Priest will be missed by the interfaith community

Long before I was ever involved in ecumenical or interreligious work, heck, even before I was in high school, Msgr. Joseph Devlin was involved with the local Jewish and Protestant communities here in the Diocese of Camden.

While researching for this column, I came across a flyer from the long closed synagogue in Camden, Congregation Beth Israel, which announced a tribute that was planned for Rabbi Max Weine, on April 30, 1972. The flyer mentioned that Msgr. Joseph Devlin would be giving a tribute to the rabbi for his activities in interfaith dialogue.

In fact, my memories of him go back to my childhood at the new parish in Woodbury Heights, St. Margaret’s, where then-Father Devlin was living in residence. He was always known for his homilies — you either loved them or hated them, depending on your politics.

Almost 25 years ago, when I first was assigned to the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, I met a good friend of Msgr. Devlin, Alan Respler, the executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). Alan would often speak of Msgr. Devlin and his past involvement in interreligious outreach in the area. He had told me that Msgr. Devlin was teaching theology at LaSalle University and was periodically involved in interfaith dialogue and outreach.

Msgr. Devlin was sent to study in Rome during the heady days of the Second Vatican Council. He was also involved in some of the actual workings of the Council. Of particular interest to him was the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, promulgated on Oct. 28, 1965.

This watershed document made historic changes to the church’s view and interaction with other world religions. It revolutionized the Catholic Church’s relationship with Jews and Judaism after centuries of divisions. It called for Catholics and Jews to engage in friendly dialogue and Biblical and theological discussions to better understand one another’s faith.

Shortly after the diocesan celebration of the 25th anniversary of Nostra Aetate held at the old Jewish Community Center on Route 70, we began thinking about how to reach out to Jews and Catholics to further the work of learning about each other. It was at this time that we established the annual Catholic-Jewish Seminar. It was so popular that we expanded it into the Catholic-Jewish Institute of Understanding. The Institute was composed of four classes each fall and spring on topics related to Jews and Catholics.

Early on we established a committee to plan the topics and speakers for the next semester of our Institute. Msgr. Devlin was brought onto the planning committee. Not only was he a planner, he was often one of the presenters.

He was a scholarly man and put his heart and soul into preparing for a talk. He would come with his stack of books and handouts. I remember one of my parishioners who came to one of the seminars asked when Msgr. Devlin would be arriving. I told her that was him next to the rabbi — he was wearing a suit and tie, as priests who teach in universities sometimes do!

His views were always quite progressive but rooted in the teachings of the church and based on scholarly research. Msgr. Devlin attended many of our programs, such as Seder meals and social justice outreaches. He often participated in the annual Holocaust remembrance and Kristallnacht observances.

Msgr. Devlin was recognized for his love and devotion to the ecumenical and interreligious enterprise. He was recognized for this with the JCRC Leadership Award, the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education Award and the Sister Rose Thering Endowment. He also was involved in an interfaith journey to Turkey sponsored by a local Turkish organization.

Msgr. Devlin will be missed by all in our interfaith community. Drawing from the tribute to Rabbi Weine that Msgr. Devlin gave back in 1972, I’d like to repeat what was said of the rabbi and apply it to Msgr. Devlin: “It has been said that every man should step to the music of his own drummer. Such a man is Msgr. Joe Devlin. He had an abiding love of learning and compassion for all men.”

Rest in peace!

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.