A potentially significant announcement yesterday by the Vatican: an initiative known as the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" will launch in Paris on 24-25 March.
The idea came from Pope Benedict's address to the Curia over a year ago, in December 2009, when he spoke of the first step of evangelization as keeping alive the quest for God: "we must be concerned that human beings do not set aside the question of God," he said, "but rather see it as an essential question for their lives. We must make sure that they are open to this question and to the yearning concealed within it."
In that speech he recalled Jesus quoting from Isaiah (cf. Is 56: 7; Mk 11: 17) when he chased the moneylenders from the space outside the inner Temple. The Courtyard of the Gentiles was the place where those who could not be admitted could talk to the Scribes (cf. Acts 17: 23). In creating "a place of prayer for all the peoples" Jesus "was thinking of people who know God, so to speak, only from afar; who are dissatisfied with their own gods, rites and myths; who desire the Pure and the Great, even if God remains for them the unknown God".
And he went on: "I think that today too the Church should open a sort of "Court of the Gentiles" in which people might in some way latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the Church stands. Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown."
According to yesterday's announcement by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the launch will involve (24 March) three colloquia on the themes of "religion, enlightenment and common reason" at UNESCO, the Sorbonne, and the Institut de France, followed by (25 March) a round table discussion at the College des Bernardins, where Pope Benedict in 2008 made one of the most important addresses of his pontificate [picture], in which he argued, in effect, that it was the search for God which laid the foundation of western culture.
The colloquia are inspired by that gathering of intellectuals, writers and illuminati; the idea, says the priest in charge of organizing it, is to reflect together on humanity's direction, and collaborate on what kind of world we want to see in the future.
That evening (25 March) there will be a celebration on the forecourt of the cathedral of Notre Dame with the theme: "Into the Courtyard of the Unknown", which it is hoped will attract young people to an evening of drama, meetings and reflections. (And should that have the desired effect, the cathedral will be open "for those who wish to participate in a prayer vigil and shared meditation".)
It's not clear if this will catch on, and there will be future "Courtyard" events in New York, London, Madrid, and Sao Paulo. But it shows how serious Pope Benedict is about the "new evangelization" -- connecting with a western culture which has dethroned faith, but feels its absence.