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Bloom: Religions should unite around a shared love of God

This time of the year is supposed to bring out the best in us.

In Christianity, we anticipate the sacred day of Christmas.

The Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the menorah each night to retell the story of the Maccabees defeating Antiochus Epiphanes. We celebrate the story of religious freedom and the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days when it should have kept lit the candelabra in the Jerusalem Temple for only one.

While both holidays are different, they certainly bring out the warmest feelings of joy in all of us.

There is also a historic event that we should commemorate this month -- the final publication of what became known as Vatican II or "Nostra Aetate -- In our time."

Fifty years ago Pope John the XXIII convened a special council and for several years worked with scholars from around the world to reform the Catholic Church. The documents of Nostrat Aetate brought major change to the church, particularly in opening up its relationships with world religions. Catholics themselves have diverse viewpoints about these documents and even today debate the changes to doctrine and liturgy which began in 1965.

One of the most important external changes, which revived the idea of world wide ecumenical dialogue between religions, was the church's decision to no longer hold Jews and Judaism culpable for the crucifixion of Jesus. The church went even further by opening up a window of new understanding with Judaism and other faith traditions. These particular changes have been a blessing for Catholic-Jewish relationships and for humanity.

This week a special commemoration entitled "A Journey Towards Friendship" was sponsored by Holy Family Catholic Church and Congregation Beth Yam. The program brought both communities together, including their respective choirs and clergy who performed music about the Psalms. Attendees also listened to guest speaker Rabbi Dr. Shira Lander of Southern Methodist University speak about the significance of ecumenical relations going into the 21st century. I am most grateful to my colleague and friend Monsignor Frank Hanley for his leadership on this project.

For many years, new programs of ecumenical studies in our nation's universities have been created and discussion groups between religions were held all over the nation. Yet, over the past few decades, it seems that many religions have turned inward and put ecumenical relationships on the back burner.

Sure, there are multiple religious groups who work together on community service projects and social justice programs.

Yet, I question whether we have enough opportunities for folks from different faith traditions to learn with each other and delve into the sacred texts that we all share even if there are different interpretations.

Is it not time, given the amount of violence associated with religions and the unprecedented numbers of those who have left the practice of religion, that we renew the ecumenical movement and make more of an effort to bring religions together?

Doing this does not mean diminishing our own faith. Rather it can mean strengthening our commitment to our own faith and respecting others. I recognize that this is easier said than done, but hasn't the time come to renew those bonds that were created fifty years ago and see where religious communities can build stronger bonds in America?

What a joy it would be if we could organize study groups between Catholics, Jews and Protestant denominations. Just imagine adult students studying Scriptures together by sharing their own unique perspectives and traditions of interpretative study. What could we learn from such encounters and how would that knowledge inspire us?

I believe that when we open a page of sacred text, we are encountering the imprint of God. We can all share and celebrate our differences as well as the moments when we might actually agree with each other or learn a new insight about a text that we never heard before.

How is that a problem?

How does that threaten us?

As long as we can learn together in the spirit of mutual respect for our faith traditions and know we all have the same universal God -- even if we interpret God differently -- surely we can rise above the longstanding denominational rivalries and fears.

The religious community needs to step forward and do what we can to engage each other to demonstrate that choosing the pathway of peace and faith makes us not only a more moral nation but one that cares deeply about the well-being of all humankind.

Is that not part of our mandate as people of religious conviction?

Is this approach not part and parcel of finding the best side of ourselves during this time of year as well as for any time of the year?

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.

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