Dynamics of Interfaith — Father Rick Ginther interview
Rachel Koehler interviews Fr. Rick Ginther as part of her Dynamics of Interfaith series of podcasts
Father Rick Ginther discusses ecumenical work within the Catholic Church and how that has influenced his curiosity about others. He readily questions tradition and realizes the power of education.
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Rachel: Today, we have Father Rick Ginther. Welcome, Fr. Rick.
Fr. Rick: Thank you.
Rachel: It’s great to have you here. Can you start by telling us just a little bit about yourself?
Fr. Rick: I was born and raised here in Indianapolis on the Eastside near the state fairgrounds. I’ve been a member of the Roman Catholic Church since I was a little boy, actually an infant, and brought up to be a strong believer. And I’ve got a lot of education to help keep that going strongly. And I’ve always had an interest in how people pray in the various religions, and an interest in how they approach God. When I was younger, I heard people say that our Protestant brothers and sisters weren’t going to heaven because they left the true church. And that was hard for me because I couldn’t understand that these were good people, and how would that possibly
be? Then, I even began to explore, in my own mind and reading, what about other people? People who aren’t Christian? And that’s what has led me to seek a greater understanding of their faith journeys, whether it’s how they pray, how they think, how they see the world, how they wish to be embraced by God, however they express their belief in God. So it’s been a fascinating journey.
Rachel: I bet. And is that how you got involved with the CIC? You saw their mission and were interested?
Fr. Rick: Well, that was part of it. I did see their mission, but I saw it through the eyes of Glenn Tebbe, a former board member. Glenn is the head of the Indiana Catholic Conference. He works for the five dioceses, Catholic dioceses in the State of Indiana, and he has been involved in ecumenical and interreligious work since the first ecumenical commission of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. So, he’s been around a long time, and he invited me to encounter this. In 2012, then Auxiliary Bishop Coyne asked me to begin working as the ecumenical-interreligious officer. That’s a technical term that means I am working on behalf of the Diocese and the Archbishop, and to take this work up. Very quickly, Glenn introduced me to the Festival of Faiths, and so we’ve been a part of the Festival of Faiths as the Archdiocese and the Office of Ecumenism and interreligious concerns since the very inception. So that’s how I began to get more in touch with the work of the CIC. Now, in a past life, when I was the Director of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and the Rector of the Cathedral, I had the opportunity to help begin a Thanksgiving interreligious prayer service at the Cathedral. And we had Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. praying in thanksgiving, and we all witnessed how they prayed. And that was – since we’re not able to pray together, which, when we come together interreligiously, it’s our understanding of God and how we pray is different, but we can witness each other pray. That was a powerful experience over a number of years at the Cathedral.
Rachel: Have you found across all different religions that there is a form of prayer that exists in all of them?
Fr. Rick: There is verbal prayer, yes. There is sung prayer, yes. The naming of God is very different. Some of the religions have multiple gods. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have one God. And there are always forms of art to express our belief in God, from the very simplest to the more ornate. Some of us have images, statues, but what I’ve found is that we all have a longing to pray to something that’s larger than ourselves. It’s a transcendent reality. However we name it, we still have this longing. It’s buried deep inside of us; it’s just a part of who we are, that longing for something greater than ourselves.
Rachel: I like it, yeah. Looking at something so simple, I guess, like prayer and looking at it across different faiths, I think, is really interesting, because you can see it from a larger perspective, there are so many differences. But when you bring it to one thing and really look at that specifically, that’s a powerful moment. And two, with the Thanksgiving, that must have been super neat to have so much diversity in one room.
Fr. Rick: The great diversity in prayer forms, and the fact that we were all praying in Thanksgiving, the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving was celebrated in the United States. So there was this connection with the secular and the religious at the time, and the majority of the people that came to be with each other to pray that night were going to celebrate, in some way, shape or form, Thanksgiving in America.
Rachel: So you did have that similarity.
Fr. Rick: Right. That’s part of who we are as a nation, and thanksgiving is one of the prayer forms that cuts across all religions, giving God thanks and praise.
Rachel: And it sounds like, within the Catholic Church, you have these positions that are solely meant to be ecumenical as you say, or focused in interreligious dialogue. So, it sounds like the Catholic Church encourages interfaith dialogue.
Fr. Rick: It does very much. The Second Vatican Council, between 1962 and 1965, there was a specific document, Nostra Aetate, that talked about interreligious, or interfaith, dialogue. There’s another one that was written for ecumenical dialogue and work. And it’s a thread that runs through many of the sixteen documents of that council. And so it encourages us to clearly listen, learn, share, find that which is good, holy, wholesome in all religions, and let others see that in ours, and where do we connect, especially as human beings. First and foremost, as human beings, creatures of the Lord, [sic] in God, and how do we appreciate that? And then, what can we do together, especially in interreligious. What can we do together to better the situation of humankind?
