Catholic ecumenical centre appoints new directors

 — Nov. 14, 198714 nov. 1987

by Harvey Shepherd, The [Montreal] Gazette

Sister Katherine MacDonald has been involved with interfaith relations throughout her religious life but brought a new sense of urgency when she arrived in Montreal to take up a new job this fall.

“In our world today, if we who believe that God exists cannot relate to each other from a stance of faith, how do we expect our countries to relate to each other for peace and not war?” MacDonald said in a recent interview.

MacDonald, a member of the Sisters of Sion since 1949 and based in Rome as their world superior-general between 1970 and 1986, is one of two new associate directors on the three-person directorate of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism.

Before taking up her new duties this fall, she spent a sabbatical year in three parts of the world marked by religious or ideological strife or both: Ireland (where she spent a semester at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin), Peru and Israel.

Other churches

The Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, founded in 1963, is the ecumenical arm of the Roman Catholic church for Canada, Quebec and Montreal but also offers its services to other churches and faiths.

She succeeds Rev. Stephane Valiquette, a Jesuit particularly known for his contributions to Jewish-Christian relations. He has retired from the centre after 21 years.

Rev. Emmanuel Lapierre, a Dominican, succeeds Renee Fortin, who is now working on housing issues in south-central Montreal.

Lapierre traces his interest in ecumenism especially to the years between 1973 and 1984 when he was one of the Dominican priests at Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace parish. He was curé from 1980.

The parish organized a number of meetings for dialogue with laity and clergy from Montreal’s small French-speaking parishes of the United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches.

Rev. Thomas Ryan, a Minnesota-born Paulist priest, now Canadian, remains director of the centre, a post he has held since 1984.

MacDonald’s career has been marked by the open-minded spirit of the religious community she entered in 1949, the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion which now has about 1,100 members, almost 100 of them Canadian.

The congregation was founded in France in 1846 by two priests, converts from Judaism, the Ratisbonne brothers, Marie Theodore and Marie Alphonse, of Strasbourg.

Originally interested in converting the Jews, it long ago replaced that with an emphasis on dialogue and efforts to break down anti-Semitism and foster Christian understanding of — and justice towards — Jews.

But MacDonald says an openness to other traditions marked the congregation from the beginning.

She was first impressed by this “philosophy and spirituality of openness” when she attended Sion Academy in Saskatoon, a secondary school operated by the congregation. (It has since closed.)

Traditions respected

“It was never a ‘Catholic’ school,’ ” she says.

Catholic, Protestant and Jewish students all found their traditions respected.

For example, Jewish students wore Star of David on their uniform where the Christian students wore a cross.

She says to this day the congregation has an international point of view.

She was its Canadian head from 1967 to 1970 — living in Montreal when she wasn’t travelling — then superior-general, based in Rome, from 1970 to 1986.

She was vice-president, then president, of the international organization of heads of Catholic religious communities between 1980 and 1986.

MacDonald, who speaks five languages, was a guest participant at a world meeting of Roman Catholic bishops in Rome in 1985 and was the only woman to address that synod.

Last June, she was made an officer in the Order of National Merit of France “in order to recognize your personal contribution to religious life and to the church and to honour your community.”

She believes the world has seen “enormous progress” in Jewish-Christian relations.

There have been recent “hiccups and difficulties” — disagreements over Pope John Paul II’s attitude to controversy over Austrian President Kurt Waldheim’s war record, over a Carmelite convent that was for a time on the former site of the Auschwitz death camp and over the recognition by the church of the sainthood of Edith Stein, a convert from Judaism killed by the Nazis.

But even these, she says, were marked by “a real effort of the church to explain and of the Jewish community to try to understand.”

Part of her mandate at the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism will be to broaden its “ecumenism” beyond the quest for Christian unity and better Jewish-Christian relations and promote dialogue with other faiths.

In practice, she expects this to be largely a matter of improving relations with adherents of eastern religions in immigrant communities.

Inter-faith relations, MacDonald says, are “extremely related to the world” and to such issues as the tension between the largely rich nations of the north and the largely poor nations of the south.

Christians in a “privileged” country like Canada have to be willing to “go out of our own little womb” and relate to followers of other religions as humans and as people of faith.

There is plenty of evidence, she says, that religion, if misused, can be divisive rather than uniting people.

Responsibility of all

“But the responsibility of us all is to go beyond that sort of interpretation and recognize where God is in the world and how he is revealing himself.

“And it isn’t just to Catholics, and it isn’t just to Shiite Moslems.

“I think that’s the challenge of inter-faith relations.”

Lapierre’s career as a Dominican has been divided between scholarship and the parish ministry.

Since 1984, he has been director of a Dominican teaching institution in Montreal that offers courses to various clergy, lay and student individuals and groups.

As the only member of the directorate whose first language is French – even if MacDonald and Ryan are proficient in the language — Lapierre will be particularly responsible for Quebec.

He says Quebec Catholics made a serious mistake in the past by not paying more attention to their Protestant fellow-Christians but he thinks the process of rectifying this through dialogue is well under way.

One of the results of past disunity, he says, is that sects and fringe groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses have been able to make some inroads among Quebec’s French-speaking Catholics.

He sees greater unity between the Catholics and mainstream Protestants as one remedy for this state of affairs.

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