Parish Resource - Rev. John Crossin

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Conversationsin the Courtyard of the Gentiles: Learning from Interchurch and Interfaith Dialogue

by Rev. John W. Crossin, OSFS
Executive Director, Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

What 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, This short essay will explore how the lessons from these dialogues might apply to conversations with seekers in the "Courtyard of the Gentiles." The 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 Publishing, 1996].)

Conversations 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.

The 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.

In 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.

This 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.

When 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 in charge.

Deeper Conversations

If 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 spiritual journey.

Once 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.

Sometimes 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 and healing.

This 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.

After 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.

Sometimes 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.

Conversation 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.

In 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. Today, 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.

In 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.

We 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 life.

Concluding Reflections

My 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."

I 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.

Thirty 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.

Conversations 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.

Copyright © 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.

Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, copyright © 2011, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV). Used with permission. All rights reserved.