By Kathleen Naab
WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 4, 2008 (Zenit.org).- When Benedict XVI travels to the United States this month, ecumenical and interreligious relations are a priority on his agenda, according to an aide of the nation's conference of bishops.
Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S episcopal conference's Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said this is because "the Pope is convinced that there will be no peace in the world until there is peace among the religions. That is why he comes to the table of dialogue here in the U.S. and in Rome, with hope and abiding conviction."
Father Massa told ZENIT that this Holy Father "brings an amazing theological depth to ecumenical and interreligious relations."
The Pontiff's schedule during his five-day U.S. trip includes four stops dedicated to building these relationships. On April 17, the Pope will meet with 200 interfaith leaders at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
At the conclusion of that meeting, he will meet with religious representatives of the Jewish community to present to them his greetings for the feast of Passover, which begins for the Jewish people on April 19.
The next day, in New York, Benedict XVI will lead an ecumenical prayer service at St. Joseph's Church in the Yorkville area of Manhattan. On his way to that service, he will make a brief and informal visit to the Park East Synagogue -- a visit that is not part of his official program, but which again will give a chance to express his Passover best wishes.
Father Massa explained, "The meeting at St. Joseph's Church is for the sake of encouraging the work of promoting Christian unity. On the evening before, April 17 […], the Holy Father will meet with 150 interreligious representatives from […] the Jewish, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, and the Jain communities.
"Whereas on Friday evening the theme is 'Christ, Our Hope of Unity,' on Thursday evening it is 'Peace Our Hope.' With our dear friends from the other religions, the Holy Father will likely speak about how the great religions must offer a common witness to peace at a time when religiously motivated violence has claimed, as on 9/11, too many lives around the world."
Father Massa contended that ecumenism and interreligious dialogue is a priority for Benedict XVI, not just since being elected Pope, but ever since his days as an advisor at the Second Vatican Council.
"At the time of Vatican II, he was a theological advisor to the German bishops who were proposing new doctrinal formulations that took account of developments in Orthodox and Protestant theology," Father Massa said. "Later on, he was a contributor to the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. As cardinal prefect in Rome, he nearly single-handedly saved the historic Joint Declaration on Justification [in] 1999, between the Lutheran World Federation and the Holy See, through a last minute intervention in a meeting at his brother's house in Germany.
"Like the four Popes that preceded him, Benedict XVI views the work of promoting Christian unity to be an essential component of the Church's mission.
"The Holy Father also honors the unique relationship that the Church maintains with the Jewish people, who are the first to be in covenant with God.
"Interreligious dialogue, especially with Islam, is key to Benedict XVI's agenda for the work of promoting peace and human rights throughout the world."
Father Massa acknowledges that despite the Pontiff's dedication to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, he has faced a few difficult situations during his tenure as Pope.
Asked about reactions to the Holy Father's now famous Regensburg address, the Jewish response to the Good Friday prayer for the 1962 missal, and the recent controversy surrounding the Holy Saturday baptism of a convert from Islam, Father Massa affirmed that despite negative reactions, the ecumenical/interreligious process goes on.
"The press obviously has a crucial role to play in interpreting these developments for a global audience," the priest affirmed. "It was unfortunate that portions of the European press created the headline out of the opening paragraphs of the Regensburg address, which was in its totality a brilliant and respectful challenge to all people of religious conviction to demonstrate that reason has nothing to fear from faith and that faith must always welcome the purifying encounter with reason.
"Together, Muslims and Catholics face a common adversary in the form of an aggressive secularism that denies transcendent moral principles that undergird the rule of law and respect for human dignity."
Yet, Father Massa attested, "It is amazing how quickly we rebound from [these controversies]."
"That is because," he said, "our interreligious relationships have sunk deep roots through decades of dialogue and collaboration on social issues. While it's true that some Jewish groups have asked for a 'pause' in dialogue for the sake of further reflection about the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews in the 1962 Missal, it's also true that others have pledged their ongoing support for dialogue even while agreeing to disagree about the appropriateness of a liturgical prayer for Jews to come to know Christ.
"Dialogue is not in conflict with proclamation, but rather a part of the broader program of evangelization that defines our very essence as a Catholic people."
On his mind
Citing a February study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Father Massa noted that the Holy Father will face next month a nation being reshaped in the realm of religion.
He noted that "the configuration of American Christianity has been changing quite dramatically over the past four decades. The so-called mainline Protestant churches have been shrinking while the Evangelical and Pentecostal communities have seen remarkable growth. […] Catholics cannot but wonder, and admire, all that explains the vitality of the 'new churches.' That must certainly be on the mind of the Holy Father and other Catholic leaders both in this country and around the world."
Father Massa contended that the concept of the papacy has changed as well: "Only among a few Evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. is the Pope viewed any longer as the 'anti-Christ.' Many see him as a defender of conscience, as well as a guardian of historic Christianity, in a morally relativistic age."
The U.S. bishops' aide has high hopes for what Benedict XVI's visit to the United States, and the priority he's giving to ecumenism and interreligious relations, may bring about.
"I am hoping that the Holy Father will re-energize ecumenical commitments at a time when so many churches seem to be experiencing new fractures in membership and deepening polarization over moral issues," he said. "It would be a great grace for him to reiterate a point made so poignantly by his predecessor, namely, that ecumenism is not an appendage to the Church's mission but an essential aspect of that mission.
"I think we might also hear from him some encouragement to pursue a 'spiritual ecumenism' that involves shared prayer and works of charity and justice in common. Theological ecumenism will most certainly continue, and it has lately made some remarkable progress in the Catholic-Orthodox relationship, as shown in the Ravenna document on the universal Church.
"The Holy Father might tell us that, with all of these relationships, which have as their goal the unity for which Christ prayed on the night before he died -- 'Father, may they be one' -- we are only at 'the beginning of the beginning' of the ecumenical task."