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While Bishop Edward U. Kmiec has plenty of challenges awaiting him as leader of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, area interfaith leaders are eager to see how readily the new bishop will meet with them.

They are encouraged by Kmiec's experience as bishop of a religious community that was in the minority in Nashville, Tenn., along with his participation in national ecumenical work.

And Kmiec already has agreed to speak at the 2004 Human Relations Award Luncheon of the Western New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee, scheduled for Nov. 10.

"They were very accommodating," said Stephen L. Yonaty, president of the chapter. "We've always enjoyed a very amicable relationship and open dialogue with the Catholic diocese. We look forward to continuing that."

Some leaders of faith groups hope they will be able to meet, either formally or informally, on a somewhat regular basis with Kmiec.

Some have already discussed the possibility of re-forming a "cabinet" of bishops and executives, which had a brief run several years ago with leaders from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York and the heads of other area faith communities.

"These relationships are critical. They really matter in the community when crises occur," said the Rev. G. Stanford Bratton, a Presbyterian minister and co-executive director of the Network of Religious Communities.

Several observers said that while former Bishop Henry J. Mansell was supportive of interfaith efforts involving the diocese, he rarely met with the leaders of other faith groups.

They also said the Catholic bishop's participation is essential, by virtue of the vast influence he wields among 700,000 Catholics in 265 parishes of the eight counties of Western New York.

"It becomes an example to others," Bratton said.

Bishops, in particular, have the power to invite parishioners into greater interfaith understanding and cooperation, said the Rev. Jeff Carter of Ephesus Ministries, which recently purchased a former Catholic church for its sanctuary.

"It can be a very, very powerful tool in the City of Buffalo," he said.

It's too early to tell how active Kmiec will be in discussions with other faith groups.

In Nashville, where Protestants outnumber Catholics by about a 5-1 ratio, Kmiec was involved in some discussions with other faith leaders, particularly regarding legislation that he thought would hurt poor people.

Kmiec pointed out during a news conference Thursday that the Diocese of Buffalo has an ecumenical officer to handle much of the interfaith work. The new bishop gave no indication of how accessible he would be to other faith leaders.

But he did he say that he hoped to cooperate with other faith groups on matters involving a "preferential option for the poor."

"That's where we've got to be. That's where Christ was," he said. "Working together we can extend the arms of our mission."

Several non-Catholic religious leaders were invited to Kmiec's installation, including six who stepped to the altar to greet him personally during the ceremony.

Bishop Marie C. Jerge of the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said she sensed "great hopefulness" among colleagues from other faith backgrounds about Kmiec.

Jerge, one of the six to greet Kmiec, said it was important for religious leaders to talk with people outside their own faith group.

"It's really easy for any of us to get insular or parochial about our own perspective on things," she said.


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