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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Dan Olson, Ph.D.

Gordon: What are you primary responsibilities as Assistant Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of Chicago?

Dan: There really are three main responsibilities. First, I staff Cardinal Cupich in matters related to Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.  More particularly, I assist Fr. Thomas Baima, Vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in the Archdiocese, in staffing the Archbishop.  Sometimes this means providing consultation on issues that arise, while other times it means representing the Archdiocese at a gathering.  It also means that I spend a good deal of time collaborating with other Archdiocesan Offices, such as Marriage and Family, Peace and Justice, and Catholic Schools, to assist them in their partnerships with other Christian and Interreligious organizations.

Second, I foster relationships with other Christians and with members of different religions (for example, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists).  This relational component entails attending various scholarly, prayer and dialogue meetings, as well as planning and attending ecumenical and interreligious events throughout Chicagoland.

Third, I spend a good deal of time helping Catholics understand that Ecumenical and Interreligious engagement is a constitutive part of Catholic identity.  It is part of who we are as Catholics.  This formational piece includes many elements, but especially important is my service as a coordinator of our Archdiocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Parish-to-Parish Learning Community, my role as a teacher within the Diaconate and Lay Formation programs of the Archdiocese and our ongoing pastoral support for interchurch and interreligious families.

Gordon: What draws you to ecumenical and interreligious work?

Dan: Really, my passion for ecumenism began when I was a Pastoral Associate at a parish in suburban Milwaukee several years ago.  My work on the town’s ecumenical council and my interaction with young interchurch couples in the parish really showed me the value in coming to know our Christian brothers and sisters better.  I learned so much of myself and my faith through these encounters.  I then took this passion with me to my graduate studies at Loyola University Chicago, where it has only grown.  Out of this ecumenical starting point, I have come to appreciate deeply interreligious dialogue and see its importance more clearly every day.

Gordon: What was your principal focus of study at Loyola?

Dan: While I was at Loyola, I had the joy of getting my Ph.D. in Constructive Theology.  While many don’t quite know what this field entails, it really is a practical and pastoral, forward thinking application of Theology to the issues of our day.  It is about allowing the wisdom and insight of theology to inform how we construct a better present and future for the Church and world.  The vision of the degree in Constructive Theology fit well with my interest in interchurch marriages (marriages between a Catholic and a member of another Christian tradition) and their pastoral gifts and challenges.  So, I spent a good deal of time exploring what Catholic theology can teach us about the giftedness of the interchurch home.

Gordon: What are some of the greatest challenges that face Christian interchurch families?

Dan: Let me say that the root of these challenges is posed by Christian disunity itself.  This is what makes the quest for Christian unity so urgent for interchurch families.  It impacts their lives daily.  With that said, these families face challenges of where and how to belong to a local parish/congregation, how to raise children as Christian disciples in relation to their churches, how to deal with lack of Eucharistic hospitality at liturgical gatherings, and concerns from family and clergy about their ability to live out a unified Christian existence.  In many cases, it really stems from a sense of feeling marginalized or misunderstood.  I would argue that seeing the giftedness within these ecumenical homes and pastorally attending to the challenges that these families face is of utmost importance for the future of ecumenical dialogue.

Gordon: You mentioned earlier that you teach within the Diaconate and Lay Formation Programs of the Archdiocese.  What are the primary subjects that you teach?

Dan: I teach Ecclesiology in the Diaconate Formation Program and Christology and Morality within the Lay Leadership Program.  I have come to enjoy and value these courses very much.  They give me great insight into the future of the Church in Chicago as I come to know lay and clerical leaders who will likely take on a larger role in the years to come.  Their passion for ministry and love for the Church is inspiring.

Gordon: Let me shift the conversation a bit.  We have seen a rise in Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim attitudes in America.  What is being done in Chicago to address this reality?

Dan: Thanks for asking such an important question.  Let me offer some context before answering your question directly.  The first thing to recall is our roots in Vatican II, particularly Nostra Aetate.  This authoritative document calls Catholics to esteem Muslims and urges Catholics to work at mutual understanding in order to better promote peace and justice in our world.  These are direct calls for mutual engagement, not suggestions. 

Second, it is important to see how this issue is framed relationally.  Catholics are called to foster relationships with Muslims, not Islam as such.  We are called to meet, dialogue with and befriend Muslims.  This is more than just learning about Islam, although that surely comes through the encounter itself.  It is different and more personally involving to work at coming to know and esteem actual Muslims, not just learn about their religion or consider what one hears about them on the news.  Encounters change us and our attitudes as Pope Francis reminds us often.

Gordon: You mentioned the news.  Why is it significant to pay attention to this reality and how Muslims are portrayed publicly?   

Dan: This is a complicated question which cannot be fully addressed here.  Let me say this: many Muslims share with me that they feel that they are not often fairly portrayed in the local/national news.  They note that one can get the mistaken impression that all, or most, Muslims support or do little to speak out against terrorist groups such as ISIS.  In reality, I know that many Muslim organizations (in Chicago, America and beyond) speak out about this violence and its misuse of Islamic teaching on a regular basis.  These are voices that one rarely sees covered on American news, however.  As perception can become reality, paying attention to these portrayals and how issues are framed becomes very important.

Gordon: Do you perceive any commonality between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Muslim sentiments in this regard?

Dan: All phobias and biases come out of a fearfulness and mistrust of “the other.”  Often this “other” is not known in any true depth.  In this, I see a clear commonality and the need to move beyond these sentiments through entering into relationships with members of other religions.  Saying that, I find that the rhetoric towards Muslims in America today remains particularly troubling and systematic.

Gordon: Getting back to my earlier question, what can our parishes do to help combat Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim sentiments?

Dan: Our work with local parishes is aimed at getting them to know and enter into relationships with their Muslim neighbors.  For example, earlier this week, about 100 Catholics gathered with 100 Muslims in Bridgeview, IL to celebrate our annual interfaith iftar (the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan).  At this event, Archbishop Cupich directly spoke about the importance of getting to know Muslims locally.  In fact, he highlighted a couple of parishes that have begun a Catholic/Muslim women’s group to learn about one another through shared meals and dialogue. 

Sharing this vision, our office does its best to support and encourage these grassroots initiatives.  Admittedly, these are long term projects, but no quick fix can be offered here.  The difficulty is that these partnerships take time to develop.  One cannot rush relationships based on trust and friendship.  Generally, we are not a patient people, but in times such as ours, we are convinced that this is the best way forward. 

Gordon: What can our grade schools, high schools, and colleges do to help combat Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim attitudes?

Dan: Educating students about the core tenets of Islam can be of help here.  I would recommend inviting Muslim scholars and believers to participate in this teaching is quite important, if at all possible.  I would prefer that a Catholic explain to another group what Catholics believe, and see no reason why a Muslim, Jew or anyone else wouldn’t as well.

Even more important, though, is to get Catholic and Muslim students (peers) together to engage in conversation.  There doesn’t need to be an agenda other than offering them the time and space to dialogue.  They will see that they are both struggling with the same issues and that they have many more commonalities than differences.  Moreover, it can show them on an experiential level that they can work together in addressing the challenges of our day.  I have seen the fruitfulness of these encounters countless times.  We have to have the courage and trust that the Holy Spirit will aid in these moments of dialogue.   These gatherings break down fear, misunderstanding and clarify matters in ways that “learning about” another religion cannot accomplish.  I have become convinced that personal encounter with Muslims is the most effective means of combating Islamophobia in our city and world.


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