An Interview with Dr. Anthony Cirelli
by Eddie Baxter, Religions for Peace USA
This past month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Branch of the World Sikh Council met in Columbus, Ohio, for a friendly meeting and exchange of ideas. Titled Catholics and Sikhs Together: Bringing Compassion to the World, the meeting sought to bring down any existing barriers between the two religious communities and to further efforts toward bringing all faiths to peace. Dr. Anthony Cirelli, assistant director for interreligious affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and fellow RFPUSA associate Dr. Tarunjit Butalia, had arranged the meeting. Religions for Peace USA had an opportunity to ask Dr. Cirelli about the event.
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RFPUSA: How did RFPUSA factor into the inception of the Catholics and Sikhs Together: Bringing Compassion to the World movement?
Dr. Cirelli: Actually, it was Francis Tiso who was attending an RFPUSA meeting in NYC a few years back in 2006. He and Dr. Butalia had a conversation, more or less, over a break. They came up with the idea of bringing the two organizations and the faiths they represent together.
Do you feel that interfaith activity such as this is natural for the Catholic Church since Vatican II?
From our side it certainly is an act of obedience to Nostra Aetate, a declaration seeking to increase inter-religious cooperation in the Church, to seek dialogue between other religions. What helps is that the dialogue itself between Catholics and Sikhs makes for natural unity, more than the Pontific edict. There are many similarities between our faiths that make for a particularly comfortable dialogue, the particular point of convergence being a sacramental celebration of God as active within creation — a sacramental celebration of the presence of God in creation which really drives the experiential aspects of our faiths.
How would you compare and contrast ecumenism and religious pluralism from a Catholic perspective?
The two absolutely go hand in hand. The goals might be different at this time in the sense that our ecumenical dialogue aims at the visible unity of Christian Churches. Our long term horizon is this visible unity. With other religions, the aim is slightly different. Our goal now, following the directives of recent popes, especially Pope Francis, is to cultivate a feeling of community, cooperation, and to develop a culture of respect and a network of trust. That’s where we are now and will be for the foreseeable future.
How do you think the average Catholic layperson in America could or should approach interfaith action?
To be intentional about cultivating interfaith relationships. Start small. Start in your neighborhood. If there is a Jain, Sikh, or Muslim in your local community, send an invitation, incite a meeting. The easiest and most time-tested way of beginning a relationship, inter-religious or not, is over a meal. I would start there, and encourage lay folk to start cultivating personal relationships.
What about clergy?
Similar to lay people, it’s about hospitality at the core. Encourage clergy to accept invitations from leaders in other faith traditions, to attend meetings or prayer services, dinners, meetings in general. Clergy should extend invitations to local religious leaders of other traditions to engage in textual studies (Bible, Koran, etc.) and begin from there. Cultivate relationships naturally from points of initial commonality which already exist.
Have you encountered any particular difficulties in your efforts with the World Sikh Council?
Quite the opposite. I have only encountered slight difficulty when engaging strictly in issues of difference. But, as I said, that shouldn’t be the approach to interreligious dialogue. When beginning from a place of faith-based closeness, interreligious effort has been readily embraced by every faith community I’ve worked, just as it has with our Sikh neighbors.
I once heard from a Sikh family friend that “All faiths are rivers running to the same source: God.” Do you think that Catholic thought is similar? Would you argue that this mindset is the basis for recent compassionate cooperation?
Nostra Aetate speaks to seeds of truth that are present in all other traditions, consisting with Christian ideas of revelation. In that respect they all possess aspects of the truth that are present in God. I would not speak for Sikhs and Catholics alike and say that we have a uniform understanding of God. This is not a negative thing, but I certainly would not want to impose that the Christian understanding of a triune God applies to all faiths.