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Why I'm Listening To the Pope About Reaching Out To Other Faiths

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On the Thursday before Easter Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve inmates at a youth detention centre on the edge of Rome. Washing the feet of inmates is new for a Pope but not overly ground breaking. Other Popes have used the Holy Thursday ceremony as an opportunity to demonstrate humility. John Paul II, for example, once washed the feet of twelve homeless men. What is new is Pope Francis's decision to wash the feet of two Muslims and two women (one of whom was also a Muslim). This is a break with tradition as typically only Catholic men have their feet washed by the clergy during a Holy Thursday Mass.

The significance of this action should not be overstated. It is said the Church believes in measuring time using calendars, not clocks. In other words change happens very slowly. It is therefore highly unlikely that Pope Francis is signaling his intent to allow women to become priests. While a Bishop, the Pope affirmed his belief that only men should be called to the Priesthood. There is no indication his view has evolved.

But the washing of female and Muslim feet is still an important change. It continues the evolution of the role of women in the mass and it also signifies a recognition of the challenges Muslims face. Perhaps it is even an attempt to open a dialogue with the Muslim world. When I learned the Pope named himself after St. Francis of Assisi I was excited. Assisi is widely known as a champion of the poor and is recognized by many for opening up a dialogue with a Muslim Sultan. I hope that washing of the feet is an extension of this olive branch.

While these are interesting issues for Catholics they are also applicable to the Catholic school system. In May, Waterloo Catholic District School Board Trustees will discuss allowing non-Catholic students to attend our elementary schools. Currently anyone can attend our secondary schools, but Waterloo Catholic elementary schools, with some minor exceptions, are restricted to individuals who have been baptized Catholic or are children of baptized Catholic parents.

By washing the feet of two Muslims the Pope has sent a message that it is time for us to reach out to other faiths. The Pope reinforced this message by calling upon Catholics "to open the doors of our hearts, our lives, [and] our parishes." This is also a message to us as as Catholic Trustees to open the doors of our schools.

I am regularly approached by non-Catholic parents who would like their children to receive a Catholic elementary education. These parents typically tell me a similar story. They like something about the Catholic school system, perhaps our inclusive policy for children with special needs or the faith-based education framework. These parents recognize their children will need to attend Catholic masses and learn about Catholicism in school. They also typically commit to learning more about the Catholic faith to help their children with their schooling. Unfortunately, these students are regularly rejected for admission.

Some Ontario Catholic school systems already allow non-Catholics to attend their elementary schools. Two years ago I heard one of these students speak at a conference. He was a Muslim boy attending an Ottawa Catholic elementary school. This student shared how much he enjoyed learning about Catholicism during the week, while he also liked learning about his religion on Saturdays. This boy of ten or eleven had more interfaith respect and understanding than most of us can hope to learn in a lifetime.

Many Ontario Catholic Trustees and administrators are hesitant to allow non-Catholics to attend our elementary schools. They fear it will be a slippery slope which will eventually water down Catholic education. I believe our highly successful secondary system which welcomes students of multiple faiths proves we can develop a model that protects Catholic education while opening our doors to all children. I hope my fellow Trustees will aid me in creating a mechanism to allow non-Catholics to attend all of our Ontario Catholic elementary schools. If you have an opinion on this issue I would encourage you to share your thoughts with me, or your local Trustees.

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