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Vatican plans major effort to engage non-believers

Catholic World News - March 18, 2011

The "Courtyard of the Gentiles,” a Vatican bid to start conversations with non-believers, will be unveiled in Paris next week.

At a March 18 Vatican press conference, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, explained the project, which his office has undertaken on a suggestion from Pope Benedict XVI.

"The aim is to help to ensure that the great questions about human existence, especially the spiritual questions, are borne in mind and discussed in our societies, using our common reason,” Cardinal Ravasi said. The title, “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” is drawn from the area outside the Temple in Jerusalem, where Jews engaged Gentiles in public debates.

“Believers and non-believers stand on different ground, but they must not close themselves in a sacral or secular isolationism, ignoring one another or, worse still, launching taunts or accusations,” the cardinal continued. He said that the dialogue would be open to all participants, provided that they are prepared to treat others with respect. Thus, he said, the meetings would not welcome “someone convinced of already possessing all the answers, with the duty simply to impose them.”

Ideally, Cardinal Ravasi said, the conversations begun by this project should resemble not a “duel” but a “duet,” with believers and non-believers offering complementary ideas and helping each other to refine their views.

The first meeting of the Courtyard of the Gentiles will be held in France on March 24 and 25, opening at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, will chair the first session, which will be attended by a variety of diplomats and scholars. There will also be sessions at the Sorbonne, the Institut de France, and the College des Bernardins. Pope Benedict XVI will address the meeting by a video hookup.

The Vatican chose Paris for the first such encounter, informed sources said, because the French capital is seen as the most striking example of a thoroughly secularized society, in which the respectful dialogue between secularists and Christians is long overdue.

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