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The Ecumenical Adventure

Interview With Expert on Interreligious Affairs

WASHINTON, D.C., FEB. 24, 2007 (Zenit) - Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue doesn't mean that Catholics have to compromise their beliefs, actually, quite the opposite is true, says Father James Massa.

Father Massa is the executive director of the U.S. episcopal conference's Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

In this interview with us, he discusses the particular challenges and benefits of ecumenical dialogue in the United States.

He highlights the current trials in dialogue with the Episcopal Church, which recently participated in the Anglican Communion's meeting of primates in Africa.

Q: On Jan. 30, Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, met with U.S. ecumenists in Virginia. He said one of the main challenges in ecumenism is getting to the local level and making the spirit of ecumenism form part of the daily life of pastors and faithful, something he referred to as "reception." Could you explain more of what that is?

Father Massa: The last 40 years, since the Second Vatican Council, have produced an abundance of ecumenical statements that are the fruit of the Catholic Church's bilateral and multilateral dialogues with our partners in the Orthodox Churches and in the ecclesial communities of the 16th century Reformation.

Many Catholics and other Christians have scarcely any awareness of the progress that has been made in these dialogues, which have sought to resolve doctrinal disputes and to find new ways of expressing in common our faith in Jesus Christ. Ecumenism must be about more than issuing statements; it must be lived at the local level where Catholics and other Christians gather for worship and witness to the Gospel.

Q: Benedict XVI said in his Angelus address Jan. 21: "I hope that the longing for unity ... will spread ever more at the level of parishes...." What do the U.S. bishops recommend to their priests so that this longing for unity can be nurtured?

Father Massa: Pope John Paul II has called spiritual ecumenism "the soul of the ecumenical movement." The Catholic faithful and their pastors have ample opportunities to engage the multivalent tasks of spiritual ecumenism.

I would name three key areas: prayer, study and witness to justice.

As for prayer, we should keep in mind what the John Paul II said in his magnificent 1995 encyclical, "Ut unum sint," no. 22: "If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them.

"If they meet more often and more regularly before Christ in prayer, they will be able to gain the courage to face all the painful human reality of their divisions, and they will find themselves together once more in that community of the Church which Christ constantly builds up in the Holy Spirit, in spite of all weaknesses and human limitations."

Then there is dialogue, which requires that all the participants be knowledgeable and fully committed to the tenets of their own religious tradition.

If the Catholic participant is conflicted about this or that particular teaching of the Catholic Church, then he or she is not an adequate representative of the tradition. Dialogue becomes a farce. I have been in attendance at such meetings, and they are not terribly edifying.

I keep in mind no. 36 of the John Paul II's encyclical: "With regard to the study of areas of disagreement, the council requires that the whole body of doctrine be clearly presented. At the same time, it asks that the manner and method of expounding the Catholic faith should not be a hindrance to dialogue with our brothers and sisters.

"Certainly it is possible to profess one's faith and to explain its teaching in a way that is correct, fair and understandable, and which at the same time takes into account both the way of thinking and the actual historical experiences of the other party."

Finally, there is the work of justice.

As followers of Christ, we must defend the dignity of every human being who has been "remade in the image of Christ" irrespective of that person's race, ethnicity, religious convictions, or way of life. Once again I draw on "Ut unum sint," no. 74: "Social and cultural life offers ample opportunities for ecumenical cooperation. With increasing frequency Christians are working together to defend human dignity, to promote peace, to apply the Gospel to social life, to bring the Christian spirit to the world of science and of the arts. They find themselves ever more united in striving to meet the sufferings and the needs of our time: hunger, natural disasters and social injustice."

Q: During the Week of Prayer for Christian ...

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