As Paris prepares to host a new forum for dialogue between believers and non-believers, the Vatican official in charge of the initiative sees interest cropping up all over the globe.
The first major "Courtyard of the Gentiles" meeting is due to take place this March 24-25 in the French capital. The Pontifical Council for Culture-promoted program aims to engage leaders of French culture in dialogue on issues of religion, enlightenment and common reason.
Important sites of culture, including the storied Sorbonne University, have been chosen for a series of encounters.
There will also be a moment for young people to meet in a more public "courtyard," the large square outside the Basilica of Notre Dame, to have discussions. Pope Benedict XVI will address the young people in a video message. Inside the basilica, the ecumenical Taize community will be leading a prayer service.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the head of the council for culture, told Vatican Radio Feb. 5 that interest is being generated around the world. The council has heard from a number of cities interested in the possibility of hosting such a forum of their own.
One institution, the University of Bologna, Italy – called the Alma Mater Studiorum – plans to hold a gathering next week, ahead of the Paris event in March.
On Feb. 12, the university will bring back the tradition of "disputed questions." Cardinal Ravasi said that this was traditionally an exchange of opinions on a variety of subjects, whereas questions in the coming event will pertain to matters of belief and non-belief.
During the talks, four professors will exchange viewpoints on God while examining law, philosophy, literature and science. Teachings from Pascal, St. Augustine and Nietzsche will be read aloud by another participant in between the academics' remarks.
For Cardinal Ravasi, the amount of interest is "very surprising." His original plan in Paris –what he called "the city-emblem of secularism" – was to host a more low-key event at a Catholic institution.
"Then, though, I saw this branching out. And this branching out is extending itself ever further and with very different typologies. It will now be our task to continue it, but most of all to allow others to do it."
The council is thinking of staging one in Tirana, Albania and is thinking about setting up another in Stockholm, Sweden in November of this year. The latter event would be particularly "curious," he said, because of the initiative's Catholic roots and expected participation from Lutherans.
For the cardinal, there is no limit to the possibilities. He spoke of "crossing the ocean and going to the most remote countries, beginning with the United States, where there has already been interest in Chicago and Washington."
Afterwards, he is setting his sights on countries with a small population of Catholics but a presence of "a religiosity of another kind."
"Let's think to Asia," he said.