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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 Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke at a press conference regarding division in the Anglican church over ordaining women and homosexuals as bishops. This debate was sparked by moves made by the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion. Cardinal Kasper mentioned that the U.S. bishops maintain contact with the U.S. branch of the Anglicans. How is that going? How are these conflicts affecting ecumenical dialogue?

Father Massa: Well, as you can imagine, the problems facing the dialogue with the Episcopal Church in the United States are formidable. As Cardinal Kasper has indicated, we are perhaps further apart from the Anglican Communion than we were at the onset of the journey of reconciliation that began in 1966 with the famous visit of Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury to Pope Paul VI.

It is not only sad, but quite baffling, that the Anglicans have chosen to move in this direction of ordaining openly gay bishops even if this means the dissolution of their own communion. What happened this very week [Feb. 12-19] in Dar Salam in Africa, with the meeting of the Anglican primates, may produce that very result of tragic fragmentation.

Yet, the dialogue continues because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. I have heard the argument that the greater the divide, the more reason for dialogue. Perhaps there is some truth in this statement. I would very much like to see the dialogue between the U.S. Episcopal Church and the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops take up some of the foundational issues in moral theology that lead us to taking such divergent positions on matters of human sexuality and the sanctity of life.

Q: This year the idea of "spiritual ecumenism" was often mentioned in Rome during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Given the Protestant roots of the United States and the prevailing Protestant Christian culture, do you think that the United States has a special role to play in ecumenism, perhaps especially in this "spiritual ecumenism"?

Father Massa: Yes. Let me just mention that at the National Workshop on Christian Unity here in Arlington, Virginia, our office sold over a hundred copies of Cardinal Kasper's new text, "Handbook on Spiritual Ecumenism." I recommend that book highly to all of our priests, deacons, and religious educators here in the United States.

Q: Is apologetics a key element of ecumenism? Do Catholics have to be better formed in their own faith before engaging in ecumenical dialogue with Protestants? Or does ecumenism come "from the top down," for example, through agreements made among Church leaders like the document on justification signed some years ago by Lutherans and Catholics?

Father Massa: That's a very interesting question. Let me refer you to my answer to the second question. I would also say, however, that while being informed about and committed to one's own faith is essential for participation in ecumenical work, apologetics is not the same as ecumenical dialogue.

If the Catholic's contribution were to be cast in overly polemical terms, then the dialogue breaks down. John Paul II said that ecumenism is about "the sharing of gifts," and unless we are prepared to receive a "gift" from the other-whatever that might be -- we are not suited for this type of engagement.

Q: How does the growing popularity of New Age-related practices or spiritualities -- things like yoga, transcendental meditation, etc. -- affect the ecumenical movement? Do these trends unite Christians to defend common beliefs?

Father Massa: I think that Evangelical Christians and Catholics might have the strongest reaction to what might be called "syncretism" in this regard. I would be hesitant to lump all forms of Eastern meditation with the New Age movement.

Through interreligious dialogue with the ancient religions of Asia, we as Catholics have encountered spiritual practices that merit our respect and interest. As with everything, the standard by which we Catholics discern the value and truthfulness of these religious practices is Christ and his teaching Church. If we stand on the ground of Catholic orthodoxy, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue can be an adventure worth pursuing.

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