hartin serves as the ecumenical officer
of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane

“I am learning what has been done and finding how I can contribute here,” he said.

Because he considers it central to Christian faith to witness to and strive toward unity, Fr. Pat is helping plan the 2011 ecumenical Good Friday Tenebrae Service.

Every church since the 1980s and 1990s has been undergoing internal struggles.  The danger is that we focus on ourselves rather than reaching out to help each other,” he said.

In South Africa, Fr. Pat was secretary of the Catholic Bishop’s Commission on Ecumenical Affairs for seven years and was involved with the South African Council of Churches. 

He knows the vital role it played in ending apartheid and continues to play in the ongoing work to overcome the crime and corruption, which continues to divide the haves and have nots.

He was also involved in a commission formed in South Africa to discuss the documents of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.

“South African ecumenism focused on social action of people united—Catholics to Muslims joined their voices against the oppressive government.  People transcended religion and dogma.

Ecumenism is not just doctrinal statements.  There is so much work we can do together,” said Fr. Pat, who has taught New Testament, Christian spirituality and classics as a professor in the Religious Studies Department at Gonzaga University for 16 years.  He served at St. Paschal parish several years and now helps with Sunday Mass at Mary Queen.

Fr. Pat was educated in South Africa under apartheid.  In 1967, he began study for the priesthood and went to Rome for further study in 1971, just after Vatican II, which he feels helped the church “come alive.”

He returned to South Africa to teach high school for 10 years and then taught at state universities.

South Africans lived and were educated separately by their races, but Catholic schools and English-speaking universities were open to all races. 

From his office at the university in Johannesburg, he observed tear gas being used against students protesting apartheid.

Having experienced the influence of Calvinism as a state religion, he supports the separation of church and state.

“While children studied religion in public schools, religion became hijacked by the state,” Fr. Pat said.

In 1994, he came on a sabbatical to study at Claremont Theological School and after 18 months was invited to be New Testament scholar at Gonzaga University.

“I wanted to be in a religious college where I could speak in ways I was unable to speak at the secular schools,” he said.

Fr. Pat goes back to South Africa once a year to visit his 93-year-old mother, two brothers and sister.

They are now enthusiastic about the future of the country.  There has been remarkable change from the white rule to universal suffrage,” he said, impressed at how Nelson Mandela was able to promote reconciliation.

Ecumenism is part of Fr. Pat’s classroom experiences at Gonzaga.  While the university was more predominantly Catholic 30 years ago, now students are diverse, with Protestants and many other faiths.

In his introductory class, he gives insights into skills for reading the Bible today. 

“Until Vatican II, Catholics were not encouraged to read the Scriptures.  That was once a defining difference between Catholics and Protestants.  Now Scriptures are also a Catholic interest,” said Fr. Pat, who also teaches adult Bible classes in parishes.

“Today fundamentalism and religious talk radio define for many the way churches are perceived as reading the Bible,” he said. 

So Fr. Pat helps students intimidated about the Bible think about how to read it and engage in logical discussions on Scriptures.

“I start with students as readers today.  What does each bring?  What are their different backgrounds—Catholic, Baptist or no faith? I seek to empower readers by respecting where they are, rather than trying to convert them to a point of view,” he said.  “I want to engage them in dialogue.”

Fr. Pat also said students need to know the Bible because there are so many biblical images in literature:  “You can’t understand poetry without understanding the biblical images used,” he said.

In his book, The Spirituality of the Gospels, which will be published in May by Liturgical Press, he said that different spiritual visions are appropriate in different times—from those who founded the monastic movement to those engaged in the world today.

He has also written several books about James, one of the earliest New Testament writings—James of Jerusalem and James and the Q Sayings of Jesus.

“James defines religion as concern for the widow and orphan—the outcasts of the world—and keeping oneself unstained from the world.  He sets the context for social action, contrasting the values of God’s kingdom with the values of the world, encouraging people to take on the values of God’s kingdom,” Fr. Pat said.

“Students resonate with James’ spirituality and see it as relevant today,” he said, telling of students involved in Gonzaga’s Mission Possible during spring break.

Students passing an elderly man loaded with sacks walking upstairs in an apartment building  went back, helped him carry the sacks, had breakfast with him and learned his story.  They became concerned about the other.

“James is about faith in action,” Fr. Pat said.

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