On Sept. 5, 1985, when the Most Rev. Roger M. Mahony was installed as archbishop of Los Angeles, leaders of non-Catholic religions--Protestant and Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu--were seated in the front pews of St. Vibiana's Cathedral.
As the solemn liturgy unfolded, many of us wondered how the new leadership would affect the relationship between the Catholic archdiocese and the rest of our community.
Catholic participation in interreligious affairs has not had a long history in Los Angeles. As late as 1969, priests were discouraged from entering non-Catholic places of worship and from participating in interfaith events. Personal friendships between individual religious leaders and a few projects pioneered by Loyola University, the American Jewish Committee, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the University Religious Conference were exceptions, not the rule.
Beginning with the accession of Archbishop--soon Cardinal--Timothy Manning, the Catholic community not only participated but took the lead in the dialogue with most major Protestant denominations as well as non-Christian religions. The country soon began to look to Los Angeles as a model for interreligious discourse.
As bishop of Stockton, Mahony had the reputation of being a theological conservative and a social activist. Would he, in Los Angeles, give priority to continued cross-denominational contacts, or would he concentrate on the internal needs of his vast flock? Had he invited other faiths to his installation as a formal courtesy or to initiate a lasting relationship?
The archbishop did not keep the audience waiting. Not only did he encourage his staff to continue extensive interreligious activities but he made time on his own schedule for frequent interfaith contacts. Mahony immediately made himself available for an extraordinary number of public appearances and speaking engagements, while at the same time visiting with his own flock and revamping his archdiocesan organization. Still, he appeared relaxed, unhurried and gracious, as guest or host at a meal, at the desk of his modest office in the chancery or at a casual encounter.
Within weeks after assuming his duties, the archbishop addressed an ecumenical leadership luncheon. Within a few months, the head of the area's 2 1/2-million Catholics spelled out his commitment to interfaith activities in general and to Catholic-Jewish relations in particular when he spoke before leaders of the county's half-million Jews gathered by the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee. In a formal address subsequently printed in the National Catholic News Service publication, Mahony praised the program of dialogues, publications and educational projects linking the local Catholic and Jewish communities, pledged himself to their continuation and urged their expansion into every parish and synagogue. When he recommended that Jews and Catholics join forces to meet the needs of immigrants and the homeless, he made it quite clear that for him social and interreligious activism go hand in hand.
Peace is one of Mahony's major concerns. For his first major local statement on the subject--he also was one of the authors of the Catholic bishops' statement against nuclear warfare--he chose a religious-sponsored forum, the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race. He will also host an all-day conference on world peace for local religious leaders on Oct. 27, to coincide with the Pope's Peace Day gathering of world leaders in Assisi, Italy. Similarly, he associated himself with interdenominational clergy when he made public statements on behalf of the Sanctuary movement, the homeless, AIDS victims--and against the death penalty.
While the archbishop's involvement with other religions is strengthened by his social activism, it is not contradicted--though some might think so--by his theological conservatism. Interreligious affairs, once considered the exclusive domain of religious liberals, increasingly involve traditionalists as well. In fact, when Mahony sounded most "conservative" by pillorying the peddlers of pornography, he probably had most religious forces in the state on his side; for he wisely avoided conflict with First Amendment freedoms by not calling for censorship.
Even the archbishop's highly publicized stand with the Vatican against the popular Catholic University educator-theologian, Father Charles Curran, should not alienate anyone committed to interreligious dialogue. The same Bill of Rights that protects academic freedom, that grants an individual the liberty to choose any religion or no religion, entitles a religious organization to determine who should teach its doctrines. Partners in dialogue do not quit when they find themselves on opposite sides of a theological belief or a legal argument.
This has been one of Mahony's main points in speaking to Jewish community leaders. He has counseled awareness of possible tensions between the Jewish and Catholic communities over such issues as abortion and the Vatican's failure to grant full diplomatic recognition to Israel. Such differences, he has affirmed, should not be permitted to become barriers to friendship and cooperation or to endanger the special relationship between the two communities.
Enriched by a deeply committed religious leader willing to confront controversy with human concern, we can proceed to view interreligious life in Los Angeles with hope and confidence.