Conversationsin the Courtyard of the Gentiles: Learning from Interchurch and Interfaith Dialogue
by Rev. John W. Crossin, OSFS
Director, Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
does the Catholic Church's fifty years of dialogue with our fellow Christians
and the representatives of other religions teach us about our relationships
with those who are seeking for "the ultimate meaning and definitive truth of
their lives" (Pope Benedict XVI, Porta
Fidei, no. 10, www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/motu_proprio/documents/hf_ben-xvi_motu-proprio_20111011_porta-fidei_en.html)?
This short essay will explore how the lessons from these dialogues might apply
to conversations with seekers in the "Courtyard of the Gentiles."
ultimate purpose of our interchurch dialogue is Christian unity (Jn 17:21). The
Second Vatican Council provided guidance for us in this process with its Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio). Interfaith dialogue
seeks mutual understanding and pursues the common good of society. The
Council's Declaration on the Relation of
the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra
Aetate) provides guidance for our conversations with our Jewish, Muslim,
Hindu, Sikh, and other friends. We could say that the Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae [DH]) undergirds our dialogue with those who
are seeking ultimate meeting—some of whom once walked with us but do not do so right
now. (See all in Vatican Council II:
Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post
Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Northport, NY: Costello
in the Courtyard need to be face-to-face. Our conversations may begin on the Internet
and continue on Facebook, but at some point we must meet others personally. We
may meet each other one-to-one or in small groups. We have to spend time with
one another so we can begin to get to know one another. We can't just "text"—we
have to "hang out" with one another so we can begin to establish a
relationship. Dialogue is rooted in our relationship(s) with one another.
Importance of Listening
Listening is essential to building these relationships
in the Courtyard. In ecumenical dialogue, we try to listen to one another with
head and heart. Dialogue involves the whole person. We focus our complete attention
on what the other is saying. We try not to interject or interrupt or give our
views—we begin by just listening and trying to understand.
listening we show our deepest respect for
the other person(s)—for their human dignity (see DH, no. 2). Listening
requires attention on our part. Sometimes it takes another person a long while
to express his or her deepest thoughts and feelings. We need a good dose of patience to come to a deeper
understanding of a person. I must confess that this attitude goes against my own
disposition to get things done efficiently and quickly. In dialogue, I have realized
that relationships require a commitment of time. Most people do not share their
deepest concerns readily.
listening requires a humble attitude.
In our conversations, we have something to learn from the other. I must say
that the insights into life and faith that I have heard from those who come
from other faith traditions have been enriching. I always have a lot to learn.
I often think that God is teaching me through others.
I was younger, I thought that if I had all my arguments lined up, I could
convince my partners in conversation about the truth of Catholic teaching on
this or that point. I see now that I was defensive, was relying too much on my
academic training, and was a bit proud. I think the attitude I had is still
quite popular. What I have learned is that I need to love others first and let
the Holy Spirit lead the conversation. Amazing results come when I let God be
we listen patiently and humbly to one another, we gradually begin to share more
deeply. We begin to trust one another
enough to share a part of our journey of life. For me, it is a great gift to
hear a person's story. I am often amazed at what is shared individually or in
small groups. What is shared initially can be highly emotional and quite
engaging. The sharing of others prompts me to talk about elements on my own
trust is established, deeper issues can arise that need healing. In ecumenical
conversations, the "Dialogue of Charity" can last for some time. Historical
incidents and conflicts are very much alive for some of our dialogue partners.
For example, the Mennonites recall that Catholics and Lutherans persecuted them
and killed some of their members at the time of the Reformation. This
persecution became part of Mennonite history. It was only in the last decade
that both the Lutheran World Federation and the Holy See reconciled with our
Mennonite brothers and sisters in moving public ceremonies. Such reconciliation
frees us to move into a common future.
we like to kid ourselves that individuals no longer walk with us in faith
because of a lack of understanding. If we only had a better catechetical
program, people would still be walking with us. I have always favored stronger
programs. But the reality is that some folks have left for good reasons. I have
talked with some of them and heard their pain. Mistakes have been made. Sins
committed. I find this embarrassing but real. The Courtyard must be a place of honesty
healing may take a long time. Conversation in the Courtyard of the Gentiles is
not an item that can just be checked off the to-do list. Like ecumenical
dialogue, the conversation is a long-term commitment. We have to walk with one
another. The road may be tortuous.
experiencing the necessary healing, we can dig more deeply into dialogue. Listening
and healing can be preludes to substantive sharing. Just as we have listened to
others, we also can share our deepest faith. As Catholics, we have treasures to
share. These are enriching for us and can be enriching for our partners in
conversation in the Courtyard.
practicing Catholics think that to engage in dialogue with others they have to
water down their faith. Exactly the opposite is true. We have to go deeper in our faith. We have to be genuine and honest,
or dialogue fails.
with others who are asking questions will force us to go deeper in our
understanding of the faith—and our practice of it. Example speaks louder than
words. At times, we will realize that our own understanding of Catholicism itself
is not quite right or not substantial enough. We always have more to learn.
our ongoing conversations with our new friends, we learn that most people are
unaware that the Catholic Church is engaged in numerous serious and substantive
dialogues with our Christian and interreligious colleagues. We take the
commitments made at the Second Vatican Council quite seriously.
most people have friends from other religious traditions. It is important that
they know that these traditions are respected—and that one can be genuinely Catholic
and have great respect for others.
the Courtyard, we encounter individuals with varied worldviews. One serious
worldview is provided by modern science. In this popular view, materialistic science
can explain everything. Some best-selling books take this view.
can point out to our conversation partners that, unlike our fundamentalist
colleagues, we appreciate the discoveries of modern science and teach them in
our Catholic schools. We believe that nature is God's handiwork. Just as we
seek a deeper knowledge of the truth of divine revelation and the truth about
human nature, we seek a deeper knowledge of the truth about the natural world.
At our best we adopt a critical but not a skeptical attitude about the findings
of science. We note that the move from scientific discovery to scientism as a
worldview is a move from hard data to philosophy. We don't believe that a
purely materialistic philosophy is realistic about human experience and human
summary reflections presented above draw heavily on what many of us have
learned from the experience of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Since
this dialogue has a strong interpersonal foundation, I have forsaken impersonal
writing and used "I" and "we."
believe that the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales (d. 1622) is well suited
to dialogue. Therefore, I refer you to the Introduction
to the Devout Life, Part III, and to DeSales's letters of spiritual
direction for further reflections on humility, gentleness, charity, and other
virtues of dialogue.
years ago I made a Cursillo weekend. It was an experience that is still having
a profound effect on my life. The Cursillo is a renewal movement. Its weekend
presentations have content that comes alive in the personal witness of the
presenters. The Cursillo motto—"Make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ"—is
my favorite. Personal witness and a willingness to walk with others are keys to
the New Evangelization.
about life and truth in the Courtyard of the Gentiles will go on well beyond
the Year of Faith. I think that such conversations need to be a permanent part
of a Catholic Church that has committed itself to religious liberty.
© 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All
rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without
adaptation for non-commercial use.
from Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, copyright © 2011, Libreria Editrice
Vaticana (LEV). Used with permission. All rights reserved.