Understanding and respecting the faith of others is essential to religious freedom for all

By Rev. Alfred Baca     5/15/2019

Editor’s Note: Fr. Baca is former Executive Director for the Office of Ecumenism and Interreligion for the USCCB. Effective July 1, he will serve as the Diocese of Orange Director for Evangelization and Faith Formation 


Long before I was appointed Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer for the Diocese of Orange, I found myself involved in the ministry.  I had grown up in a family where my sister-in-law was Russian Orthodox, my aunt and her children were Assemblies of God and my cousin was a convert to Calvary Chapel, at that time a new and burgeoning Fundamentalist Protestant Community. The rest of us were Catholics trying to hold on for dear life!  With such a religiously diverse family we were motivated by love to listen and learn how to understand and accept each other as authentic Christian believers. It was not easy, there was a lot of pain and tears but over time the grace of God gathered us together as brothers and sisters in faith. I took this lesson into my priesthood: the need to listen, to be clear about what divides us, to be patient and to approach everything from love. 

While still a parochial vicar and only one year into my assignment, I was sent to the University of St. Thomas in Rome for a licentiate in ecumenism. Off I went to the Angelicum where, to my relief, almost every course was offered in English. I discovered that another part of my education was outside the walls of my classroom. I watched intently Pope John Paul II. The Pope was a master at what I call “finding the golden moment.” Whether it was sending back to Patriarch Bartholomew the relics of St. John Chrystostom or the icon of the Lady of Kazan to Patriarch Alexei of Moscow, he recognized the moment of opportunity, took advantage of it and opened new space for conversation, reconciliation and love. I remember especially one day when a group of African American bishops were in Rome and visiting St. Peter’s. As they approached the basilica, the Vatican staff realized that the bishops were not on their list of appointments. They informed Pope John Paul who immediately made room for them in his schedule. When the time arrived for their audience, they entered with their wives! Dressed in episcopal garb, Vatican staff had not realized they were a group of African American Methodist Episcopal bishops and wives who were visiting Rome. John Paul was informed of the mix-up and received them anyway, bishops and wives. The meeting was warm and gracious and made a deep impact on the AME visitors. We watched how the pope turned a misunderstanding into a moment of grace. 

I brought these life lessons home to my diocese and settled into the work of a pastor at St. Cecilia’s in Tustin, California. I knew one day I would be assigned to the diocesan ecumenical and interfaith office, so I juggled my responsibilities of pastor with outreach to other faiths and religions. It was a good way to prepare myself slowly for what was to come; but in truth I would have found a way nevertheless to incorporate ecumenical and interfaith ministry into my parish life. It just seemed part of what I should do as a priest. After all, why not reach out to friends in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches? Why not learn organizational skills and structure from the Mormons? Why not introduce myself to Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and learn about his successful drive to engage people in a vibrant Christ-life?   

I began with a group that I thought would be easiest and the most receptive to friendship, i.e., the Orthodox. I found the Orthodox clergy to be respectful and interested but cautious.  Diving deeper into a relationship was tougher than I imagined. Where was the open door to get past this challenge? I decided to invite the Orthodox to dinner at a local Lebanese restaurant. The manager, a Catholic herself, would close the restaurant one night a month and cook for us! An Armenian Orthodox priest who came faithfully to the dinners, became my window and connection to the other Orthodox priests.   

The initial meal was prepared beautifully, the wine flowed and I picked up the bill. The problem was there were only four of us that showed and one of them was another Catholic priest! I was convinced that this was the open door we needed and we persevered. Once a month on the same day and time, and at the same restaurant, we met and our numbers grew!  Beginning with Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Copts, we eventually welcomed Eastern Catholic priests into the group. That single act of having dinner together broke down inherited walls of division and mistrust and paved the way for what are today close and enduring friendships. 

Of course, my sight was also set on the interfaith world. After 10 years at St. Cecilia’s, I was sent to St. Columban church in Garden Grove. At a parish of close to 7,000 registered families, with 10 Masses on a weekend in English, Vietnamese and Spanish, it never occurred to me that I should not be doing interfaith work as part of my pastoral duties. On one occasion, I drove Bishop Kevin Vann, my ordinary, to a local mosque to join the community for midday prayer. Dr. Muzimmil Siddiqi, Director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, welcomed us and asked Bishop Vann to share a few words with the congregation. Afterward, with Muslim hands holding ours, accompanied by smiles and words of gratitude, we left for home. We were deeply touched. 

Having been pastor of two large Catholic communities, I know how life can get overwhelming with outside responsibilities and diocesan work. The key for me has been to view ecumenical and interfaith work as already part of my pastoral duty; to engage the ministry and to enjoy it. Ecumenical and Interreligious work is important. I have come to treasure that on a very personal level.