A Prototype for Interfaith Dialogue

The Eleanor Malburg Eastern Churches Seminar Celebrates its 25th Anniversary

In 1984, two women at Notre Dame College shared a vision to provide a forum for open dialogue between Catholics and the Orthodox. A year later, they launched a workshop to foster understanding among Eastern and Western churches. The Eastern Church Seminar was the first of its kind in the United States. Over the past 25 years, it has become a prototype for similar efforts.

Eleanor MalburgRenamed the Eleanor Malburg Eastern Churches Seminar in 2004, the workshop is an annual dialogue between the clergy, bishops and laity of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the Greater Cleveland area. It began with the shared vision of Fran Babic, former director of the Lifelong Learning Center at NDC, and the late Eleanor Malburg, administrative assistant in the College's Pastoral Ministry Office.

“Eleanor never realized how big this was,” says Sr. Mary Ann Baran, director of the Center for Pastoral Ministry. “She just had a good idea for a workshop. But she had no idea what she was starting.”

In 1984, Malburg discovered she shared an interest in the traditions and celebrations of the various Eastern church communities with Babic, who had studied Soviet and Eastern European history and culture. With the support of Fr. Paul Sciarrotta, the director of the Center for Pastoral Ministry at the time, they launched the inaugural seminar titled “Various Traditions & Theology of the Icon” on Sept. 13 and 14, 1985. It was the first such seminar that created dialogue between bishops of the Eastern, Byzantine and Roman Catholic churches.

“This kind of seminar was the first one, most likely, in the world. Catholics and Orthodox just didn’t pray and work together,” Sr. Mary Ann says. “I remember the priests who attended in the first few years never in their lives had experienced something like this.” 

The historic division between the Catholic and Orthodox churches dates back to 476 A.D., when the Western Roman Empire collapsed and the Eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire headquartered in Constantinople. The estrangement between Catholic and Orthodox believers of some thousand years created differences in doctrine and practice that have yet to find resolution.

Fran Babic“These historical and theological differences are real,” Sr. Mary Ann says. “But we have to get past it because the world needs our witness.”

Since its inception, the Eastern Churches Seminar has helped bridge these differences. The first seminar was so popular that the participating clergy requested a planning committee be formed to make it an annual event. Over the past 25 years it has achieved both local and national recognition and inspired similar efforts.

In 1989 the Cleveland Catholic Diocese awarded the Center of Pastoral Ministry with a plaque recognizing its work in fostering Christian unity; and in 1997 the internationally known Orientale Lumen Conferences were initiated in Washington, D.C., citing Notre Dame College’s seminar as its model.

“Every year I find the level of theological discussion just fascinating,” says Fr. Joseph Hilinski, who is the interfaith officer for the Diocese of Cleveland and a member of the seminar’s planning committee. “It is a tremendous opportunity to be with clergy of other Christian churches and have a discussion and share insights about our differences.”

Fr. Hilinski credits Sr. Mary Ann for bringing the group together every year and creating a fun, productive and stimulating atmosphere. Sr. Mary Ann says she has enjoyed every minute of it, despite all the work. “As long as I am at the College and I have the committee to work with, I will continue the Eastern Churches Seminar.”

Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.

E.g., 06/23/19
E.g., 06/23/19