Promoting dialogue between believers and non-believers will enrich our national conversation

The Courtyard of the Gentiles will shortly be arriving in Washington DC. This idea was one of the initiatives pioneered in the papacy of Benedict XVI, and it aims to promote dialogue between believers and non-believers, for the enrichment of culture, or so I understand it.

Those who read the Bible will remember that the Temple of Solomon had three courtyards, the outer one of which, the Courtyard of the Gentiles, was open to all. So this modern Courtyard of the Gentiles aims to provide a space where the religious and non-religious, Christian and not, can meet and mingle, for their mutual benefit.

It is a bit like the Church parvis which is a common feature of every Maltese village, and which may be familiar to visitors to the Maltese Islands. In every village there is a huge, imposing and sometimes very beautiful and Baroque parish church. Inside this church is the tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament is, and which is the focal point of the building. The sanctuary is surrounded by altar rails, marking it off as a holy of holies in the holy space that is the church interior. But step out of the door, into the blinding sunshine, and there you have the village square, with its shops, its petrol station, its police station with its blue light, and its bars. These things have nothing to do with religion. But between the church steps and a further flight of steps that leads down to the square is a balustraded space, called the parvis, a space that represents the overlap between the sacred and the secular, a place where people can gather and talk.

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The parvis is often an architectural delight, but it is always a social and philosophical delight, underlining humanity’s natural avoidance of discord and abrupt transitions. The parvis, outside the church, represents the Church’s projection into the secular, a projection that in no way compromises, but rather enhances, the secular.

So what exactly is happening at the Courtyard in Washington? Part of the programme is taking place at Georgetown University, and the list of events can be seen here. All of this leads me to ask: when can we have something similar in England? As far as I can see, one does not have to ask the Vatican to organise it, though obviously having Cardinal Ravasi in attendance would be a bonus. In fact there is nothing to stop each individual parish doing Courtyard of the Gentiles events: that is to say, secular events that will bring people together and promote thought about our culture. An enrichment of the national conversation is something that we all need.

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