While many friars are engaged in interfaith dialogue, the identity of my dialogue partner sometimes gets me quizzical looks. I have, for many years, had an interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons.
While my interest extends back to my teenage years, it was about 15 years ago that I joined the Mormon History Association. By 2003, I had plucked up enough courage to attend my first conference of the Association held that year in Kirtland, Ohio. Not knowing anyone there, it was awkward at first, but since then I have become a regular. I’ve attended conferences in Casper, Wyo., Killington, Vt., Salt Lake City, and Springfield, Ill. This year, from May 27 to 30, I attended the 45th conference of the association in Independence, Mo.
When I go to the conference, friends now surround me, and there is usually a post-conference bus tour that has taken me to sites I would not normally visit. Twice I have been honored with a request to lead prayer; once at a “devotional” in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City; and this year at a lunchtime lecture. Last year, I gave one of the presentations by reviewing two recent publications and holding a dialogue with the authors.
Not all the association’s members are Mormons, and so I have a little group of friends that we call the “Morlics” comprised of both Mormons and Catholics (and others). I usually celebrate Mass for the Catholic members of the group on the Saturday night of the conference.
In 2006, I published an article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in which I explained my interest in Mormonism and wrote of St. Francis’s counsel to those who wished to go among the Saracens.
Along the way, I have been able to incorporate what I have learned in my New York state history class at Siena. (Mormonism began in New York.) I even taught a seminar on 19th century Mormons and Shakers. I have an article before the editors of BYU Studies that looks at how Catholics and Mormons deal with evil in our respective histories.
Last month, I was able to share my passion with several of the friars. Gregory Jakubowicz, OFM, Walter Liss, OFM, and myself attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, N.Y. The “pageant” takes place on the side of the hill where Joseph Smith Jr. claimed to receive the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was inscribed.
Each year, there is a great spectacle that brings busloads of Mormons, many of the curious, and fundamentalist Christian pickets. Their website notes that the visitor will have an “experience of one of the world’s great outdoor theatrical productions … a costumed staff of over 650 … and Hollywood special effects.” The pageant tells the story of the Book of Mormon and invites the guest to “experience the savior’s love.”
For me, Mormon studies have been a great blessing. I now have some very wonderful LDS friends who sometimes come to me for a Catholic perspective on life. I also have learned that many of them are eager to share their own faith. Some of the Mormons have a lively interest in Catholicism and in the ways we struggle with some of the same issues. For myself, it is a great way to be an empathetic outsider, and to gain perspective on my own beliefs.
I honestly believe I have become a better Catholic and a better friar because of my involvement with this most American of religious traditions … and, I have a much better appreciation for the HBO series “Big Love.”
— Fr. Dan, assistant professor of history at Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y., celebrated his 25th anniversary as a friar in 2008.