Last month I had the privilege to attend the historic gathering at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington that brought together leaders and scholars from the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim communities. The conference was titled, “Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims.” It was planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, Vatican II’s declaration on the relationship of the church to non-Christian religions. This declaration, issued in 1965, provided the catalyst for the Catholic Church to reach out to other world religions in a spirit of friendship and dialogue. The conference was co-sponsored by CUA and the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Three cardinals offered keynote addresses over the three days of the gathering: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who in his role as senior cardinal-deacon of the College of Cardinals introduced Pope Francis from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica upon his election in 2013; Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York; and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and also of the Catholic Church’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Also in attendance was Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, and Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, bishop of Springfield and chairman of the bishop’s ecumenical and interreligious committee.
Other participants and speakers at the event included Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah of King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia, who addressed promoting peace and religious freedom in the Muslim world; Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; and Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis J Madden, former chairman of the USCCB ecumenical and interreligious committee, who gave the response. Rev. Thomas Stransky, C.S.P., an original staff member of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, shared his recollections of the drafting of Nostra Aetate in a conversation with Georgetown University’s Dr. John Borelli, formally of the USCCB Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Jesuit Father Francis X. Clooney, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, spoke on learning from Asian religions. Dr. Ann Garrido, associate professor of homiletics at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Mo., addressed pursuing truth in dialogue.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran spoke on Catholic-Muslim dialogue; Seyyed Hossein Nassr of The George Washington University provided the Muslim response. Cardinal Kurt Koch spoke on the international Catholic-Jewish dialogue; Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, former president of the Jewish Life network/Steinhardt Foundation, gave the response. Cardinal Dolan of New York presented on the national Catholic-Jewish dialogue since Nostra Aetate, and Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, gave the response. At the end of the conference at CUA another rather remarkable gathering took place when Cardinal Tauran traveled to the Durga Temple of Fairfax, Va., to participate in a Hindu-Catholic interfaith conference.
To say the least, this was one of the more interesting and informative interreligious gatherings that I have attended over my years as ecumenical director. It was also a pleasure to spend the time with my colleague, Rabbi Lewis Eron from Cherry Hill, who was also a participant. It brought together some of the most important leaders and thinkers in the field of interreligious dialogue in our world today. During his introductory remarks at the conference, CUA President John Garvey said that, although Nostra Aetate was the shortest of the 16 documents promulgated at the Second Vatican Council, it has been hugely influential in promoting interreligious understanding ever since.
It is true that this brief yet powerful declaration has opened doors of dialogue among believers in God, which had been closed for millennia. I would like to take the opportunity to cover the highlights of the conference in my next few columns. I believe that leaders in religion, in dialoguing with one another, model for the world the way to greater peace and harmony.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.