An Interview with Fr. Leo Walsh
Fr. Leo Walsh, a diocesan priest from Anchorage, Alaska, joined the staff in August at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs."
Koinonia: At a time when the ecumenical boat is in rough waters and not even on the radar screens of many pastors, what motivated you to leave your pastoral work in Alaska and come to Washington, DC, to work for Christian unity and interreligious relations on a national level?
Fr. Leo: The quick answer is that I came to work at the USCCB because I was asked to. It certainly wasn’t on my radar before May 5th when I got the call. The deeper answer, of course, is that ecumenical and interfaith work has been a passion of mine since I visited the Holy Land in 1993 as a seminarian. The teaching of the Church is very clear that the work for Christian unity is “not some sort of appendix” on the Church’s mission, but is part and parcel of her identity and mission. I’m involved in this so that it will be on the radar screen of every pastor on the local and national level.
K: The Bishops’ Secretariat invests a lot of time and energy in the work of the dialogues. What will your areas of responsibility be?
Fr. Leo:As the interreligious specialist, my primary responsibility is with our relationship with the Moslems in the United States, as well as with Buddhist, Hindus, Sikhs and other world religious to a lesser degree. I also staff the ecumenical dialogues with the Reformed Churches and the Methodists.
K: What are each of the dialogues you will be staffing presently working on?
Fr. Leo: There is lots of exciting stuff happening. In the Muslim dialogues, the Mid-Atlantic is working on a statement and guidelines regarding religious education, particularly relative to what we are teaching about each other. The Midwest dialogue is exploring the role of faith in the public square; and the West Coast dialogue is concentrating on the very important topic of migration.
In the ecumenical sphere, our dialogue with the Reformed Churches is working on a very ambitious project on Baptism and Eucharist. With the Methodists we are working on crafting a teaching document on the stewardship of creation.
K: What has prepared you, whether in the domain of studies or of pastoral work, for engagement with these dimensions of the Church’s mission?
Fr. Leo: I have been a parish priest and pastor for fifteen years. Over the years, I have been very fortunate to have been given the gift of time to pursue advanced studies in Ecumenical Theology at the Angelicum in Rome. Completing the doctorate in June, 2008, was a special privilege. I’ve also been very heavily involved in ecumenical and interfaith work on the local and national level through various local, state and national associations, such as the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Officers.
K: As your studies have been more in the ecumenical than interreligious stream, how are you feeling about taking on the “Muslim portfolio”?
Fr. Leo: I see it as a new and exciting challenge. The principles of engagement and dialogue apply in the same way to interreligious relations as they do to ecumenical relations. It is the application of those skills and tools that is the only difference. It’s like having a set of good tools in your toolbox and then applying them in a different context. You can use the same tools to build a church or a community center. In the end, however, it’s important to remember that the purpose of dialogue and working on statements is to strengthen our relationships with our partners in dialogue.
It is the goal of the relationship that gives focus to our discussions. In the ecumenical realm the goal is full, visible unity among Christians. In the interreligious arena, the goal is mutual respect, understanding, and where possible, mutual cooperation in matters of common concern, such as human rights and the elimination of poverty.
K: What are the present staff resources at the Bishop’s Secretariat?
Fr. Leo: I understand that we are bit leaner than we used to be. There are three directors (one executive and two associates), and three support staff, where once there were four associates. Nevertheless, their dedication and expertise are some of the best I’ve ever encountered. It’s a privilege to work with such folks.
K: Moving from Alaska to Washington, D.C., must have been quite a change. How are you adjusting to the new environment?
Fr. Leo: Well, I was fortunate to learn early on in life that no matter where you find yourself, you have to decide that it is either going to the best, the most exciting place you have ever lived--or not. Once you decide that, the rest is just details. D.C. is a very interesting place with no shortage of things to do and see. People have been kind. I’ve also found that being from Alaska has a real advantage in my ministry here at the Secretariat. Alaskans tend to think in terms of possibilities. That’s a great asset in this line of work!