Buddhist Catholic Dialogue
May 4, 2002
Present: Fr. Alexei Smith, Rev. Dickson Yagi, Cynthia Shimazu,
Sr. Thomas Bernard, Carole Belnek, Ven. Karuna Dharma, Anita
Merwin, Dr. David Chappell, Dr. Michael Kerze
We continued to share the stories which brought us to the dialogue.
Sr. Thomas Bernard: Ive always been Catholic. When
I was young it was a tough time, the Depression, but my family
got through. As soon as I saw my first grade teacher, a nun,
I knew I want to be one. In high school I was interested in
drama. To save money for college I got a job driving army trucks
for the army. When I saved enough I went to undergraduate college
at Holy Name in Oakland. During my junior year I attended a
discussion session by a Dominican priest about the works of
St. Thomas Aquinas. It was in the course of that I had a shift
in my sense of direction. The priest introduced me to the works
of Reginald Garrigou- Lagrange, a mystical theologian still
living, whom I wrote to. He wrote back. I took it to the president
of the college who said: Most girls write to movie stars.
You write to theologians! Through Garraigou-Lagrange the
contemplative part of me started to come into focus. After I
graduated I went into the community. The daily practices of
prayer and the opportunities to study have contributed so much
to my sense of God and my contemplative life. That contemplative
dimension is so important to our lives. Our lives in ministry
have to be supported by contemplative practice, otherwise, do
we really know what we are doing? Msgr. Vadakin asked me to
join the dialogue; I really dont know why. Maybe it had
something to do with my sense of the importance of contemplative
I was put in the position of director of the archdiocesan Spirituality
Center by a committee on spirituality, a subcommittee of the
liturgical committee. They thought it important to have a center.
I was already working both full time with the retired sisters
and part time with teaching at Mt. St. Marys College.
I said I simply dont have time unless something gave.
The provincial said I could have two days a week away from the
older sisters. Two years later I was full time. Why I was asked
I still dont know, but I think God had something to do
with it. I invite Carole Belnek to tell her story.
Carole Belnek: My mother was a French Catholic who had
a Ph.D. in Asian linguistics from the Sorbonne. She emigrated
to the US after surviving Auschwitz where she was placed because
she was caught smuggling Jewish children out of France. Her
husband was killed. My father was from a Russian Orthodox Jewish
family; he was an Annapolis grad who was in business. Only
in America could something like their marriage take place.
By the time I was born neither had much use for religion but
we did celebrate the Jewish holidays of my fathers family, and
Christmas. My sister and I were raised to be ethical people;
one is now a practicing Jew and the other is an Episcopal priest.
I had dual citizenship and was raised half in the US and half
in Europe. When I was born, my mother was working for the UN
and the State Department. I always knew there was more to the
story than I had learned. I had my mothers knack for language.
By 12 or 13 I was reading Kabbalah and the Church Fathers. I
was very close to my grandmother, a very devout mystically inclined
Christian. I went to Boston College and was taught by wonderful
theologians, Richard McBrien and Mary Daly and for a few years
I became Catholic. I began Zen meditation too. I felt close
to Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross but, eventually, realized
that Church dogma was not true for me. I was involved with Catholic
Jewish dialogue and discovered commonality between seekers in
different religions. I kept picking up languages, I was studying
Chinese languages. I worked for Health and Human Services, lobbying
Congress for them. I eventually resigned, came to California,
and found a deep interest in Mahayana Buddhism. I took precepts
and Ven. Karuna Dharma invited me to join the dialogue. Ill
be teaching a graduate class on Chinese poetry at the Claremont
Colleges this year. Im studying Pali now. Im bi-lingual
and bi-literate in English and French, studied medieval Japanese,
and have studied Mandarin and Cantonese and have picked up a
little Vietnamese when I ran a Vietnamese refugee camp for Health
Services in Santa Clara. In my family you have to be able to
listen to Yiddish, Russian, English and French to listen to
the gossip. Ive also taught Greek. I know my karma has
brought me to this place and its all been very rewarding. I
invite Fr. Alexei to speak.
Fr. Alexei: I was born in downtown Los Angeles and have
lived here all my life except four years in Boston. I was raised
as a Roman Catholic in a Catholic neighborhood and attended
Catholic schools. I always wanted to be a priest but not seriously.
