Interview with Dr. Anthony Cirelli
What part of the country did you grow up in, and where in the country/world have your studies taken you?
I was born and raised in the old factory town of Waterbury, CT.
I received my B.A. from Trinity College, Hartford, CT; my M.A.R. from Yale University, New Haven, CT; my Ph.D. from Catholic University of America here in DC.
Education-wise, what's your area of concentration, and what attracted you to that field of study?
Systematic Theology with a concentration in both patristic anthropology and the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is the subject of my dissertation. My current research is on the realism of Benedict XVI.
I was attracted to patristics by way of Plato’s metaphysics, which I began studying in college. I became immediately fascinated by the interpretive power of Plato in whom I discovered a compelling guide for making sense of the world. During my studies of Plato, I often heard of his influence on Christian thought, and because I was also a devout Catholic and intensely interested in the foundations of my faith, I turned my attention to the fathers. I would single out Augustine and Dionysius the Areopagite as my favorite thinkers from that period.
As for von Balthasar, I was attracted both to his penetrating later work on aesthetics, but also, and more practically, to his way of doing theology. More specifically, I was fascinated by his method of retrieving the tradition in order to engage, indeed bring greater clarity to, modern issues facing the church. And so, you might say, my intellectual endeavors were transformed by my encounter with von Balthasar who taught me how to think with the fathers about current cultural and social issues.
What motivated you to leave a teaching position at St. John’s University in New York to undertake this new ministry at the Bishops Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs?
There are three reasons. First, I consider my academic work and my teaching to be at the service of the church. In this new position, I believe I can live out this mission more completely.
Second, I have been living an ecumenical life for many years now as my wife is a United Methodist pastor. In this time I have come to believe that what separates the churches doctrinally, and has led to serious acrimony and prejudices that have festered for centuries, have served only to erect ever higher and, to some extent unnecessary, walls between Christians. Thankfully, while the doctrinal differences remain in many instances, indeed have intensified in some, much of the anger and fear that have caused us to mistrust one another on account of these doctrinal differences have, in large part, been overcome since Vatican II. The key to this successful trend, a trend that speaks to a kind of re-union one might suggest, has been the cultivation of relationships that intentionally strive for greater understanding and patience in the first place. The effect of these pioneering movements has been an ever-greater increase in trust and this must not be overlooked, for, unlike in former days, such trust goes far to overcoming our differences and allowing grace to work its will as we both move closer to one another. Since my role as a pastor’s spouse has afforded me great opportunities to forge such relationships with Protestants, I have learned with great joy how much can be accomplished through the active cultivation of listening and patience and simply being-with my fellow Christians. So, when I became aware of the opening at the conference, it seemed natural to me that I should apply as I have been doing similar work unofficially for years.
Third, and more practically, as a professor, I was commuting to New York City during the week and the stress of this travel compromised my time at home but also made me less connected to university life, which is, I believe, of crucial importance for a professor. With this new commute, my travel time is now 10 minutes rather than 6-7 hours, and this enables me to be more present to both my marriage and job.
Granted that things may change as a new director for the office is brought on board, but what does your job profile look like at this point?
For now, my tasks are to direct the interreligious dialogues and the Reformed-Catholic and Lutheran-Catholic dialogues.
The interreligious encounter looks like it will be claiming a good deal of your time and energy. How do you think your background in Patristics will serve you in these dialogues?
My patristic studies have provided me with a pretty strong background in apologetics, given that the first few centuries of the church were, on the one hand, devoted to staying alive(!), and, on the other hand, intentional about elucidating the faith to non-Christians. Such an invaluable acquaintance with our theological foundations has provided me with a wealth of penetrating, well-crafted responses to non-Christians that I can bring to our interreligious interlocutors.
How are you feeling as you ease into what hopefully will be a long tenure of service to the unity of the Church and to its mission for collaboration with all people of faith?
I am adjusting well to the new position primarily because of the excellent staff support and collegiality that is present here at the USCCB and SEIA in particular. Without such support my job would be much more difficult!
We thank you for your “Yes” to the work, and look forward to updates on the various dialogues from time to time. May your efforts be fruitful!