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A ministry of changing hearts

As a talented artist and owner of an advertising design firm living in Dallas in the early 1990s, Don Rooney wondered if his life was making a difference.

"My older brother was a priest, and it struck me that what he was doing was an amazing thing," said Father Rooney, now pastor of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Fredericksburg. In 1994, realizing the Holy Spirit was calling him to something more, the younger Rooney also turned to the priesthood and he hasn't looked back.

Today no one can deny that Father Rooney's life is making a valuable difference - whether it's ministering to a growing parish of about 15,000, helping to find homes for African refugees seeking asylum, using his artistic talents to design church-related materials or serving on ecumenical and interreligious committees such as LARCUM (Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic and United Methodist). And although he enjoys all of it, it's the ecumenical work that triggers the most enthusiasm in Father Rooney's voice.

"I'm not a scholar or expert; I don't have any particular qualifications for this," Father Rooney said of his involvement with ecumenism. "But I do think this is one of the fundamental desires of Christ for all His people that we end this crazy division and love one another. It's too easy to focus on what divides us."

Father Rooney inadvertently started this journey in 2003 when Msgr. Roy Cosby, now retired vicar general who served on the LARCUM committee, invited him to host a state LARCUM conference. From there, monsignor - whom Father Rooney calls "such a loving and gentle soul" - asked him to regularly attend LARCUM meetings. When Msgr. Cosby retired, he passed his position on to Father Rooney.

Citing the support of both Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo who regularly attend LARCUM conferences, Father Rooney is hopeful about the work of ecumenism. Yet he realizes that not all Catholics understand or accept ecumenism, "despite the witness of pope after pope, and despite the witness of Christ Himself when he prayed for unity."

Ecumenism is not about pretending issues don't exist nor is it about finding "some lowest common denominator or a watered-down version of our religion so we'll all believe the same thing," Father Rooney said.

"First of all our job is to dispel all the misconceptions people have about each other," he said. "And then it's about speaking the truth in love to one another, so we get to know one another, because you can't love somebody unless you know them."

He realizes their differences seem insoluble, but, "I know how the Holy Spirit can change hearts and reveal truth. That's why I'm a priest," he said.

"There are just some things that we human beings are not going to be able to accomplish on our own, and because we know this truly is the will of Christ, we literally need to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to make it happen," he said.

Beyond Christian dialogue, Father Rooney is involved in an even more difficult ministry - Catholic-Muslim dialogue, which Bishop Loverde officially established more than a year ago. The interreligious dialogue proved fruitful in September 2006 when anger arose among Muslims worldwide over Pope Benedict XVI's public comments about Islam. Rather than jump to conclusions, local Muslims questioned their Catholic counterparts for explanations and were able to listen and understand.

"I saw that as the first fruit of this dialogue that we have actually begun to disregard the stereotypes," said Father Rooney. "If you're going to be a follower of Christ, you have to look for the seed of the word of God in all these cultures. If they're created by God, there has to be a thumbprint of God on all people."

In addition to these challenges, Father Rooney has pastoral responsibilities that include offering 10 Masses every weekend at the parish and on the campus of Mary Washington University. But he has two assistants and a faith-filled parish that make his job easier.

"A pastor is only as good as his parish," he said. "The people here are so responsive; they're very giving people."

Occasionally Father Rooney uses his artistic talent to designs church bulletins and diocesan publications. Recently, Father Kevin Walsh asked him to design canvases of the seven sacraments for St. Philip Parish in Falls Church. Such artistic opportunities are enough for now. He has more important work to do. And witnessing the dedication of others reassures him of his decision.

"From where I sit, I've seen so much integrity and true dedication as I watch our priests, our bishop, our principals, everybody who has really dedicated their lives for something important here, and I think sometimes we forget that," he said. "Because of who we are, we need to start living out of a trust of one another and not a distrust, because I see our world today as causing everyone to be so suspicious."

Hovey is a freelance writer from Greene County. The diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Commission, chaired by Fr. Rooney, is funded through the annual Bishop's Lenten Appeal.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2008