Friday, 1 April 2011

The "Courtyard of the Gentiles"

The idea for the initiative that has come to be known as the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" lies in a passage of the address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman curia in December 2009:
Finally, I would like once again to express my joy and gratitude for my visit to the Czech Republic. Prior to this Journey I had always been told that it was a country with a majority of agnostics and atheists, in which Christians are now only a minority. All the more joyful was my surprise at seeing myself surrounded everywhere by great cordiality and friendliness, that the important liturgies were celebrated in a joyful atmosphere of faith; that in the setting of the University and the world of culture my words were attentively listened to; and that the state authorities treated me with great courtesy and did their utmost to contribute to the success of the visit. .... I consider most important the fact that we, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists. When we speak of a new evangelization these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us. In Paris, I spoke of the quest for God as the fundamental reason why Western monasticism, and with it, Western culture, came into being. As the first step of evangelization we must seek to keep this quest alive; we must be concerned that human beings do not set aside the question of God, but rather see it as an essential question for their lives. .... Here I think naturally of the words which Jesus quoted from the Prophet Isaiah, namely that the Temple must be a house of prayer for all the nations (cf. Is 56: 7; Mk 11: 17). Jesus was thinking of the so-called "Court of the Gentiles" which he cleared of extraneous affairs so that it could be a free space for the Gentiles who wished to pray there to the one God, even if they could not take part in the mystery for whose service the inner part of the Temple was reserved. A place of prayer for all the peoples by this he was thinking of people who know God, so to speak, only from afar; who are dissatisfied with their own gods, rites and myths; who desire the Pure and the Great, even if God remains for them the "unknown God" (cf. Acts 17: 23). ....  I think that today too the Church should open a sort of "Court of the Gentiles" in which people might in some way latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the Church stands. Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.

A conference/gathering held in Paris on 24th-25th March was, in effect, the inauguration of this initiative. A summary report can be found here at ZENIT. La Croix carries reports here and here.

One aspect of the gathering in Paris is what might be more exactly described as the conference. This was co-sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Sorbonne University and the Institut Catholique, with different parts of the discussions taking place at each of these culturally significant locations. The choice of UNESCO as the "place" of this first major activity of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" is interesting in two ways. It first of all places, or perhaps better, recognises, the mission of UNESCO as being in some way akin to that intended by the "Courtyard of the Gentiles". The elements of dialogue between cultures and striving for what it is that constitutes the human spirit are core to the mission of UNESCO and to the presence at UNESCO of a permanent observer from the Holy See. Secondly, it recalls the visit of Pope John Paul II to Paris in 1980, when he gave two key addresses on culture, one of them at the Institut Catholique and the other at UNESCO.  On 2nd June 2005, the 25th anniversary of this visit was comemorated by a conference organised by the representation of the Holy See at UNESCO in collaboration with the Institut Catholique, entitled "Culture, reason and freedom". These events are striking precursors of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" initiative.

Another aspect of the gathering in Paris is better described by the word "gathering" than "conference". On the evening of Friday 25th March, the young people of Paris, believers and non-believers, were invited to a dialogue in the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, an event entitled "In the court yard of the Unknown ..". The Cathedral was illuminated, and it was possible to enter the Cathedral to pray (if you were a believer) or for what in England might be called a "moment of reflection" (if you were not a believer). Pope Benedict addressed the young people gathered there in a  video message projected on a large screen. The square before the Cathedral reflected in a physical manner the intellectual content of the idea of a "Courtyard of the Gentiles" and was intended to provide a place for dialogue. Rather thought provoking is the report of La Croix which suggests that few non-believers took part in this encounter at Notre Dame.

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