Muslim, Buddhist, American Indian:
Quincentenary sparks non-Christian talks. (Interfaith Section -Catholic ecumenism)
by Dawn Gibeau
National Catholic Reporter
Vol.29 No.1( Oct 23, 1992)
COPYRIGHT National Catholic Reporter 1992
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious
Affairs sounds redundant, but John Borelli, an associate director in
that National Conference of Catholic Bishops agency, explained
recently that ecumenical relations are not the same as
Ecumenism refers to dialogue between Christians, he told NCR. It
often deals with theological questions and issues of history and
church order and structure, because its ultimate aim is church
unity, he said. Borelli is in charge of the NCCB's ecumenical
relations with Orthodox churches.
Interreligious relations, he explained, are those with Jews,
Muslims, Buddhists, American Indians, Hindus and other people of
faith who are not Christian. Goals can vary, but often talks seek
For example, Catholics and Muslims may find "similarities in
identification of God, worship of God, understanding of scripture"
and in practice "because we're descendants from the same Abrahamic
faith," he said. "With Islam, understanding is a very important
goal, because much of our history has been one of misunderstanding,"
and often relations have been combative.
Talks at the local level often concentrate on specific concerns
about schools and neighborhoods, Borelli said; for instance, the
presence of drugs or guns in schools or assessment of how textbooks
present the faiths.
Borelli directs the NCCB's interreligious relationships with all but
Jews. Eugene Fisher is in charge of the dialogues with Jews (see
In Borelli's domain, the only national dialogue is with Muslims, and
it began last October with an introductory session. At this year's
October meeting, Catholics will explain mission and evangelization,
be said, and Muslims will explain dawah, which is an Arabic word
that means invitation, the invitation to Islam. "They're sort of
parallel concepts," he said.
The national dialogue is an outgrowth of dialogues in U.S. cities
such as Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Boston (NCR, Feb. 8,1991).
National dialogues are difficult to structure with Muslims,
Buddhists and other groups that have no national structure, Borelli
said. In contrast, he explained that the Orthodox Church has its
Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America, SCOBA,
with an ecumenical committee that appoints theologians to national
talks. In tandem, the NCCB has its ecumenical and interreligious
With faiths that lack such structures, Borelli's work tends to be
more multilateral than bilateral he said. For instance, he has
spoken at sessions of Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministry, which
originated as a council of churches but expanded to an interfaith
council to embrace Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.
"On a national level, there really isn't a place for an organization
that's able to draw together various religious groups in any kind of
official capacity," Borelli said. So he will work with a group such
as the World Conference on Religion and Peace, which has a U.S.
chapter in New York and is a nongovernmental organization at the
Besides such multilateral encounters, bilateral discussions
proliferate at the local level, he said. For instance, Buddhists are
diverse - "many Japanese Buddhists, some Chinese Buddhists, many
Southeast Asian Buddhists ... and a good many (U.S. natives) who
have taken up Buddhism as their faith.'
Yet, "where you find Buddhism, you'll find a sangha, the community
of monks," and that council often engages in dialogue with
Catholics, as it does with the Los Angeles archdiocese.
And in Hawaii, where Buddhism is the second-largest faith community
after Christianity, "there's kind of a conciliar relationship
involving various Christian and Buddhist groups," Borelli said.
These deal with social questions, he said, or with questions of
prayer and spirituality in which the two sides "can instruct and
learn from one another. I think in the area particularly of what we
in the Christian tradition would call contemplative prayer, we're
finding an overlapping of interest between Christians and
And Borelli has been involved in meetings such as a recent
Buddhist-Christian conference that involved scholars from the United
States and Asia. A subgroup that's made up of Christian scholars,
mostly theologians and some historians of religion like myself, and
Buddhists" also has been meeting separately for about 10 years, he
With Hindus, dialogue is limited to a few local encounters such as
one in Los Angeles, Borelli said. "I have friends who are Hindus,
and I know one or two places where academic things are going on that
have engaged people quite personally," he said.
He keeps up contacts with Hindus, being responsible to answer
questions that arise about Hinduism, he said, but nothing official
is going on in Catholic-Hindu relations because the U.S. Hindu
community is small. Borelli is also responsible for dialogue with
American Indians, but not for the two-thirds of American Indians he
said are Christian.
The Catholics' Tekakwitha Conference "brings together Native
American Catholics who are engaged in evangelization," he said, and
they conduct an internal dialogue about the relationship between
Catholicism and American Indian traditional religions.
And he participates in discussions with non-Christian, American
Indian traditionalists. Academic conferences take place, and "a good
many things have been happening in this past year" arising from the
quincentenary of Columbus' arrival in America, he said. "So the kind
of academic-style dialogue that goes on among all these various
faith groups goes on with Native Americans, too."