A tale of how Mormon leaders came to a papal prayer service in NYC

On April 18, 2008, I attended Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer service in New York City with more than 250 Christian leaders from just about every Christian tradition around.

I didn’t know, and I don’t remember reading anywhere, that two leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were there. In the second row.

There is a extremely interesting tale of the “behind the scenes” decision-making process that led to the seating of two Mormon leaders in the summer edition of Ecumenical Trends, published by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Garrison. It was written by Father James Massa, head of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Here’s the thing: Mormons consider themselves to be Christians. But the Catholic Church — and most mainstream Christian denominations — disagree.

For one thing, Mormons do not accept the Trinity. They believe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be three Gods who are “one in purpose,” but NOT one God in three persons.

So when the LDS church asked to be included in a papal event, the question facing Massa was: Which one?

Should he include them in the prayer service for Christians or a second meeting with representatives of non-Christian religions?

What a religious quandary!

Massa writes that the LDS leadership has been much more visible in recent years, working with other faiths on social and cultural issues. And Catholics and Mormons have a lot in common when it comes to issues of public morality, he notes.

The Bishops Conference asked the Vatican for advice, but was told that they were in a “better position than the Holy See to make the decision,” Massa writes.

He also writes:

*****

One member of my staff wisely counseled that I speak with the offices of key Orthodox and Evangelical leaders who might register the most discomfort knowing that they would be participating in the April 18 prayer service with Mormons. Such are the ironies of today’s ecumenical engagements: Officers for Catholic Bishops calling Orthodox hierarchs and Evangelical megapastors to make sure they have no strong objections to Mormons being invited to a prayer service with the Pope! The answer came back: “Yes, they can come. But don’t make them too prominent!”

*****

And so two members of the Quorum of the Twelve — the second-highest leadership body in the LDS church — were invited to the ecumenical prayer service for Christians.

Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder M. Russell Ballard sat in the second row at St. Joseph’s Church.

Massa concludes his engaging piece (Ecumenical Trends is not on-line, so you can’t read it) with this:

*****

Heaven may yet hold surprises even greater than was evident back in April 2008, when the Bishop of Rome called an assembly of Christians to prayer with the words: “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all”; and two Mormon elders, representing the first world religion to have arisen since Islam, responded: “And also with you.”

Graymoor friars re-elect Puglisi as leader

The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement have re-elected Father James Puglisi to a second term as minister general. The boss.

Puglisi has been based in Rome since 1973, serving at the Centro Pro Unione, the friars’ ecumenical research center there. He’s been director since 1991.

He was first elected as minister general in 2004, becoming the first friar to oversee the community’s worldwide ministries from outside New York state. The friars are, of course, based on Graymoor mountain in Garrison.

Since one of the friars’ main objectives is to promote Christian unity, it made sense to have a leader who focuses on this most difficult, but important, subject all the time.

Puglisi, 62, is from Amsterdam, N.Y., northwest of Albany.

The friars have been planning a major renovation of their Graymoor headquarters — including a new residence for the friars, who live in old dormitories that were not meant for long-term living.

But planning has slowed because of the economy.

Anyway, here is Puglisi (in the middle) and his General Counsel (left to right): Brother Kevin Goss, Father Elias D. Mallon, Father Timothy MacDonald,  and Father Paul Ojibway.

Talkin’ interreligious understanding, tolerance, pluralism, respect, whatever

“There is something essentially risky for anyone who participates in an interreligious panel or discussion,” Rabbi Lee Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation in Peekskill said.

The risk is that you will be challenged on your most closely held beliefs.

But Paskind and other panelists took up the challenge last night at Graymoor, where the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement sponsored a program on the state of interreligious understanding in the Lower Hudson Valley. The program was timed to mark the start of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip today to the Holy Land — when interreligious relations can be affected by anything the pope says or does.

I moderated the panel and we got a good turnout. The panelists were consistently insightful on a subject that can, at times, draw a lot of cliches.

I asked the panelists what interrreligious understanding looks or sounds like. How do you know when you’ve succeeded?

“We all start out with fear, which leads to hatred and suspicion,” said the Rev. Anthony Falsarella of the Greek Orthodox St. Basil Academy in Garrison. “We choose to be in fear. Tolerance means we’re coming to recognize the other. Respect is an outgrowth of learning about them.”

Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of the American Muslim Women’s Association, a plastic surgeon at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center, said what she has learned from meeting patients from all faiths: “When you talk to them, calm them down, you realize we are human, all worried, all with our fears, financial-wise, you name it.”

Father Jim Gardiner of Graymoor, who called the program together, said that “tolerance” of others is not enough. “We have to get past that and look for a closeness with one another that allows us to ask questions that we otherwise wouldn’t ask,” he said.

Gardiner continued: “The fences and borders are real. They’re theological. They’re historical. They may sometimes seem to be insurmountable. But they’re ours. We made them. We have to see what God is doing on the other side of the fence.”

