Archbishop Gregory To Lead Ecumenical, Interfaith Committee
Published: January 10, 2008
ATLANTA—Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory is the U.S. Catholic Church’s newest bridge builder to other Christian denominations and faiths.
He is taking over as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee. Archbishop Gregory was easily elected to the three-year post at the annual November bishops’ meeting. He will serve as chairman-elect for one year before he assumes the position from chairman Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee in November.
Dialogue with non-Catholics is an “important commitment that the church must pursue,” said Archbishop Gregory in a recent interview. “Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue is vitally important in the world we live in.”
The committee, working with consultors and staff at the bishops’ conference, guides the conversations with members of other Christian denominations and other faiths. Its mandate focuses on “promoting friendliness, cooperation and charity between Catholics and their brothers who are not in full communion.”
Archbishop Gregory’s new responsibilities come on the 100-year anniversary of the observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is celebrated annually from Jan. 18 to 25, feasts of the chair of St. Peter and the conversion of St. Paul.
With this role, the archbishop is also returning to the church’s national stage. From 2002-2004, Archbishop Gregory served as president of the national bishops’ conference, his tenure overlapping with the clergy sex abuse crisis. Previously he has served in other roles, including as chairman of the bishops’ committees on personnel, the Third Millennium/Jubilee Year 2000 and liturgy.
He will be on three committees starting in 2008, serving as a member of the Divine Worship Committee and on the liturgy committee for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and leading the ecumenical committee. By training, he is an expert on liturgy.
The head of the nominating committee for the U.S. bishops said the archbishop comes with experience and credibility to lead.
Bishop Jerome E. Listecki, of Wisconsin’s Diocese of La Crosse, said Archbishop Gregory has the stature to represent the church in conversations with others, especially coming from his former role as president of the bishops’ conference.
“He already has the ability to bring together different points of views and factions,” said Bishop Listecki. “He’d be wonderful for ecumenism.”
Archbishop Gregory was asked to serve by the bishops’ nominating committee. He did not attend the November meeting because he was recovering from prostate surgery.
Catholic Leader Honored Martin Luther King
Archbishop Gregory said his predecessors blazed the ecumenical trail and he is following their efforts. He mentioned how Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan in 1965 was one of four sponsors to host a civic banquet for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after King won the Nobel Peace Prize. Other sponsors were Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of the Atlanta Temple, Ralph McGill, publisher of the then Atlanta Constitution, and Dr. Benjamin L. Mays, president of Morehouse College.
And Archbishop Gregory said he knows personally the importance of reaching beyond church boundaries. He joined the Catholic Church as a youngster attending Catholic school.
“It touched my life and life of my family,” he said about the ecumenical movement.
Since arriving in Atlanta in 2005, Archbishop Gregory has signed statements in favor of immigrant rights with Jewish and Islamic religious leaders. He and Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is Jewish, discussed faith in the public sphere at a forum sponsored by a Jewish school, and the archbishop joined worshippers at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta for a prayer service.
The Rev. David Sapp, pastor of the Buckhead church, said the dialogue with the archbishop was a great success.
“He’s welcome here anytime,” he said.
“It was just a wonderful evening. Our folks were very excited about it. They were very impressed with him,” said Rev. Sapp.
Dialogue between people is always a good thing, he said.
“We don’t agree on everything, but to know one another, to respect one another and to understand one another better is in harmony with Christ’s teaching,” he said.
Rev. Sapp said the archbishop is a good choice to lead the church’s ecumenical efforts.
“He’s a wonderful choice for the role nationally,” he said.
Church Committed To Talking With Other Faiths
The bishops’ Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee met for the first time in 1965, the same year the Second Vatican Council approved the landmark document on non-Christian religions, “Nostra Aetate.”
“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, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men,” states the document.
The Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, based at the bishops’ conference in Washington, D.C., has ongoing interactions with non-Catholic leaders and scholars. Its Web site lists nine Christian denominations with established ecumenical commissions with the church. On conversations with other religions, the church has frequent meetings with members of the Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and other faiths.
According to its Web site, there are 25 bishops and 90 Catholic theologians assisting the committee.
Among recent highlights, in October, leaders from the Catholic Church and the Sikh faith explored holiness in their two faiths and toured the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The archbishop said it is important work for scholars and religious leaders to wrestle with issues.
“Ecumenism is tough work, but the church is committed to it,” he said.
The different conversations—from the religious leaders to neighborhood churches—need to happen for unity to develop, which is Jesus’ prayer, said Archbishop Gregory.
The position entails participating in groundbreaking events.
A development in the United States is called Christian Churches Together, an effort to “expand fellowship, unity, and witness among the diverse expressions of Christian faith today,” according to a statement.
Bishop Sklba said it is the first time in nearly 500 years the five major Christian families have united to understand each other better. Its January meeting focuses on poverty in this country.
He also hoped Archbishop Gregory would join one of the ongoing conversations with other denominations, particularly one relevant to Atlanta. For instance, Bishop Sklba participates in the twice a year meetings with the Lutheran community because nearly 30 percent of Milwaukee belongs to Lutheran churches.
And the role can also have an international component. Bishop Sklba served on a Vatican delegation to a conference in Brazil.