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Meeting in Rome during the third session of the II Vatican Council, the bishops of the United States established their Commission for Ecumenical Affairs, as it was originally called. Anticipating the ecumenical developments that would follow upon the actions of the Council, in April 1964 the Administrative Board of the Bishops' Conference appointed a special ad hoc committee under the chairmanship of Albert Cardinal Meyer to investigate the potential tasks and responsibilities the conference and the bishops would be facing in the ecumenical field and how a commission dedicated to this work might assist them. The following November the full body of bishops voted approval of a mandate entrusted to this new commission which at that time consisted of seven bishop members with Lawrence Cardinal Shehan as its first chairman.
Among the tasks originally set before it were these: the preparation of suggested guidelines for common prayer and worship, the establishment of eight subcommissions to explore the possibilities of formal conversation and exchange with Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish bodies, endorsement of national workshops for those entrusted with ecumenical responsibilities by their dioceses, approval of similar workshops for representatives of the nation's seminaries, exploring the establishment of an Inter-Confessional Institute for Ecumenical Research, and enlistment of experts to assist the bishops in ecumenical endeavors.
With then Monsignor (now Cardinal) William W. Baum S.T.D. as its first executive director, the staff office of the Commission opened on January 7, 1965 at the headquarters of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, D.C. In November 1966 the Rev. John F. Hotchkin was named its assistant executive director, and the following June the Rev. Edward H. Flannery was named its executive secretary for Catholic - Jewish relations. Monsignor Baum concluded his service as executive director in mid-1967 and was succeeded in 1968 by then Monsignor (now Cardinal) Bernard F. Law, who served in that capacity until 1971. He was succeeded by Fr. Hotchkin who served as executive director until his death in 2001.
The Commission met for the first time on March 10, 1965 in Washington, D.C. Quickly it was joined by a number of counterpart agencies in the establishment of dialogue commissions and working groups. The U.S.A. Committee of the Lutheran World Federation helped establish the Lutheran - Catholic Dialogue which first met on March 16, 1965 in Baltimore. This was followed by the Anglican - Roman Catholic Consultation in the U.S.A. cosponsored with the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations of the Episcopal Church, beginning its work on June 22, 1965 in Washington. Then came the Roman Catholic / Presbyterian and Reformed Theological Consultation, organized with the help of the North American Area Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. It convened its opening session on July 27, 1965, also in Washington. Shortly thereafter the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America joined in cosponsoring the Orthodox - Catholic Consultation which began its preliminary discussions on September 9, 1965 in New York.
Subsequent years saw the number of these bilateral consultations expand. The Board of Global Ministries of the Methodist Church (later the United Methodist Church) joined in establishing the Methodist - Catholic Dialogue which held its first session on June 28, 1966 in Chicago. The Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ joined in the inauguration of the Roman Catholic - Disciples of Christ Dialogue on March 16, 1967 in Indianapolis. Consultations with the (then named) American Baptist Convention began on April 3, 1967 in DeWitt, cosponsored by its Division of Co-operative Christianity. On May 8, 1967 in Winston-Salem conversations with Southern Baptists opened under the aegis of the Ecumenical Institute at Wake Forest University, later to be taken up by the Department of Interfaith Witness of the Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board. The Oriental Orthodox - Roman Catholic Consultation was co-sponsored by the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches in America, including the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox and Malankara Syrian Orthodox Churches. It initiated its regular meetings on January 27, 1978 in New York. The Polish National Catholic - Roman Catholic Dialogue had its beginning on October 23, 1984 in Passaic.
While these bilateral exchanges were developing the Commission for Ecumenical Affairs established early contact with the Division of Christian Unity of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and with it established a Joint Working Group in May 1966. Contacts were also quickly made with the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council and in 1969 Roman Catholics became full members of that body which brings together experts from a large number of churches for study and discussion of questions related to church order and teachings. Also the Commission took over from the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome the naming of observers and consultants to the meetings of the Consultation on Church Union and the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches.
The Joint Working Group with the National Council of Churches and its successor, the Study Committee on the Relationship of the NCC and the RCC, completed work in 1971 with a "Report on Possible Roman Catholic Membership in the National Council of Churches." All other bilateral consultations and Catholic participation in the work of the Faith and Order Commission continue. The American Baptist - Roman Catholic Consultation ended in 1971, while conversations with Southern Baptists ended in 2001.
