The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture under the leadership of its president Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi recently opened a new forum - Courtyard of the Gentiles - for dialogue between believers and non-believers. The new forum has its name and original inspiration from none other than Pope Benedict XVI. In his Christmas message to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2009 the Pope offered a brief reflection on the impressions he gathered during his visit in the same year to Czech Republic which according to statistics is the most secularized part of Europe, having the highest percentage of agnostics and atheists. He said: "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."  Cardinal Ravasi and his troop enthusiastically took lead from Pope's suggestion and realized it in a grant way at Paris on 24-25 March, 2011. It is too early to make a comprehensive assessment of the new initiative; yet it is important to take note of the event, understand the guiding assumptions, and to explore its implications for the Indian sub-continent.
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The image of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, as the Pope himself explains, "refers to the vast open space near the Temple of Jerusalem where all those who did not share the faith of Israel could approach the Temple and ask questions about religion." And, any non-believer who thus came to that space, adds the Pope, "could meet the scribes, speak of faith and even pray to the unknown God."  All the same, the courtyard separated the Gentiles from the faithful; the Gentiles could not enter the holier spaces in the Temple where believers gathered to pray. But, Jesus brought in a radical change in the religious history of Israel. To quote the Pope again, "Jesus Christ came to break down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, and to reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility in himself." 
A certain narrative flashback may help at this juncture. As all bible scholars would agree, the famous biblical episode commonly referred as cleansing of the temple, as found in all four canonical gospels, testifies to a messianic act of singular importance in the entire public ministry of Jesus. When Jesus came to the then Jerusalem Temple (built by Herod) he found the court of the gentiles, the area after the public entrance to the Temple Mount complex, turned into a bazaar where the Jewish pilgrims could purchase sacrificial animals, in case they came without one, and exchange the Roman currency, which they considered as an abomination to the Lord, for Jewish and Tyrian money. So, the gentiles who were present in that courtyard of the Temple, where they were more than welcome, were all involved in selling animals and money exchange; and the Jewish-Gentile interactions in the courtyard were thus mere commercial activities. Jesus, seeing the courtyard of the Gentiles turned into mere merchandise, releases the animals, overturns the moneychangers' tables, and chases all merchants; and declares to all, both Jews and gentiles, that his Father's house is, and so the Temple must be, a house of prayer for all nations (cf. Is. 56.7; Mk. 11.17). Thus, Jesus was not simply disciplining the bazaar; he was not crying for just business either. His involvement was much more fundamental; he broke open the high walls of religion for all who were kept out of bounds to that day. Echoing the same wisdom of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI invites all Catholics "to open a number of courtyards of the Gentiles within the Church" so that all those who do not share our faith, be they agnostics or atheists, may come to the Church, converse about God, and pray if they like.
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In partnership with UNESCO, Sorbonene University and the Institut de France, the Courtyard of the Gentiles had a solemn opening in Paris. Both the location of the opening event and the three event partners are all well known for their secular character. At the UNESCO centre, catholic believers conversed with political leaders such as former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and Czech leader Pavel Fischer. Whereas at the Sorbonne, Cardinal Ravasi and others entered into conversation with secular thinkers such as Julia Kristeva, a feminist psychoanalyst and expert in semiotics; scientist and geneticist Axel Kahn; and philosopher Bernard Bourgeois. After the event, when interviewed for the Italian newspaper Avvenire, Cardinal Ravasi said that in Paris the Courtyard was a launched as a cultural event and hence no interlocutors feared that the initiative was an attempt at hidden evangelization, which the media suspected would be the case. The Cardinal was happy about the way the event unfolded in Paris; yet for the future he proposed to focus on categorized themes like faith and science, faith and art, etc.
Indeed, ever since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has had significant success in her works in the fields of ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. But, precious little has been done to realize the dreams of the council fathers expressed in and in-between the lines of Gaudium et Spes (especially, nos. 19-21). The Pastoral Constitution has made Church's attitude to atheism unambiguously clear: "Although the church altogether rejects atheism, it nevertheless sincerely proclaims that all men and women, those who believe as well as those who do not, should help to establish right order in this world where all live together. This certainly cannot be done without a dialogue that is sincere and prudent. The church therefore deplores the discrimination between believers and unbelievers which some civil authorities unjustly practice, in defiance of the fundamental rights of the human person. It demands effective freedom for the faithful to be allowed to build up God's temple in this world also. It courteously invites atheists to weigh the merits of the Gospel of Christ with an open mind (no.21)." And, while analyzing the causes of atheism, the Council did not hesitate to point the finger at the unwholesome behaviors of the believers also: "But believers themselves often share some responsibility for this situation. For, in general, atheism is not present in people's minds from the beginning. It springs from various causes, among which must be included a critical reaction against religions and, in some places, against the Christian religion in particular. Believers can thus have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion (GS 19)." Of course, as Pope John Paul II recalled in a speech in 1995, "It is on the basis of these challenging positions of Gaudium et Spes that Pope Paul VI created in 1965 a 'secretariat for non-believers,' then denominated 'Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers,' and successively incorporated in the 'Pontifical Council of Culture.'"  But, it's now the conciliar plans began to bear fruits. The courtyard of the gentiles completes the structure of conversation envisioned by the Council.
The future and continuity of the courtyard depends on each local church's willingness to take up this remarkable initiative as a regular pastoral activity. But, for the local churches it is not going to be an easy task anyway. For, in dialogues of this sort, specificities of the cultural contexts matter a lot. Courtyards will have to be opened with the unique and prevalent cultural features in view. Belief in God and disbelief in God are two common features found in both the Western and the Indian cultures; but the ways belief and disbelief are practiced and theorized in these continents are quite different. Also, one shouldn't confuse between mission ad gentes (the first proclamation of Christ to non-Christian persons and peoples) and the courtyard of the gentiles mission. The proper addressees of the latter mission are those around us who claim that, as the Pope has clarified in his message to the participants of the Courtyard in Paris, "they are not part of any religion and yet long for a new world, a world that is freer, more just and united, more peaceful and happy â€¦ and challenge believers in a particular way to live in a way consistent with the faith they profess and by their rejection any distortion of religion which would make it unworthy of man." Perhaps, Maoists, Communists, and quite many dissenting, non-practicing Christian youth in India may be warmly welcomed into the Courtyard the Indian Church might reconstruct in the near future, I trust.
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