Quaker Formation for Catholic Mission
I learned everything I know about hospitality in a Quaker kitchen. Off and on for about ten years, I worked in the kitchen at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation in the suburbs of Philadelphia, close to where I grew up. In that kitchen, I learned the importance of physical and spiritual nourishment, as well as the diversity within the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends. The Quaker virtues of hospitality and welcome that I learned have been a consistent theme threaded throughout my theology and Catholic practice. I was growing spiritually at Pendle Hill, and my theological education would later give me the words to articulate that experience.
The community gathered in the kitchen; everyone from the executive director to the residential groundskeeper’s kids performed a daily chore related to the meal. Everyone participated in the facilitation of feeding the community, whether that was setting tables, scrubbing pots, sweeping the floor, or just being kind to the cook after serving a meal for 75 people. It really instilled the importance of community, equality, openness, collaboration, and fellowship, which I continue to carry with me.
My adult spiritual formation was in its infancy when I began working at Pendle Hill. Quaker spiritual formation was a natural byproduct of working at an institution committed to Friends values. The Catholic Church is hierarchical in nature, and the egalitarian Quaker tradition provided a different framework for exploring my spirituality. The open and welcoming environment not only prepared me to investigate the Catholic practice of dialogue, both ecumenical and interreligious, but it also reinforced the centrality of the inherent human dignity endowed upon each person by the Creator. Though I was still in high school, I was trusted and mentored. I learned that every person’s voice matters, and that consensus, though painstaking, is a priceless practice because it allows space for divergent opinions while working toward a common decision.
The tradition of the Religious Society of Friends has guided my growth into my own Catholic faith commitments. In the Pendle Hill kitchen, I was exposed to an incredibly diverse world beyond my Irish Catholic upbringing. The depth and breadth of Quaker practice was unlike anything I had previously experienced. Pendle Hill hosted a cross-section of Quaker culture that showed me how unity in diversity works. I witnessed the intentional creation of space for the uniqueness given to every person. Though Quaker practice covers a broad spectrum, in meeting for worship these disparate practices came together in the presence of the Spirit. No number of words will ever capture every corner of my life that Quakerism has touched—from informing me of the importance of diversity and inclusion to social justice and care for the environment.
The Catholic tradition has a fourfold practice of dialogue. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue outlined these four parts in a document called Dialogue and Proclamation:
- the dialogue of life: people striving to live in a neighborly spirit, sharing the challenges and triumphs of life
- the dialogue of action: people called to live their faith commitments through common social action for change
- the dialogue of theological exchange: a more formal/academic dialogue of experts
- the dialogue of religious experience: the sharing of spiritual riches rooted in one’s own religious tradition
Most of my early experiences of Friends were rooted in the dialogue of life and the dialogue of religious experience. Sharing the daily chores in the Pendle Hill kitchen and having conversations at the table gave me opportunities to participate in the dialogue of life with my Friends.
My first experience of meeting for worship, the dialogue of religious experience, stays with me. I often find myself returning to this pivotal moment of communion with the Spirit in order to drink from the wellspring of courage and strength that I discovered during meeting.
My current work in the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has offered new ways to participate in dialogue efforts. The Conference is a member (along with Friends Committee on National Legislation) of Shoulder-to-Shoulder, an interfaith coalition committed to upholding religious freedom and combating Islamophobia. Both Friends United Meeting and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting are communion members of the National Council of Churches, with which the Conference partners. These collaborative efforts among Christians and those of different faiths give the opportunity for Friends and Catholics to work together for justice and peace.
I am fortunate to have experienced Quaker and Catholic culture. At first glance, they do appear to be at different poles: meeting is immersed in simplicity; Mass is highly ritualistic. Meeting is fluid; Mass is structured. Meeting is egalitarian; Mass is hierarchical. However, I have found commonalities in the shared appreciation for silence, the role of the Spirit, and commitment to social justice issues. Though there are differences, there is joy to be found in each faith practice. Quakers helped me to embrace the diversity in the human family, and therefore the diversity within religious praxis.
Now, more than ever, we are in dire need of this “culture of encounter.” Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are rising in the United States; bigotry and intolerance are touted as acceptable ways to address societal fears. The radical inclusivity of Friends mixed with the “culture of encounter” espoused by Pope Francis is the antidote I have been using to combat hate and xenophobia in my own community. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, we learned the history of William Penn and Friends’ search for religious freedom, a concept that has become preeminent as I encounter those who desire religious freedom “for me but not for you.” The right to religious freedom inherently requires an inclusivity of all humanity—a place for everyone at the table.
Last September I had the privilege of working and traveling with the Holy See Press Office during Pope Francis’s apostolic journey to the United States. Philadelphia, one of the loves of my life, was our last stop. As I stood outside Independence Hall, I heard Pope Francis articulate the profound impact that the Religious Society of Friends has had on my life. The pope affirmed my experience of radical inclusivity with Friends:
The Quakers who founded Philadelphia were inspired by a profound evangelical sense of the dignity of each individual and the ideal of a community united by brotherly love. This conviction led them to found a colony which would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance.
Thank you, Friends, for sharing, caring, teaching, loving, inspiring, and supporting me while accompanying me on my spiritual journey. Thank you for empowering me to live out my Catholic faith commitments to the inherent dignity of every human being and to the radical inclusivity of welcoming the religious other to a place at the table.