In high school I visited a seminary in San Diego but did not
like it at all. I went to USC and studied International Relations.
In my senior year in order to pay bills, I answered an ad in
the classifieds for part time work at Pierce Brothers
Mortuary. Every other weekend and nights for year I answered
the phone and the door. When I graduated the mortuary offered
to make me a director and I worked for them for 15 years. I
went from a night attendant to a vice president of the firm;
by that time it was a big corporation.
I met lots of other faith traditions in the business. I was
in charge of Eastern Christian Rite funerals and met and worked
with a lot of clergy with whom I had great theological discussions.
They kept giving things for me to read and wed talk about
them. I became friends with Fr. Venetos at Saint Sophia. I almost
became Greek Orthodox but it was a little too ethnic for me.
On his suggestion, I checked out Greek Catholics and came here
to St. Andrews. I was a parishioner here for ten years
and I kept thinking about the priesthood. I made a deal with
God: if such and such happens, you are telling me I should do
it. Two days later what I asked about happened. I attended the
seminary of St. Gregory in Boston. I knew when I walked in that
it was right. I used to suffer migraines; since I entered Ive
only had two or three. In 1987 I was ordained here and made
administrator and then pastor. Sr. Thomas Bernard knew a seminarian
who was attending seminary with me and she just happened to
be visiting with him the day I was ordained a deacon. Weve
known each other ever since.
Msgr. Vadakin invited me to the Catholic Orthodox dialogue.
I worked with Fr. Romero on several things and eventually,
after his stroke, I was appointed to be the Ecumenical Officer.
I was the vice-chair of the Priest Council and at a meeting
a priest made what I thought was a hilarious remark and I laughed
and laughed and then saw no one did. The cardinal looked at
me and asked to see me at the break and I thought to myself,
Im dead there goes my political career. During
the break the cardinal and I took a walk and he said to me:
As you know, were looking for a new director for
Interreligious and Ecumenical Affairs, and everyone is telling
me it should be you. I immediately responded: How
do you define everybody? Rather than go into
names, he replied, I just want you to know that if you want
it, the job is yours. I thought it better not to say anything
right then so I told him Id like to think about it and
pray about it. Go ahead, he said. Two days later his secretary
called and said that the cardinal had a message for me. Whats
that, I asked. He wants to know if you are done praying
yet, he replied. I said: Yes. Ive prayerfully
considered this and I want to talk about it. The plan
was to have me start in February when Fr. Gil would retire;
it was summer now. Then the Vatican issued Dominus Iesus
in September and the diocese needed someone to respond to the
uproar about it. Around Oct. 15 I got another call from the
cardinals secretary who said, The cardinal has changed
his mind about your coming to work here. I thought I was
off the hook, but he continued: Instead of starting Feb.
1, his eminence would like you to start Nov. 1. I started
and Ive been doing it now for two years and I love it
and love everyone here and all the groups I work with. I think
its vital for the Church to do this dialoguing and relationship.
There are many interfaith councils and groups in Los Angeles,
for example, the Interreligious Council of Southern California.
Much more interfaith council cooperation is needed. Since 9-11
my focus has been much more on interreligious work, lots of
interfaith services. Ive met lots of Muslims, including
Dr. Abdul Rahman, head of the Shura, the Muslim council in Southern
California. I told Pres. Bush on Monday when I met him that
Los Angeles is diverse not just ethnically but religiously and
its imperative we all work together for the greater good. The
only way were going to do this is getting to know each
other. And thats why Im here today.
Bush visited the First AME Church Monday and Chip Murray invited
the cardinal but he was already booked so I went there. There
was about 20 of us at the table and each of us had 2 minutes
to say what we wanted. As my time was ending, I grew bold and
said: And I expect you, Mr. President, to encourage this
kind of dialogue and cooperation in every city in the United
States. And of course he replied, Yes Fr. Alexei
I will. (We all laughed)
Sr. Thomas Bernard: I was invited to his ordination.
The bishop said something about Alexei and then he turned to
the congregation and said Im appointing him to be your
pastor. The congregation clapped and clapped.
Fr. Alexei: The previous pastor had died two years before
and they had a number of interim people. Things were sort of
meandering. Im not so sure they would clap today if the
same thing happened. (We all laughed again.)