Rachel: Yeah, definitely. What are some issues that you find where interfaith could be a great solution or looking at interfaith and peaceful dialogue is so needed? Does that make sense?
Fr. Rick: That’s a tough one. I believe, on social justice issues, we can come together for the common needs of humanity of respect, of valuing each other, of housing, healthcare, family, caring for those who are poor and helping them to rise through that, caring for the environment, of all of nature and creation, religious freedom, that we all have the freedom to worship and to believe as we will, and that that freedom carries through in so many levels. The only lack of freedom is if what we are doing becomes destructive, and that’s not necessarily who we are supposed to be. Oh, yeah. There are so many things. I have been involved with Habitat for Humanity, and with my parish here. And with a parish, I was the pastor of in Terre Haute. There, in Terre Haute, it was an apostles’ build. It was Christian churches coming together to build. Here, it’s been the interfaith build. And we’re going to continue to be involved in that as a parish. And I know that it’s wonderful because that meant that we had Mormons and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Jains, and you name it. There were people working on these three houses this past year. That’s just one small way. In certain parts of the city we have, here in Indianapolis, we have churches or mosques and/or synagogues that can work together to deal with justice issues, but especially food, food insecurity.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s a huge issue in Indianapolis.
Fr. Rick: It is. I live on the Eastside, and we’re the most food insecure side of the city, and we’re involved in that. But when it comes to interreligious work in that area, it’s a little more difficult because it’s finding each other. You have these smaller communities that want to, but do they have the capacity to? And then you’ve got these larger communities, and we’re still learning how to find each other, which is fine.
Rachel: That’s so neat that you can come together over service, and then, you– that propels a really great interreligious dialogue beyond what you’re doing physically.
Fr. Rick: It allows us to begin to be curious in a safe way, once we see that we’re able to work together on an issue that we believe is basic goodness for humanity, the common good. Then, by rubbing up against each other, we begin to build a relationship. As we build the relationship, then we can possibly begin to talk about how the world treats our religion or how we treat the world as a religion. It’s a slow process of building those trust relationships so that you can enjoy each other. And then listen attentively, and ultimately, to grow stronger in your own belief, your own religion, your own faith.
Rachel: That’s something I’ve always wondered, and [what] I’ve asked a lot of different people from the board is: do you become stronger or do you leave some of them questioning your own beliefs? But it sounds like it informs yours.
Fr. Rick: It informs and challenges and asks you to look a little deeper. Maybe I have looked at something as deeply as another one of my brothers or sisters in a different religion has, so I would step back and go, “Maybe I oughta look at this a little deeper.” And I’m in kind of that, with conversations with a couple of the rabbis. They have made me think deeper. And then to make connections with how they’re speaking and how our own documents on social justice and commitment to the common good, how do they speak of it, and where we can connect. So that just starts to make it deeper and deeper. And the more you can interrelate like that, the more it becomes just a part of your personal fabric.
Rachel: Could you speak a little to your personal fabric, maybe your personal faith journey, and how you became Catholic, how you’ve stayed Catholic and what that’s meant to you?
Fr. Rick: Sure. I was born into a Catholic family. My mother was raised Catholic. My father became Catholic sometime before I was born. I’m number five out of seven. There were twelve years between my oldest sister being born and my being born, and then there are two more after me. I was immersed in Catholicism from the very beginning. I was born on August 25. I was baptized on September 11, 1950. Do the math. I was marinated in it. It just became a part of who I was. I had the opportunity through seminary high school, college and theology to encounter other Christians and even go to synagogue and to begin to see, okay, there’s another way. We are Judeo-Christians. That means I need to have an appreciation for Judaism because the Old Testament, or Hebrew Testament, however you wish to name it, is powerful but you have to kind of have an appreciation for Judaism and not just read it as a Christian.
Rachel: Yeah, true. That’s a valid point.
Fr. Rick: That was part of my faith journey. My faith journey was also to look at a lot of questions just about Catholicism over the years. And then to not be afraid to ask the questions or run away from questions, but to say ‘Okay, where did this come from? How does it tie together? How does it uphold what’s in the Christian Testament? How does it relate? What part of history does it come from? Which of my ancestors in faith arrived at this? And how does it all tie together in this fabric we call ‘Catholicism’?’ So, I have found that to be a fascinating journey over the years. And it’s always new, because there’s always something I don’t know. Always. Which I enjoy. I’m not afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ At one point in my life, I taught middle school.
Rachel: How was that?