In 1981 Catholic sponsorship of the Disciples of Christ- Roman Catholic Dialogue was taken up by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, Rome. In 1987 the U. S. member churches of the Lutheran World Federation joined to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which then assumed Lutheran sponsorship of the Lutheran - Catholic Dialogue. In 1997 the Canadian Catholic Conference (CCCB) joined in sponsorship of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, and later also joined in sponsoring the dialogue with the Polish National Catholic Church.
In April 2002, the Committee joined Chirstian Churches Together as a founding member in order to cultivate new relationships among Christian bodies. The Committee also continues to have informal conversations with various Christian groups.
In November 1966 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops expanded the mandate and changed the name of the commission to the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, often known by its acronym: CEIA. The new name not only reflected the activities undertaken in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and later with the Synagogue Council of America, it also reflected the fact that the Committee was now entrusted with the task of fostering contacts and relationships with Muslims and other major religious communities in the U.S.
Informal dialogue with the Jewish community began in 1966, but formal relations commenced in 1977 between the Synagogue Council of America (SCA) and the Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations, which has since been fully integrated into the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Since then, the CEIA has established two standing dialogues with the Jewish community: one with the National Council of Synagogues (successor to SCA), representing Reform and Conservative Judaism, and another with the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America, representing Orthodox Judaism. Consultations with both bodies began in 1987.
From 1987, the amount of work in interreligious relations increased significantly with the hiring of staff especially oriented for that work. The Committee developed relationships and joint projects with the American Muslim Council, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, Imam W. D. Mohammed's Muslim American Society, the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California and others. Muslim relations evolved first into three “regional” dialogues in the late 90s and early 00s that culminated in the establishment of a National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue in 2017. Also, staff continue to participate in various consultations and retreats with Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs. Day-long bilateral Sikh-Catholic retreats have been regular occurrences since 2006. In 2015, staff took part in a significant plenary of Buddhist and Catholic Leaders in Castel Gandolfo, Italy for a “dialogue of fraternity” that culminated with an audience with Pope Francis. In that year, they also established consultations with Hindu and Jain leaders in the United States.
The CEIA sponsors a wide variety of programs in this area. Beginning in 2003, the Committee conducted a series of institutes for bishops on interreligious relations. In 2010, it held its first youth dialogue, “Generations of Faith,” that was to be followed by a second in 2012. In 2015, the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, the CEIA co-sponsored an international conference in collaboration with the Catholic University of America and also welcomed Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, former President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, in May of that year. The Committee is also a member of Religions for Peace-USA, a multilateral organization that enhances mutual understanding and facilitates collaboration. It is also among the founding members of Shoulder to Shoulder, a multilateral interfaith organization dedicated to ending anti-Muslim sentiment founded in November 2010.
The bishops who have served as chairmen of the BCEIA are: Lawrence Cardinal Shehan (1964-65), John Cardinal Carberry (1965-69), Bishop Charles H. Helmsing (1969-72), William Cardinal Baum (1972-75), Bernard Cardinal Law (1975-78), Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler (1978-81), Archbishop John F. Whealon (1981-84), William Cardinal Keeler (1984-87), James Francis Cardinal Stafford (1987-90), Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B. (1990-93), Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb (1993-96), Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett (1996-99), Bishop Tod D. Brown (1999-2002), Bishop Stephen E. Blaire (2002-05), Bishop Richard J. Sklba (2005-2008), Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory (2008-11), Bishop Denis J. Madden (2011-14), Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski (2014-17), and Bishop Joseph C. Bambera.
There are now nineteen bishops serving as members and consultants to the CEIA. They are joined by over ninety Catholic theologians and other experts participating in the ongoing dialogues and consultations in which the Committee is currently engaged. All of the Cimmittee's work is supported by the six staff members of the Secretariat. Previous Executive Directors include: Willaim Cardinal Baum (1965-67), Bernard Cardinal Law (1968-71), Reverend John Hotchkin (1972-2001), Bishop Arthur Kennedy (2002-05), Bishop James Massa (2005-11), Reverend John Crossin (2011-15), Reverend Alfred Baca (2017-18), Reverend Walter F. Kedjierski (2019-present).
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