Longtime ecumenical collaborator retires

BRIGHTON -- During Rev. Diane Kessler’s 32-year tenure at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the organization and the Catholic community in Massachusetts have grown in relationship, said Father David Michael, assistant director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Rev. Kessler, the council’s executive director, is retiring from the organization this month. Rev. Jack Johnson, an ordained minister in the Greater New Jersey Area Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, will become the MCC’s ninth executive director.

The Massachusetts Council of Churches is an ecumenical partnership of 17 Orthodox and protestant denominations in the Commonwealth. There are approximately 1,700 member congregations in the 105-year-old organization. The MCC’s board includes members from each of the four Catholic dioceses in the state.

Father Michael, who is also pastor of St. John Chrysostom Parish in Boston, has worked in the Ecumenical Office for 10 years. As the head of interreligious dialogue, he began working more closely with Rev. Kessler after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.

“We realized that the major Christian bodies needed to work together on the interreligious agenda,” he said. “There was a kind of transformation in the relationship between the Archdiocese of Boston and Mass. Council of Churches in that we really began partnering on a regular basis.”

International challenges such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war and terrorism needed to be addressed because they affected local religious relations. The council and Catholic communities began working with a Jewish relations council and the Islamic Council of New England, he added.

Rev. Kessler told The Pilot that she is pleased that the council has worked with the Archdiocese of Boston on Jewish and Muslim dialogue.

“This is very important because it enables our interfaith dialogue partners to see the Christian community in our fullness, both in our unity and our diversity and occasionally even with our divisions,” she said.

Rev. Kessler called the relationship between the archdiocese and the council “broad and deep,” adding that it has continued to grow in recent years.

Father Edward O’Flaherty, the director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the archdiocese for the last 15 years, said that the growing relationship is due in part to Rev. Kessler’s willingness to listen.

“She was always very solicitous to hear the Catholic voice on different issues,” he said. “She made an effort to be understanding, sympathetic and very helpful.”

Recent important issues include physician-assisted suicide, the death penalty and gambling, he said.

According to Father O’Flaherty, Rev. Kessler has also made a point of accepting invitations to Catholic events, including appearing on Boston Catholic Television during the week of prayer for Christian unity for over 10 years.

Rev. Kessler said of the programming, “We’ve talked about studying the Bible together, about what we have in common when we pray, about similarities and differences in church architecture and what that teaches about our relationships with each other.”

The programming provides a welcome opportunity to explore the way Christians can relate to each other, she said.

Rev. Kessler said she intends to give herself a sabbatical during her retirement, but that ecumenical ministry is in her blood. She will continue to serve on the Joint Working Group, responsible for relationships between the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church. The service is “a privilege and an honor,” she said.

Many say the same of working with Rev. Kessler.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley said, “Rev. Dr. Kessler has been a good friend to the Archdiocese of Boston and strengthened our ecumenical foundations. She brought voices to the ecumenical conversation in a new way by welcoming the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches into the council.”

“On a personal note I will miss her leadership but pray that she continues to find peace and many blessings in her work and in her daily life,” he added.

Father Michael said of her retirement, “It is a loss to us. It’s a loss across the board, not just for the Mass. Council of Churches. It’s a loss for the archdiocese. It’s a loss for the other religious communities. The people who are working with Diane on a regular basis understand that.”

“She is a wonderful Christian,” added Father O’Flaherty. “She is a woman of great faith and has a great spirit of welcoming others and witnessing to the faith.”

The incoming executive director of the council, Rev. Johnson has been involved in ecumenical and interfaith ministries since he received his master’s in theology from Boston University in 1967. He has served as ecumenical officer for the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and president of the New Jersey Council of Churches. Most recently, he served as the acting president of the Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministries. He also co-founded the Interfaith Neighbors of Monmouth County, a coalition of 100 Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations that provides rental assistance and housing for homeless and low-income families. He has also worked on legislative action to curb gun violence and eliminate the death penalty.

Rev. Johnson said he is excited to continue the good work of the MCC. He plans to spend the first days at the council listening to different perspectives. He hopes to find consensus on issues such as poverty, the environment and war, he said.

“My hope also is to enable us to work together on issues of social justice that would unite all faith communities that are part of the council family,” he said.