Fr. Rick: Well, I loved it. I was teaching in a Catholic school and letting students ask their questions and struggle with the answers and then not letting them make me the question answerer. ‘Well, go take a look at that book over there. I bet you’re gonna find your answer if you really ask yourself and look at it.’ So, I was teaching in a Catholic school to mostly Catholic students at that time, but still on this quest for understanding, to be open to thinking something through. I’ve been blessed that way. And I came from a family that encouraged me to study.
Rachel: I think education is so important.
Fr. Rick: Right. Well, when you have four older sisters who are all pretty smart, you really gotta struggle to try to stay ahead.
Rachel: What does your day-to-day life look like with the church?
Fr. Rick: As a Catholic pastor, priest?
Fr. Rick: Well, early rising. I tend to get up early. That’s for first breakfast, because there’s always a second breakfast. Time for prayer, time for reading, time to do a few personal things that need to be taken care of. I have to balance my own checkbook and that kind of thing. Get ready for whatever the day’s gonna be. I have days that begin with 8:15 [AM] Mass and days that begin with appointments, and Mass is later in the day. So there’s this adjusting. I do some writing. I try to stay ahead of what the parish needs, visit with people. I have appointments with folks, try to think beyond ‘Where are we right now?’ But, ‘Where are we going to be in three to five years, and how are we building towards that?’ Again, more time for prayer. I try to eat well, healthily, that is. I exercise three times or more a week. I like to read. I usually have a spiritual book going, a novel going, and sometimes a history book going.
Rachel: Wow. That’s amazing.
Fr. Rick: Yeah, well that doesn’t mean they get done very quickly, but they’re all there. And then, encountering people where they’re at, whether it’s a grade school student at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, one of the faculty, one of the staff, a parishioner who comes in, a stranger who stops me on the grounds. On Wednesdays, I spend most of my day at the Catholic center working on ecumenical or interreligious topics or projects or I’m writing. I write a column every month for the Criterion.
Rachel: Wow. You’re so busy. That’s a lot going on.
Fr. Rick: Yeah I have a lot going on, but I’ve been doing that for a long, long time, and it works for me.
Rachel: And through your journey, you said you’ve had these questions. How have you been able to reconcile looking at the question of there are people outside the Catholic Church who may or may not be seen as well in God’s eyes “for some religious doctrine says this”? In my own Protestant faith, we also have those exclusive claims of ‘this is the way and you have to follow my way to get to God,’ right? How do you reconcile some of those, being strong in your own tradition, with also wanting to encourage other faiths to practice their own particular faiths and celebrate their truths just as much as you can celebrate your own truth?
Fr. Rick: Well, that can be a real tricky one, a slippery slope if you’re not careful. Knowing what my church teaches, first and foremost, I have to know that. And I have to know where it came from. There is an old saying that goes back centuries: ‘There’s no salvation outside the church.’ But the question has become, in the last seventy-five years, what do I mean by ‘church’ and how are others related to this church that is a gift of Jesus Christ to humanity and is supposed to be carrying on the Gospel? How do you relate that to all these others, and how– that’s where those documents I mentioned earlier, the Second Vatican Council, they talk about what is good and true in other religions. We can’t ignore that. We can’t deny it. There are goods and truths in other religions. And how does it relate to what we believe, and that’s where we start. And to encourage people to embrace their religion as close to themselves as possible just as I hope I am doing that with myself, by then learning from them how they have come to what they’ve come to, and appreciate that. And then, at the same time, when they learn from me, that’s part of how I say ‘Okay, this is how we believe and this is what we believe, and this is where it came from and how it’s rooted in scripture’ and the importance of that for us. Well, that’s a form of proclaiming the Gospel, it is just sharing what I know. Just sharing it. Here it is. If you have questions, ask your questions, and I’ll do the best I can to help you arrive at an answer that you can, at least, go ‘Okay, I think I’ve got it.’
Rachel: That’s not force or anything. That’s just you talking, sharing, and them doing the same.
Fr. Rick: The church has formal, theological dialogues with other religions, and definitely, with other Christians. And this is where the theologians actually get together and actually sit and talk. These are the ones who are trained at a level– I’m a pastor, first and foremost. I don’t have the academic acumen, nor the intellectual acumen to do that kind of dialogue work. What I can do is the everyday and the work with the Center for Interfaith Cooperation. I can help with this. So, that’s part of how I approach it, going back to your original question. You teach me, I teach you, we appreciate each other. We come to some kind of understanding of each other and sometimes go ‘We’re never going to agree on this one. Okay. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.’
Rachel: Yeah, definitely. So to kind of summarize everything, what does ‘interfaith’ mean to you?
Fr. Rick: ‘Interfaith’ means the ability of people of different faiths to appreciate each other, to find ways to work together for the common good, to reveal to each other the wonder of common longing, and to, all of us together, leave the world a better place.
Rachel: I like that a lot. Thank you so much for being here, Fr. Rick.