A House of Conversations
Heather Grennan Gary

Growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and ’60s, Margaret and Monica O’Gara learned the importance of faith from their parents. James and Joan O’Gara modeled a strong commitment to the church—a commitment that included regular devotional practices, concern for the poor, openness to learning, and a balance between (as the sisters recalled decades later) “a healthy lay criticism of the official church” and “respect for our teachers and pastors.” That commitment fueled the conversations and activities of the O’Gara family, just as their conversations and activities deepened that commitment.

This commitment to the church also inevitably played out within a larger community. “We remember wearing our best dresses and patent-leather shoes, serving appetizers to the crowd of visiting grownups in the living room,” the sisters wrote in a 2004 article in Commonweal, the Catholic magazine where their father served as editor for seventeen years (and managing editor for fifteen years before that).The visitors included writers and social justice activists and publishers and priests, all eager to discuss crucial topics in the years immediately before and after—and during—the Second Vatican Council.

“Our house was a house of conversations,” the sisters wrote. “Always the talk was good, and always the same kind of questions: What should the church do? What should the United States do?”

With that kind of upbringing, with those kinds of conversations happening in the living room, perhaps it’s no surprise that Margaret O’Gara pursued graduate studies in theology. She ultimately landed a job at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, where she built a reputation as a scholar of ecumenical theology and a champion for dialogue between the churches. She participated in official ecumencal dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and Lutherans, Anglicans, Disciples of Christ, and Evangelicals, as well as in Bridgefolk, an organization for dialogue between Catholics and Mennonites.

What I like so much about Margaret O’Gara’s story is how her growing-up years connect to her vocation as a theologian. Britannica.com tells us the word ecumenism comes from classical Greek: oikos, meaning a “house,” “family,” “people,” or “nation”; oikoumenē, “the whole inhabited world”; and oikoumenikos, “open to or participating in the whole world.” O’Gara’s story shows how conversations at home can lead to conversations with people far beyond one’s front door—conversations with the potential for healing and overcoming division.

 Margaret O’Gara died in 2012, far too soon. Her legacy lives on in her scholarship and in places such as the Margaret O’Gara Ecumenical Dialogue Collection, an online resource and repository for the work of Canadian bilateral ecumenical dialogues. Recently, a particular aspect of her work also found its way into presentations and conversations at the annual National Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. On October 12-14, 2018, faculty and administrators from church-related colleges and universities gathered at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, to consider the theme “Robust and Receptive Ecumenism” and what it means for their institutions. In her talk, “The Accidental Ecumenist,” which has been adapted as an essay in this issue, Lisa DeBoer referenced O’Gara’s work on ecumenism as gift exchange. Conference speaker Steven R. Harmon also picks up that gift exchange thread in his essay, “Receptive Ecumenism and the Reconstruction of Christian Identity in Christian Education.”

The themes of conversation and gifts surface throughout this issue, even when they aren’t connected to ecumenism. Be sure to check out John Ruff’s essay, “Betty LaDuke’s Great Gifts,” and Hilary Yancey’s column, “My Son Speaks in Hymns.” Like O’Gara, Yancey reminds us that when we engage with people who encounter the risen Christ differently than we do, there are astonishing gifts to be had. Opportunities may be closer than you think.             —HGG

Works Cited

Margaret O’Gara and Monica O’Gara, “Growing Up Commonweal,” Commonweal 131, (Nov. 5, 2004): 17-18.

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