Last week, Westmont College President Gayle Beebe was preparing to leave on the trip of a lifetime.
On Friday, he left Santa Barbara to journey east as part of a select group chosen to visit the Vatican and meet with Pope Francis to discuss finding common ground between Protestants and Catholics.
“Here is the request: Can we find common ground to advance the life and ministry of Jesus?” Beebe said.
Beebe paused his preparations last week to talk with Noozhawk about the trip and what he hopes to accomplish.
Attorneys, doctors and pastors were all among the invited — Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren was asked but had a previous engagement — and Beebe was selected to represent Protestant higher education in North America.
“There has always been this potential for misunderstanding between Catholics and Protestants,” Beebe said, naming the Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, the rise of enlightenment, as well as of secularism, as just a few of the historical markers of conflict between the groups.
Beebe said the post-reformation church will have to figure out how to move beyond the fighting that reached an apex 500 years ago “and get back to talking about the life and ministry of Jesus,” which he called a “galvanizing interest” for both groups.
The Vatican Foundation has been charged with putting together a variety of non-Catholic Christian groups who can come from different places around the world.
The group that was key to Beebe’s selection was through the National Prayer Movement and the Fellowship Foundation, lead by Doug Coe, which sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast each year.
“They reached out to a person who knows me and asked if they thought I would be interested,” Beebe said.
Coe is connected to many politicians around the world and across the country, and several U.S. congressmen will be on the trip with Beebe as well.
Beebe said he’d love to hear the cardinals talk about where Catholicism has impacted culture for the best and for the worst, and how expressions from around the world have changed the religion.
“People know I’m interested in these kinds of considerations,” he said, adding that he’s always been interested in comparative religion and dialogue between Protestants and Catholics, as well as with those of other faiths. Beebe has a doctorate in philosophy of religion and is an expert on Christian history.
“I’m a middle-of-the-road guy,” he said, adding that he feels the pope, who is a Jesuit, has taken that approach as well. Pope Francis has received criticism from both the liberal and conservative sides of the church and draws on the Ignatian idea of a middle way.
Beebe’s trip is being funded by the college, an outside organization that asked to remain anonymous and the Vatican Foundation.
His group won’t see the pope until Thursday morning, and by then, Beebe said he expects to have a strong sense of what the priorities are.
Pope Francis will address a packed audience at the Olympic Stadium in Rome for his Convocation of the “Renewal of the Spirit,” with an audience of more than 72,000 people from around the world, on Sunday and Monday. Beebe and the other visiting group members will be seated on the field at the stadium.
For this trip to meet with the pope, Beebe said he hopes to return with some fresh ideas for the local community. He also plans to blog each night about the experience, which will be posted on Westmont’s website.
“As idyllic as Santa Barbara is, how many real and vexing problems do we have, that if we took a more determined approach, could we actually make great headway on?” he asked. “It’ll be interesting to have this experience and then to see what energy we can come home with.”
As Beebe was preparing for his own trip abroad, the college is thinking of expanding its thriving study abroad programs. It already has Westmont Mexico, a Westmont Istanbul program that partners with Yeditepe University, and several programs offered in Europe.
The college is also on the brink of expanding to Asia and is looking to start next year.
Students are likely to travel to China, Indonesia, India, Korea and Singapore, Beebe said.
Some of the Westmont faculty members are well-versed in that part of the world, both in international finance as well as philosophy and religious studies, he said.
“We’ve taken several groups there, but never had our own program,” he said, adding that the college is hoping to begin that program in the fall of 2015.