In 50 years since 'Nostra Aetate,' Church has built strong interreligious ties

WASHINGTON -- The scene in Foundation Hall of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum during Pope Francis' visit spoke volumes about the Catholic Church and interreligious relations. On the platform with Pope Francis Sept. 25 were representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim religions as well as Christian religions. All equal. All offering prayers for peace and words of inspiration from their sacred texts.

The event symbolized the strengthening relations and solidarity that the Catholic Church has with non-Christian religions as envisioned by "Nostra Aetate" ("In Our Time"), the Vatican II declaration that addressed the relations of the Catholic Church with other religions, said Father John W. Crossin, executive director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"This event is symbolic and is iconic," Father Crossin, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis De Sales, summarized in an interview with Catholic News Service. "It's a healing message."

In the 50 years since "Nostra Aetate" was released on Oct. 28, 1965, each pope since has promoted interreligious understanding in numerous outreach efforts. What was originally proposed by St. John XXIII as a statement related to Jews eventually evolved to encompass non-Christian religions and ended up being a stand-alone message emerging from the Second Vatican Council.

"Nostra Aetate," is one of the 16 documents that emerged from the council. At three pages it is the shortest, but it is one of the council's most influential on Church life.

The declaration begins by acknowledging humanity "is being drawn closer together and the ties between different people are becoming stronger." In subsequent paragraphs, it specifically addresses Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. The key observation about other faiths comes in paragraph 2, according to retired Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, an expert on Islam and president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 2002-06.

Specifically the passage reads: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings, which through different in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men."

For Archbishop Fitzgerald, that recognition is what has led the Catholic Church to initiate dialogues to create greater interreligious understanding and respect.

"It's very strong words," he said. "It means that there's truth there. That doesn't mean that we've got all the truth. No, no, not at all. Revelation is complete in Jesus Christ, but the way we live that and other religions can help us to understand the revelation and to understand the truth and the Spirit is working in these."

Such an understanding is crucial in a rapidly diversifying United States, where the USCCB has been conducted a series of dialogues with several faiths over the years. While relations that promote understanding with the Jews have received much of the attention, U.S. Church officials have had regional dialogues with Muslims and smaller scale meetings with Hindus, Buddhists and even Native American leaders.

In the U.S., such efforts have led to various dialogues and programs in which Catholics and Hindus are exploring each other's faith. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, participated in a program at a Hindu temple in Northern Virginia in May while he was in Washington for a program marking the "Nostra Aetate" anniversary at The Catholic University of America.

Catholic universities also are playing a significant role in promoting interreligious dialogue.

Philip Cunningham, co-director of the Institute of Jewish-Catholic Relations of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, said that lectures and classes help students and the wider community appreciate their own faith more because they are learning about other religions.

He suggested that such efforts can build on each community's unique culture, tradition and qualities. "We don't want people to think they're going to be absorbed into an amorphous kind of mass (because of dialogue)," Father Frizzell said. "It's more the idea of a mosaic. Each group is preserving its values and contributing from the roots they have to the good of the whole."

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