Father Emile “Buddy” Noel, who was ordained in 2012, has cherished memories of his childhood in Mobile, Ala., when his father set an early example for him of what “ecumenism” meant in real life.
“My father was always intrigued with inviting people into the home,” said Father Noel, who recently was appointed ecumenical officer of the Archdiocese of New Orleans by Archbishop Gregory Aymond. “A friend of mine was a Mormon, so he invited him over and spent several days with him in conversation. The Mormons thought they had a hot prospect. Actually, my father just wanted to learn.”
Father Noel, parochial vicar of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Mandeville, succeeds Jesuit Father Donald Hawkins as ecumenical officer. The two had worked together at Holy Name of Jesus Church in New Orleans when Father Hawkins was pastor and Father Noel was the director of religious education, before he decided to re-enter the seminary and discern a vocation to the priesthood.
“Father Hawkins gets a lot of credit for continuing the work he inherited from Father Stan Klores and Father James Tarantino,” Father Noel said. “Father Hawkins created the ecumenical commission of clergy and religious and lay folks from around the archdiocese.”
Father Noel’s religious background sowed the seeds of his interest in various faiths and religious traditions. While his father was a cradle Catholic, his mother had been raised as a Baptist and converted to Catholicism when she married.
“My grandmother was not Catholic, but she was always very supportive of all of us,” Father Noel said. “She always came to our confirmations, and that was my first ecumenical relationship.”
Father Noel’s father always encouraged his son to “respect the Greek Orthodox” because they are “the closest to us” Roman Catholics in faith.
“That always left me with the question, ‘Why are they close to us?’” Father Noel said. “When I was in college, I never stopped going to their Easter service. That led to one of my great loves, which is Byzantine theology.”
Father Noel’s father also had a coworker who would make demeaning comments about Islam. His father would respond, “I don’t know if I would like being in your shoes, because you just might wind up in heaven, and what if Muhammad is there?”
Taught world religions
Before entering the seminary, Father Noel taught world religions at Our Lady of Holy Cross from 1998-2004, and he was heavily involved in interfaith dialogues with the Jewish community.
After Katrina, in 2006, he helped coordinate an interfaith Holocaust memorial at St. Louis Cathedral, at which Archbishop Alfred Hughes presided. The main speaker was Rabbi Irving Greenberg, who wrote a book, “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth,” about interfaith relations and how it was critical for Christians, Jews and Muslims to remain in dialogue with each other.
“The most moving thing was when members of the Jewish community who had survived the Holocaust came up in St. Louis Cathedral and lit the menorah,” Father Noel said. “That was a tremendous thing to meet them. Everyone was very much moved.”
Dialogue with members of the Islamic faith also is “alive and well” through the annual Festival of Abraham hosted by Interfaith Communications International.
As for ongoing religious tensions, especially in the Middle East, Father Noel said it is important for Catholics to understand that Vatican II documents make it clear that “God’s mercy is infinite” and “it is possible for all people of good will to be saved. … The church does not reject anything that is good and true in any religion.”
“It is absolutely essential that we counter the negative attitudes and stereotyping,” Father Noel added. “It is prejudice – really racism. Archbishop Aymond has called for an end to racism, and we promote that by reaching out to our brothers and sisters, particularly of the Islamic tradition. They are very much the new kids on the block in religion in the United States. I’ve met so many wonderful, good Muslims who practice their faith and pray a lot more than we do.”
Father Noel said he hopes to create a website with links to church documents, ecumenical resources and information on the current state of dialogues.