Glen Argan: Maltese set an example for hospitality

  • January 16, 2020

Many posters promoting the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — “They Showed Us Unusual Kindness” — include photos of a small battered rowboat to illustrate the shipwreck which landed St. Paul on the island of Malta. The story in the Acts of the Apostles (28:1-10) is short on details about that unusual kindness.

However, a battered rowboat does not begin to capture the magnitude of the shipwreck which brought Paul, his associates and the ship’s crew to Malta. For 14 days, a tremendous storm battered the ship with 276 people on board, leaving them bereft of provisions and believing they were doomed to die. All except Paul, who received the vision of an angel promising that no one on the ship would lose their life. 

Caring for 276 famished people who had no passports or inoculations against infectious disease would involve a high degree of risk and a major outpouring of effort by the Maltese, who were neither Christians nor Greek. The original text of Acts refers to them as “barbarians.” Moreover, those from the fated ship stayed in Malta for three months before the winter storm season concluded, and they could set sail.

2020 01 16 PrayerPosterThe theme of this week of prayer (Jan. 18-25) is thus about hospitality, in particular, hospitality among Christian churches. It could also be extended to include hospitality to refugees and immigrants. While Paul and his shipmates did not become permanent residents of Malta, they did need an extended period of refuge.

As far as hospitality among churches goes, great strides have been made over the last 50 or more years. Catholics, in large part, no longer view Protestants as enemies, and the same could be said of how many Protestants view Catholics. Friendships among the various Christian denominations will not in itself bring visible Church unity, but such hospitality is a prerequisite for unity.

For the past three years, I have been a member of a unique Mennonite-Catholic dialogue group in Edmonton. The group’s history stretches back several years prior to my involvement and over that time strong friendships have been formed among members of the two churches. 

Each monthly meeting lasts about two-and-a-half hours, with the first hour devoted to hearing updates on the personal and ecclesial lives of the group’s roughly 20 members. Then we discuss the issue of the month with lots of lively, informed discussion. The last half hour is the sharing of a potluck meal.

Last year, we sponsored a hymn sing with Mennonite and Catholic choirs from across the city participating. The event, held in a Catholic church, was so successful that dialogue group members were enthusiastic about repeating the event, this time at Lendrum Mennonite Church on Jan. 31.

Eating and singing together may seem like mundane events in comparison with the theological issues dividing churches. But the hospitality involved helps build trust which is a cornerstone for further development.

Neither can our efforts be placed on the same level as the outpouring of hospitality of the Maltese to those stranded on their island by the first-century shipwreck. But they show a path which others might tread. 

Hospitality ought to be a major concern within our churches as well. Many parishes have taken a step forward by having people stationed at each door prior to weekend Masses to greet people and perhaps give them a copy of the parish bulletin. This is a good start at overcoming the anonymity of our churches and at helping all to feel part of the community.

Yet, we should go further. We need concerted outreach to newcomers, including those of different races and ethnic backgrounds, who come to our parishes. Our liturgical ministries and parish organizations ought to reflect the changing ethnicity of our worship community. Welcoming the stranger is a key motif of the Christian way of life. 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Ut Unum Sint (That All May Be One), St. John Paul II’s encyclical on Christian unity. In that encyclical the pope emphasized the importance of practical co-operation among churches. “This co-operation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself,” he wrote.

If we are to scale the barriers dividing churches, we need to extend grassroots hospitality. The example of the Maltese who extended “unusual hospitality” to 276 unannounced newcomers is a beacon for our churches.

(Argan is program co-ordinator at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta.)

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