by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
Leavenworth — Symbolic of the spirit behind contemporary ecumenical dialogue, the cover of the new book co-authored by Sister Susan K. Wood, SCL, theologian, features a photo of Pope Francis shaking hands with a Lutheran woman bishop.
“The handshake is perfect,” said Sister Susan. “It represents the unity toward which we are striving. The pope’s eyes are kind and engaging.”
Sister Susan, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth and professor of theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, has been active in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue since the early 1990s. The internationally recognized theologian describes Pope Francis as a promoter of unity and a very relational leader. She points to his apostolic exhortation “Gaudium Evangelii” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), in which the pope emphasizes the necessity of this dialogue. In addition, Pope Francis has reached out to form relationships with leaders of other denominations and world religions.
The pope will be in Lund, Sweden, on Oct. 31 to help launch the 500th anniversary observance of the Lutheran Reformation. Welcoming him at the Lund Cathedral will be Archbishop Antje Jackelén of the Church of Sweden (pictured with Pope Francis on the cover of Sister Susan’s new book). As a member of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity, Sister Susan plans to attend the inaugural event. The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity are hosting this gathering.
Leading up to commemoration of the anniversary, there was a three-day Catholic-Lutheran international seminar in Rome this past May at which Sister Susan gave the concluding lecture. In an interview with Vatican Radio following the seminar, Sister Susan stressed the importance of theological work for ecumenism, combined with grassroots efforts to promote dialogue through friendships and shared mission. She said that divisions need to be healed at their roots, which were doctrinal at the time of the Reformation in 1517.
Also, in advance of the anniversary, Paulist Press recently published “A Shared Spiritual Journey: Lutherans and Catholics Traveling toward Unity.” Sister Susan co-authored the book with the Rev. Timothy J. Wengert, Lutheran historian of the Reformation.
Local roots, global experience
Sister Susan’s path to becoming a theologian began in northeast Kansas. She attended Catholic elementary schools in Johnson County and graduated from Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park. After her freshman year at the University of Saint Mary, Leavenworth, she joined the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. She double majored in English and French, taught at Hayden High School in Topeka and was a French instructor at USM.
During a retreat in 1973, Sister Susan began thinking that she wanted to study theology. Her retreat master called this a distraction.
But her mind and heart told Sister Susan otherwise. She sought opportunities to teach religion at Hayden and took theology classes at USM. In 1981, Sister Susan received permission from the Sisters of Charity community to pursue doctoral studies at Marquette. She earned her doctorate in record time and returned to Leavenworth where she taught college-level theology for six years.
Still, the call to be a theologian — a scholar engaged in theological conversations, a “producer” and not only a “consumer” of theology — persisted for Sister Susan. Again, with the green light from Sisters of Charity leadership, she began her job quest. Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, became Sister Susan’s home for the next 13 years. It was her first exposure to Benedictine spirituality and hospitality. She recalls it as a wonderful, nurturing place.
During her tenure at Saint John’s, Sister Susan was an active committee member in the process that produced the only handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years. It was also during this time that she received an invitation that proved foundational to her extensive ecumenical work. Sister Susan joined a group of young theologians from various faith traditions who met twice a year, studied and developed papers.
“I didn’t know about Protestant beliefs, and I started out unfamiliar with what we were discussing,” she says. “But if a door opens, I walk through it, and this was my introduction to theological conversation in a different faith world.”
Next came her 1994 appointment by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the committee to review the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” This document was a giant step forward for Lutheran-Catholic relations. Since that time, Sister Susan has been at the table for ongoing discussions and what is called “Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.” She’s also received appointments to the dialogue between the U.S. Catholics and the Baptist World Alliance, and the U.S. Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation.
Recruited by Marquette, Sister Susan returned to teach at the Milwaukee campus in 2005. She served as chair of the theology department for six years and remains a professor at the university. She has written four books, two edited volumes, numerous articles and book chapters. Her theological writing generally focuses on issues of ministry, sacramental theology, ecclesiology and ecumenism. From 2014-15, Sister Susan was president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
Ecumenical wish list
She believes ecumenical dialogue should be rooted in the expression of Christ’s will that “we all be one.” Sister Susan sees the practical value of this dialogue in the reality that the majority of marriages occur between people of different faiths who face issues regarding the religious upbringing of their children and reception of Communion by both spouses at Mass.
On another level, the theologian says that Christians are called to witness to their faith in the secular and religious worlds. Bitter interactions between Christians on matters of faith and religion obstruct this potential witness. On Sister Susan’s ecumenical wish list is the hope that Pope Francis would make a grand gesture to remove some of the obstacles that prevent church unity.
Marking her golden anniversary this year as a Sister of Charity, Sister Susan is committed to her vocation as a theologian.
“I remain convinced of my vocation to be a theologian, discerned at that retreat in 1973 and tested ever since,” she said. “I find theology to be enormously creative — taking doctrines of faith seriously and making them come alive in a lived experience, finding connecting points that transcend differences.”