Bishop Tod D. Brown, who heads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, this week became the second American to receive a prestigious appointment to a Vatican council that promotes the church's relationship with other religions.
Though the 30-member Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue gathers in Rome only occasionally, the assignment by Pope John Paul II catapults Brown into the rarefied air of the Roman Curia, an elite group of cardinals and bishops who perform duties in the pope's name and with his authority.
"This is a sign of the continuing respect that the pontifical council has for our work in the United States in inter-religious relations," said Bishop Joseph Gerry of Maine, who served 10 years on the council as the first American appointee. "And it shows the importance of the United States as an excellent environment for inter-religious dialogue."
Brown, 64, will make his first trip to Rome as a member of the council in November. The group's mission is to encourage relationships between Catholics and other faiths and to promote the study of all religions.
"It's exciting and unexpected," Brown said. "I'm very grateful."
The interfaith council differs from Catholic ecumenical work, which involves other Christian denominations and Judaism.
Brown has been a longtime promoter of dialogue among Christian faiths and also other religions, a movement endorsed by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. In 1999, he was elected by his fellow bishops to chair the Catholic church's U.S. ecumenical and inter-religious affairs committee.
John Borelli, an advisor to the pontifical council, said Brown's selection is, in part, a result of that work.
He said the appointment is also "a recognition that the bishop understands that in his diocese, there's a large number of Muslims and Buddhists and he's willing to reach out to them."
Brown said the added duties given him by the pope won't interfere with his job as bishop, a concern among some in the diocese.
"It will enhance my work," Brown said, "because I will become even more sensitive to the other faiths within Orange County."
Last month, Brown hosted a three-day Muslim-Catholic dialogue for religious leaders on the West Coast.
In addition to meetings and educational sessions, Catholic leaders attended a dinner and prayer service at an Orange County mosque.
"He was very articulate, and everybody was impressed with Bishop Brown," said Haitham Bundakji, a Muslim leader in Orange County. "He has a very big heart. I was pleased to see his views and his knowledge about Islam and Muslims."
Brown's appointment is for a five-year term, which can be renewed once.
The council is headed by Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, one of the favorites to be the next pope.