Everyone agreed that contact is real important. When people get to know one another, things change fast.

“We have to model that behavior,” Paskind said.

“We need to manufacture excuses to get together,” Gardiner said.

“People have to go out and talk,” Hassan said. “We spend too much time inside our own houses of worship.”

Paskind suggested that one way to further the dialogue would be to talk about one another’s religious texts.

“We all have texts that are problematic for other faith groups,” he said. “We can say ‘What texts of mine hurt you?’ ”

It occured to me when I was driving home that the panel did not address one sensitive matter that happens to be of particular concern to Benedict XVI: How do we promote interreligious understanding and pluralism without allowing it to morph into religious relativism — the idea that all religions are equally valid.

Now, many people do believe that there are numerous paths to God and that their own is not the only way.

But the pope and other traditional religious leaders bristle at this suggestion. So, how can communities further interreligious understanding without giving pause to those who worry about relativism?

A question for another night.

Tomorrow night: How to improve interfaith relations

A reminder: The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor will host a forum tomorrow evening (Thursday, May 7) on enhancing interreligious cooperation in the Lower Hudson Valley.

The 7:30 program is to mark the start of the pope’s trip Friday to the Holy Land.

I’ll be the moderator, so come on out.

The panelists will be: the Rev. Anthony Falsarella of the St. Basil Academy in Garrison; the Rev. James Gardiner of the Graymoor friars; Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of the Westchester-based American Muslim Women’s Association; the Rev. Adolphus C. Lacey, pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Peekskill; and Rabbi Lee S. Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill.

Graymoor is located in Garrison on Route 9, not far north of the Westchester-Putnam border. Once you drive in, follow signs for the Spiritual Life Center.

On the eve of pope’s trip, an interreligious forum at Graymoor

Next Thursday evening (April 30), on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land, the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Garrison will host a forum on the always interesting and complicated subject of interreligious relations.

It’s at 7:30 p.m. Open to all.

Every step the pope takes and every word he says will be immediately scrutinized by Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and others. For reasons obvious and not-to-obvious.

Talk about interreligious relations.

The friars are committed to promoting ecumenism and interrreligious understanding, so this is a good opportunity to explore where things stand in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Participants will include:

Father James Gardiner of the friars;

Father Anthony Falsarella of St. Basil Academy in Garrison, a Greek Orthodox residence for children in need;

Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of the Westchester-based American Muslim Women’s Association;

The Rev. Adolphus Lacey, pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Peekskill and president of the Peekskill Area Pastors Association;

And Rabbi Lee Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation in Peekskill.

The moderator will be me.

For information, call 845-424-2111. Graymoor is located on Route 9, just over the Westchester/Putnam border.

The program will be at the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center. Follow the signs to the top of the hill. (NOTE: They always have real good cookies.)

By the way, I talked about my life as a religion reporter on Sunday at Maryknoll, and I thought things went quite well.

We had a nice audience for a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon in APRIL.

Everyone at Maryknoll was very nice and accomodating and I got to answer a lot of thoughtful questions. My thanks to everyone who asked them.

One-woman play on Dorothy Day

Interest in Dorothy Day only seems to increase.

I’m always hearing about lectures and writings about her life and influence. Even Cardinal Egan often mentions her as being among Catholic role models when he speaks in churches.

It’s understandable. What a story she was. A newspaper reporter who became an anarchist before focusing on social justice and becoming a Roman Catholic.

There’s something for everyone in her bio.

On Sunday (Jan. 11) at 6:30 p.m. at Graymoor, the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement will present a one-woman play, “Fool for Christ, the Story of Dorothy Day.” Sarah Melici, a New Jersey-based actress, will play Day.

According to Graymoor: “Written by Donald Yonker, “Fool for Christ” opens with Day, at the age of 75, looking back at her life while in jail after having been arrested for picketing with César Chávez and the California grape growers. Melici portrays Day at various ages and also takes on the roles of other important people in her life.”

Open to the public. A $5 donation is requested. Graymoor is on Route 9, just north of the Westchester/Putnam border.

Giving peace that chance…

Just as the Vatican newspaper has forgiven John Lennon for his “more popular than Jesus” crack…

The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor are beginning an Advent Vespers series on Sunday called “Giving Peace a Chance: Anticipating the Year of Reconciliation.”

All we are sayyying is…

Here’s the line-up:

Nov. 30, Rev. Peter Sabune, Episcopal priest, chaplain at Sing Sing, and founder of Forgiveness and Reconciliation Project in Rwanda.

Dec. 7, the Rev. Elias Mallon, a Graymoor Friar and on the staff of Franciscans International at the U.N.

Dec. 14, Doug Hostetter of the Mennonite Central Commmittee.

Dec. 21, Sister Margaret Holden of the Canticle Ministry in NYC, which assists families and individuals coping with HIV/AIDS.

Each program will begin at 4 p.m.