SALT LAKE CITY — In recent years, it has not been unusual to see reports on Mormons and Catholics working together in Utah communities or somewhere in the world to help those in need. But it wasn't always that way.
The two faiths ask their members to give full commitment to their beliefs and in decades past, that seemed to come between Catholics and Latter-day Saints — a religious mistrust.
The stunning St. Peter's Basilica symbolizes more than a worldwide faith and likewise, the Salt Lake Temple represents more than an international landmark. Two distinct structures, two different doctrines.
The relationship between the two faiths, however, has gradually grown through the personalities of certain leaders. It grew substantially when they came together to help people during a catastrophic event in Africa.
Twenty-five years ago, a devastating famine struck Ethiopia, killing a million people, leaving millions more on the brink of starvation.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called for a church-wide fast and collected $6 million. The First Presidency sent Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Glenn L. Pace to carry the donation to Africa.
"We met in the feeding stations up in Makali, Ethiopia, with Frank Carlon, who was the head of Catholic Relief Services, and that was the beginning of a very dear relationship. He sends me e-mail all of the time," said Elder Ballard. "And the decision was made that a good portion of that money would be managed by Catholic Relief Services and ever since then, we've been building that relationship stronger and stronger."
Through the years, leaders and members of both faiths and many others have helped people receive food, clothing, shelter and jobs.
The relationships became stronger with Archbishop George Niederauer, now head of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson — three men whose common interests in improving people's lives led to friendships.
Archbishop Niederauer remembers when he first came to Salt Lake City as bishop. "Within the first week or 10 days, I was ordained a bishop on a Wednesday but on the Tuesday evening before, there was a reception into the community. Gov. (Mike) Leavitt spoke, one of the Protestant ministers spoke and President Monson gave a talk in the Cathedral. And then there was a very lovely luncheon at the very top of the Joseph Smith Building, that beautiful room up there, and it was during President Hunter's last days and President Hinckley was very welcoming and all of the apostles were there."
On the issue of protecting traditional marriage, he invited Catholics and Latter-day Saints to join a coalition supporting California's Proposition 8. It turned into a political hot button but solidified the partnership.
"Marriage is our doctrinal foundation and it's between a man and a woman. We've stood together on that and we'll continue to do so," Elder Ballard said.
Archbishop Niederauer agreed. "I understand the keen feelings, I don't share them, but I understand the feelings of people who would be our opponents. It's complicated by our cultural history and by our faith and our sense of what marriage is and is not," he said. "Another common cause, besides traditional marriage, is our insistence that this dialogue, this public conversation, be conducted with civility, with compassion, with understanding, with respect."
These friendships include recognition of each other's houses of worship.
Latter-day Saints contributed to the renovation of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in the early 1990s.
President Monson, Archbishop Niederauer and Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — a position previously held by Pope Benedict and a position considered second in importance in the Vatican — all spoke last year at the Cathedral's centennial mass.
Elder Ballard recalled, "We were treated wonderfully well. … Bishop Weigand came and gave us a hug. … Bishop Niederauer and, of course, John Wester, who now is a very dear, close friend."
Elder Ballard traveled in September to Rome and the Vatican, visiting with Cardinal Levada.
Archbishop Niederauer said he received a call before the trip. "Elder Ballard called and talked about what are some things we should see, what are some things it would be good for us to do? Those are relationships, but they're close and I think we became trusted and trusting friends."
Elder Ballard said, "It was a great experience, really, to meet a lot of people in the Vatican — significant leaders of the Catholic Church there as we had a chance to build those relationships right at the Vatican itself."
Weeks later, President Monson traveled to Rome to break ground for a new Mormon temple. Leaders of the Italian government and Catholic Church were guests.
"We cannot pretend there are not differences, but we can recognize that what is in common is much stronger than what is different," Archbishop Niederauer said.
"You know, it's really a privilege to be good friends," said Elder Ballard. "And we need to stand together on that and we've been doing that for many years with the Catholic Church. That's what the Lord Jesus Christ would want us to do."
Elder Ballard and Archbishop Niederauer each expressed very strong feelings about freedom of religion, saying this has become a very important issue of our day.