An Interview with Kilian McDonnell, OSB

Posted on Posted in Theology

We asked a few questions of Kilian McDonnell, OSB, Founder and President of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and a prodigious scholar!

Tell us how you got involved in ecumenism.

I grew up in a very small village, Velva, North Dakota, a very small enclave in the midst of Lutherans with whom we Catholics got along well. When I was a teaching “religion” in our undergraduate program at St. John’s University in the late 1950s, the theology department had a discussion on whether we should teach our Catholic students Protestant theology too. I voted against the resolution, as we did not have time enough to teach the Catholic students Catholic theology. I lost the vote. Then the faculty looked around to send some member off to study Protestant theology in Europe—and it turned out to be me! I studied in Trier, Tübingen, Heidelberg, Münster, and Paderborn. I did my thesis on John Calvin, the Church and the Eucharist. In 1967 the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research opened, mostly for post-doctoral students, but we also take those working on graduate level projects or their dissertations. We also offer summer workshops for pastors and pastoral leaders, for instance on “Ecclesial Literature,” teaching pastors and pastoral leaders to write well.

You’ve done a great deal of work on Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Many Catholics and Lutherans aren’t even aware of the presence of charismatics within their own churches. What ecumenical potential do you see there?

I have served on the Lutheran-Catholic, Presbyterian-Catholic (both national and international), Disciples of Christ-Catholic, and Classical Pentecostal-Catholic dialogues. Though the Pentecostal-Catholic dialogue was not the most scholarly, I learned most from it. Delving into Pentecostal movements will help Lutherans and Catholics learn what community is, what role experience plays in the Christian life, and that evangelical thought and living are not necessarily narrow and unenlightened. They will experience the great spiritual  force of Classical Pentecostalism, even though it is messy and intellectually impoverished. A Vatican official who often participated said that this was the dialogue from which he walked away with the most spiritual uplift.

What were your impressions of the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue?

Of all the dialogues, the Lutheran-Catholic one was the most scholarly, rigorous, and, in terms of documents, productive. It published the best documents. No one was casual about the dialogue. It had the method down: each topic was discussed over the course of 5 to 7 years. The method question is important. If you don’t have the right method, much is lost, even with topnotch scholars. We were allotted 5 year for the topic and if we did not finish in 5 years we took as much time as we needed. The dialogue on Mary had, I think, over 40 scholarly papers and lasted 7 years; justification got 5 years. Each topic was approached with a study paper which outlined the possible questions and areas together with some bibliography. We had excellent biblical scholars who tended to agree more than the systematic ones! All the discussions were thorough. Much effort went into the final reports. They were worked over a number of times. We went paragraph by paragraph. I do not think I was a strong presence, but all the other scholars were of the highest quality. Though we got along well, deep friendships did not, it seems to me, to come out of it as happened with the Presbyterian-Catholic dialogue. The presence of the Missouri Synod theologians tended to get the dialogue down to the lowest common denominator, though personally we got along well. The lost of Arthur Carl Piepkorn through death was inestimable, as was the retirement of George Lindbeck, who was not enough of a 16th-century theologian for the taste of some of the other Lutheran theologians—or one could say he had moved beyond the 16th century and therefore his views got nowhere.

What is your vision for the Collegeville Institute’s work and how can it benefit ecumenically concerned “everyday” Christians?

Our pastoral summer workshops and our public lectures are the chief ways we can influence church life. Most of the participants in the Ecclesial Literature workshops are lay women, though many are ordained. The Institute has moved away from Faith and Order questions to Faith and Culture questions, though we still do the more traditional ecumenical work. Nowadays the official churches are not interested in ecumenism generally, but if you approach the subject not with the goal of reuniting the churches but with a “gain greater mutual knowledge of the other’s tradition and culture” approach, you will get better results.

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