To create a “courtyard of the Gentiles” – that’s the impetus of a new initiative by the Vatican to reach out to and dialogue with non-believers, beginning with a cultural symposium in Paris this March.
A Vatican communiqué released this week by the Pontifical Council for Culture described the project as "a new permanent Vatican structure to promote dialogue and encounter between believers and nonbelievers." The Paris event will take place March 24-25 under the theme “Religion, Enlightenment, Common Reason,” and will culminate with a gathering for young adults in front of the famed Notre Dame Cathedral. According to Zenit, the gathering will feature “artistic creations, music, drama, light shows, and time for meeting and reflection,” with the cathedral itself being open to all for meditation and a prayer vigil.
Why “Courtyard of the Gentiles”?
The name of the initiative refers to the portion of the ancient Jewish temple that was set aside for non-Jews who wished to pray, despite their being excluded from the Jewish rites and the rest of the temple. In the Gospel story of Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables, it is in this courtyard that the cleansing of the temple takes place – so that, free from extraneous distractions, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” as he explained to his disciples.
This theme, in turn, has been picked up by Pope Benedict XVI, who in his 2009 Christmas address to the Roman curia used the expression while reflecting on the skeptical, atheistic climate he encountered on his trip to the Czech Republic that year. Stressing that the Church must not dismiss others’ disbelief, he said:
Even the people who describe themselves as agnostics or atheists must be very important to us as believers. When we talk about a new evangelization, these people may become afraid. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission, nor do they want to renounce their freedom of thought or of will. But the question about God nonetheless remains present for them as well, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his attention to us. … As the first step in evangelization, we must try to keep this search [for God] alive; we must take pains that man not set aside the question of God as an essential question of his existence. Take pains that he accept this question and the longing concealed within it.
Pope Benedict firmly believes that, despite the ways modern culture obscures God’s presence, atheists and agnostics grapple with the question of faith and existence of God – and that the Church should walk with them in this time of seeking answers.
Thus, the idea of a new kind of “court of the gentiles” can provide a place of open dialogue, “where men can in some manner cling to God, without knowing him and before they have found the entryway to his mystery, which the interior life of the Church serves,” the Holy Father explained.
In our dialogue with other religions, he continued, the Church “must above all add today a dialogue with those for whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown, and who nonetheless would not like simply to remain without God, but at least to approach him as the Unknown.”
It will be fascinating to see how the discussions, lectures and artistic events in Paris will play out – and how the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” initiative will resonate in the birthplace of the Enlightenment itself. Perhaps event organizers might look across the Atlantic to another recent event open to the public in invitation to dialogue and discover the fullness of faith.
Held over the MLK weekend in Manhattan and hosted by the international, Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, the “New York Encounter” was truly a cultural event to behold – as the crowds that packed the venues would attest to. Among the notable lectures and discussion topics was the daughter of the scientist who discovered the gene that causes Down syndrome, who spoke on her father’s belief in the unity of faith and science. The arts were also well represented, with a performance of French playwright Paul Claudel’s “The Tidings Brought to Mary,” as well as the grand concert finale – a lively ensemble of New York City street performers – hosted by accomplished saxophonist “Blue Lou” Marini.
According to the event website, the Encounter’s goal is “to foster, in a friendly and welcoming setting, interest in the full spectrum of reality and appreciation for what is beautiful, true, good, and worthwhile in various expressions of human life.”
“This openness and desire,” it continues, “are the fruit of the education received in the Roman Catholic Church.”
“That willingness to stand up and bring their religious faith into public view stands out,” noted the editor of Catholic New York, who went on to quote the event’s organizer, a member of Communion and Liberation named Maurizio Maniscalco.
“We know who we are,” Maniscalco said. “We are not afraid of welcoming others who are not Catholic.”
When young adults – believers and non-believers alike – gather this March in the expansive courtyard in front of Paris’ Notre Dame, they will stand below the magnificent, Gothic cathedral’s western rose window – at the center of which stands Mary, holding out her infant Son to the city. Christ comes to meet us, no matter where we stand. It’s the Church’s task to welcome those who linger in the courtyard, and invite them in to the banquet that waits inside.
- Elizabeth Hansen