[Editor’s note: Ties between Evangelicals and Catholics in America come in all shapes and sizes, with one of the most striking flowering in Orange County, California, and a friendship and partnership between Bishop Kevin Vann and famed Evangelical pastor Rick Warren. Recently, Pia de Solenni, a lay Catholic theologian and chancellor of the Orange County diocese, spoke to both men about that friendship. The interview appears here with permission of the diocese.]
De Solenni: How did the two of you meet and become such good friends?
Vann: Five years ago, on the day of my installation as Bishop of Orange, I met Pastor Rick when he attended my installation. Previously we had talked on the phone, when Rick called to welcome me to Orange County.
My previous ministry had been in Fort Worth, Texas, where Rick had attended seminary, so we had a common history with God moving each of us from Texas to Southern California. Soon after my installation, we were together again as guests on ‘The Orange Hour’ program hosted by Maria Hall. We talked before, during, and after the program, and then committed to pray for each other.
Warren: I was deeply moved by what Bishop Kevin spoke at his installation. I admired his integrity, humility, and generosity that he modeled in his first message, and I loved the fact that he is multi-lingual which is so valuable here in Southern California.
Since I moved to Orange County in 1980, I’ve known each of the previous Bishops of Orange, but Bishop Kevin and I became dear friends very quickly. Then when I heard that the Bishop had read a portion from one of Kay’s books (my wife) as an illustration in one of his homilies – well, that sealed our friendship! I knew he was a wise man! (laughter)
Vann: Yes, I remember the quote well! I believe, on the Church’s liturgical calendar, it was either the Third or Fourth Sunday of Advent, when the figure of Mary comes to the fore. Also, we had just finished the celebrations of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
I found this reflection from Kay’s book on YouTube, I believe as I was working on my homily: ‘Mary didn’t wait until all was crystal clear to surrender herself to God. She didn’t insist that God’s will come with no suffering attached; she simply said, I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants.’ I thought then, ‘Perfect…just what I was looking for!’
So, I included Kay’s quote by name in my homily for that Sunday!!
De Solenni: How did your friendship grow?
Vann: In the months and years that followed, I discovered the blessing of sharing the concerns of ministry with Rick, talking about our homilies and what we were both studying, and praying together. Our relationship has also been blessed to include Kay, his wife.
Also, Rick’s staff at Saddleback and our staff at the Diocese began to get to know each other through various meetings, sharing not only our common love for the Lord, but also our love for the Church, fellowship, and praying together.
Warren: That’s right. First, we committed to pray for each other, then we began to pray with each other. Prayer builds bridges from heart to heart.
Early on, I invited Kevin to come browse my 35,000-volume ministry library that I’ve collected over 45 years. Being surrounded by the books that the great Christian thinkers and saints have written in the past 2,000 years is humbling, and as we sat and prayed together in that library, we remembered that we are just two simple servants of God in a long line of Christian history, and that there will be many more in the future. As Acts 13:36 says of David, we ‘serve God’s purpose in our generation.’
One way we stay in touch is by texting personal prayer requests to each other. When my youngest son died in April 2013, I knew Kevin was praying for me, and when his father died in November 2014, I was praying for him. Sharing pain and grief brought us closer.
Vann: Yes, as Rick and I have shared our lives and faith and our ministries together, I was blessed to be able to encourage him and pray with him after the tragic suicidal death of his son Matthew, who struggled with mental illness from birth. Then Rick’s prayers comforted me when I ‘walked through the valley of the shadow of death’ with my father’s death.
De Solenni: But you haven’t just prayed for each other. You co-launched a major conference about mental health as a result. Tell us about that.
Warren: I will always be grateful for Bishop Vann’s compassion and sensitivity to our family’s loss. In our grief process, Kay and I, and our entire family, were determined to not waste our pain. Instead, we wanted to use it to help others. One day, Kevin called me up and said ‘Rick, what can we do together for mental health?’ That started a series of brainstorming meetings between our two staffs on what we might do.
Vann: Our discussions led us to ask how could the Diocese of Orange and Saddleback church work and minister together to address the challenges that families and ministry staff have in dealing with mental illness. Out of these discussions about working together, the Diocese of Orange and Saddleback church decided to partner in sponsoring two gatherings, or symposia, on what should be the Church’s response to mental illness.
We wanted this to be both a reflection of the Lord’s great love for those who struggle with mental illness, and we also wanted it to stress the importance of the Church’s role in mental health. We want congregations to be equipped to respond competently and confidently with the face of the Lord to those suffering. To me, our mutual effort in this area reflects Romans 8:28, that ‘all things work to the good for those who love God.’
Warren: Exactly! Not everything is good in life, but God can bring good out of everything, even tragedy. God specializes in transforming what’s bad and bitter into something good and sweet. God loves to turn crucifixions into resurrections.
So, out of Matthew’s death came a partnership in creating a conference to help others, and also a number of other mental health initiatives. It also brought Catholics and Evangelicals together as I, and our church, received many letters of comfort from Catholic priests and parishioners. Also, the Norbertine brothers who live up the street from Saddleback at St Michael’s came and sang vespers to close our conference. Their leading of worship was very moving to everyone.
Vann: We’ve also worked together on pro-life projects, caring for immigrants, and standing against the legislation in California that was promoting physician assisted suicide.
Waren: So really, our friendship began with heart-to-heart praying together, but then it grew into working hand-in-hand together on projects where Christians can offer a compassionate response to those in need, and also stand together with clear and united voice in opposing evil.
Recently, after the Charlottesville violence perpetrated by racists, I convened a one-day retreat of influential African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian priests and pastors from across America to consider the best ways churches can champion love and dignity in the face of racism and hatred. Catholic priests from Orange County strategized with Evangelical pastors from across the U.S.
De Solenni: What has been the greatest blessing of your friendship and partnership?
Vann: First, creating the bonds of faith, friendship and ministry between Rick and Kay and myself have been a great blessing to me personally. Then, the fellowship and partnership between the staffs of Saddleback and the Diocese of Orange has reflected the power of cooperation and harmony. And third, it is a witness to the world.
At the beginning of Holy Week this year, Catholics and Evangelicals in Orange County came together to pray for God’s blessings on all our Holy Week services. So, we who live here together also pray together. We’ve seen first-hand that much good can be accomplished for the Kingdom of God by Catholics and Evangelicals being present to one another, praying for each other, and ministering to our communities together.
Warren: Again, I completely agree with my friend. The Bible mentions the same three benefits that Kevin just did: Psalm 133:1 says ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!’ Then Ecclesiastes 4:9 says ‘Two are better than one, because they get more done together.’ And finally, our Lord Jesus Christ told us in John 13:35 that our love for each other is the proof of our faith: ‘This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
If unbelievers like what they see, they will listen to what we say. Consider this: about 25 percent of Americans are Catholic Christians, and another 25 percent are Evangelical Christians. That’s about half of America! If just these two groups were committed to modeling the love of Christ together, imagine all the good that could happen!
Our prayer is that Orange County might be a model for others around the world.