AT AN INTERFAITH prayer service in 2016 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, speakers of different faiths hold hands during a prayer: Audrey Hughes, Khalafalla Osman, Humera Khan, Kathleen Duff and Deb Riitano. (Nate Whitchurch photo)
AT AN INTERFAITH prayer service in 2016 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, speakers of different faiths hold hands during a prayer: Audrey Hughes, Khalafalla Osman, Humera Khan, Kathleen Duff and Deb Riitano. (Nate Whitchurch photo)
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In 1686, the Dongan Charter that incorporated the city of Albany was the first such charter to provide for religious tolerance among the city’s inhabitants.
With such an illustrious history at its heart, it’s no surprise that the Diocese of Albany has long been recognized nationwide for ecumenical and interfaith relations.

As The Evangelist arrives in mailboxes this week, the Diocese’s Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an Oct. 4 gathering of current commission members at the Century House in Latham.

Rev. Rev. James Kane, director of the commission for the past 36 years, told The Evangelist that the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was a “sea-change” for the Catholic Church in terms of connecting with other faiths.

“Before Vatican II, Catholics weren’t even allowed to go into Protestant churches, let alone synagogues or mosques,” he noted.

The Albany Diocese took to heart Vatican II’s 1964 Decree on Ecumenism and began the Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

From its start in 1968, the commission had a Protestant observer among its ranks. A Jewish-Catholic Dialogue Committee was created, followed later by Orthodox, Muslim and Protestant committees. Ecumenical organizations like the Capital Region Ecumenical Organization came about. The “Our Neighbors’ Faith” column began to be published periodically in The Evangelist, with representatives of other faiths sharing their beliefs.

Major progress with relations with the local Jewish community culminated in 1986, when Bishop (now Emeritus) Howard J. Hubbard held a historic Palm Sunday reconciliation service called “From Fear to Friendship” at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, apologizing to the Jewish people for all the Church’s sins of the past and seeking healing. The service is believed to have been the first of its kind in the world.

Connections with other faiths continued to be made, as well. Father Kane recalls the creation of a covenant relationship with the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints in Albany; being on the planning team when the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham’s Crusade came to the area; and listening to Cardinal Francis Arinze speak to black Muslims and to Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy give a talk at The College of Saint Rose in Albany on his work with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That’s not to mention a special lecture Father Kane attended with Bishop Emeritus Hubbard in 2009 by the Dalai Lama, who was visiting Albany.

After 9/11, the Ecumenical Commission began to focus on establishing relations with the Muslim community. Father Kane has given more than 80 talks he titles “Islam 101” to educate Catholics on what Muslims believe and dispel any misunderstandings about Islam.

At a time when there is a great deal of divisiveness in the country around such issues, Father Kane said, the Albany Diocese still stands as a beacon of interfaith relations. He pointed to Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger’s recent appointment to the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, particularly in light of its work to link with Orthodox Jews.

“We are building on what is already a beautiful reality in our Diocese,” Father Kane said.

One very recent event is still making him smile: Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, Egypt, just visited the Diocese Sept. 19 to dedicate St. Mary and St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Albany. In attendance at the solemn high Mass were Bishop Scharfenberger, Bishop Emeritus Hubbard and Father Kane — the only guests of other faiths. Each was presented with an icon of the Madonna and Christ child to mark the occasion.

Looking ahead, Father Kane said that the “getting-to-know-you” work of ecumenism and interfaith relations has already been accomplished by the commission. What’s next is continuing to discuss moral issues that can still divide the faiths: for example, views on gay marriage, abortion, infertility treatments and end-of-life care.

“The springtime of ecumenism was in the ‘60s. It’s no longer spring — but it’s not winter,” the director said. “Many wonderful things are going on.”

(Learn more at www.rcda.org/offices/commission-ecumenical-and-interreligious-affairs or call 518-453-6660.)

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Current members of the commission are: Frank Pell (chair and Our Neighbors’ Faith column coordinator), Rev. James Kane (director), Rev. David Mickiewicz (liaison to Orthodox Dialogue), Rev. Donna Elia (Protestant advisor and Protestant-Catholic Dialogue), Kathleen Kerrigan Duff (Jewish-Catholic Dialogue), Edward Falterman, Audrey Hughes (Muslim-Catholic Dialogue), Joan Lipscom (vice-chair), Anne Snyder (Protestant-Catholic Dialogue), Lynn Waterman, Deacon Walter Ayres (liaison, Diocesan Peace and Justice Commission), Deacon Charles Wojton (website administration)