From Conflict to Dialogue:
Encounters among the World's Religions


by Father Leo D. Lefebure


"How sad it is when members of the same family no longer speak to one another, avoid looking at one another, avoid meeting! How sad it is when Muslims and Christians, who are part of the one human family, ignore one another, no longer exchange greetings or, even worse, quarrel with one another! And yet, how beautiful it is to live in peace with everyone, to meet together, to speak of our joys and sorrows, our fears and hopes! How can we not see in the dialogue between believers, and in particular between Muslims and Christians, a sign of hope for the present and for the future?" (Origins 27/29 [Jan. 8, 1998]:485). With these words, Francis Cardinal Arinze, the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, recently greeted Muslims on the feast of Id al-Fitr , the conclusion of the month of Ramadan (the end of January, 1998).

Cardinal Arinze's warm words come in sharp contrast both to the historical
animosities that have divided Christians and Muslims for centuries and also
to the widespread Western view of Islam as a hostile religion that fosters
violence and terror. Indeed, the history of the encounters among the world's
religions is filled with distrust and hatred, violence and vengeance. The
deepest tragedy of the history of religions is that the very movements that
should bring human beings closer to each other and to their ultimate source
and goal have time and time again become forces of division. In one conflict
after another around the world, religious convictions have been abused as
pretexts for violence. In recent decades Christians in the former Yugoslavia
claimed religious justification for "ethnic cleansing," the brutal
elimination of Muslims, to protect a so-called "Christian" Europe.
Meanwhile, Christians themselves suffer persecution from Muslims in Sudan.
The list goes on and on: Catholics and Protestant kill each other in
Northern Ireland, Hindus and Muslims in India, Buddhists and Hindus in Sri
Amid the violence of the world's religions, the Holy See has repeatedly
called for greater understanding, forgiveness, and dialogue. In his message
to the Buddhist community for the feast of Vesakh (the commemoration of the
birth, enlightenment, and passing into nirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha) in
1997, Cardinal Arinze invited Buddhists and Christians "to set out together
on a true pilgrimage of peace." The Cardinal also quoted the words of the
Buddha in the Dhammapada: "Among those who hate, blessed are we who live
without hatred; in the midst of people who hate, we remain free from
hatred." In an earlier message for the same feast, Cardinal Arinze had
praised the Buddha as "a great teacher of humanity" and cited his teaching
on compassion, harmony, and peace. As a concrete expression of the Church's
desire for greater understanding, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious
Dialogue is sponsoring an international Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in India
in July, 1998.
The Church's call for forgiveness and peace includes the acknowledgment that
the Catholic Church shares responsibility for past atrocities of religious
intolerance. At a conference in suburban Paris on September 30, 1997, the
French Catholic bishops explicitly accepted the challenge of Pope John Paul
II: "Recognizing the failings of yesteryear is an act of loyalty and courage
which helps us strengthen our faith, which makes us face up to the
temptations and difficulties of today and prepares us to confront them"
(John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 33). In this spirit, the French
bishops lamented the failure of many in the Catholic Church in France to
resist the government's anti-Semitic legislation and actions during World
War II: "we recognize that the church of France failed in her mission as
teacher of consciences and that therefore she carries along with the
Christian people the responsibility for failing to lend their aid . . . We
beg God's pardon, and we call upon the Jewish people to hear our words of
repentance" ("French Bishops' Declaration of Repentance," Origins 27/18[Oct.
16, 1997]:305).
More recently, Pope John Paul II himself addressed a symposium in Rome on
the history of anti-Judaism in Christian life and practice. The Holy Father
acknowledged that "in the Christian world--I'm not saying on the part of the
church as such--erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament
relative to the Jewish people and their presumed guilt circulated for too
long, engendering sentiments of hostility toward this people" ( Origins
27/22[Nov. 13, 1997]:365). Pope John Paul II praised the work of the
scholars who study the past "in view of achieving a purification of memory"
(p. 367).
The recent publication of a collection of statements the Holy See on
interreligious dialogue documents the dramatic shift in attitudes that has
marked Catholic life since Vatican II (Pontifical Council for Interreligious
Dialogue, Interreligious Dialogue: The Official Teaching of the Catholic
Church (1963-1995), ed. Francesco Gioia [Boston: Pauline Books & Media,
1997]. In addresses to a wide variety of religious leaders, Pope Paul VI and
Pope John Paul II extended greetings and expressed their esteem and
appreciation for the contributions of other religions. For example, Pope
John Paul II addressed representatives of the various religions of India in
Madras in February, 1986: "The Catholic Church recognizes the truths that
are contained in the religious traditions of India. This recognition makes
true dialogue possible. Here today the Church wishes to voice again her true
appreciation of the great heritage of the religious spirit that is
manifested in your cultural tradition" (Interreligious Dialogue, 324).
The Chicago metropolitan community had a dramatic experience of
interreligious dialogue in 1993 at the Parliament of the World's Religions,
which commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the first Parliament of
the World's Religions, held in Chicago as part of the Columbian Exposition
of 1893. Archbishop Francesco Gioia represented the Holy See at the
Parliament; and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin delivered an address at the
Parliament and signed the statement, "Toward a Global Ethic," which was
issued by the Assembly of Spiritual and Religious Leaders.
Mundelein Seminary has entered into the spirit of interreligious dialogue in
a number of events in recent years. Courses on interreligious dialogue are
regularly offered. In spring, 1996, Geshe Lhundup Sopa, Professor of South
Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin and one of the leading Tibetan
Buddhist monks in the United States, delivered the annual Albert Cardinal
Meyer Lectures. That same evening, monks from the Seraje Monastery,
originally located in Lhasa, Tibet, and currently in exile in the south of
India, presented a multi-media program, "Wildlife, Tamed Mind: Journey to
the Heart of Tibet in Sacred Music and Dance." The evening included live
dance, music and chant of the Seraje monks, as well as a live debate over
Buddhist philosophy and a video of scenes from Tibetan Buddhist life. The
film clips included scenes of the final doctoral examination of His
Holiness, the Dalai Lama, at which Geshe Sopa was one of the examiners.
In the spring of 1997, the Ecclesiastical Faculty of Theology sponsored a
Hindu-Catholic Dialogue in the series of Lena Cameli Lectures, established
in memory of the mother of longtime faculty member, Father Louis Cameli.
Professor Ewert Cousin, then a visiting professor in the Chester and
Margaret Paluch Chair of Theology, introduced the dialogue by recalling the
history of earlier Hindu-Catholic discussions. Professor K.R. Sundararajan
of St. Bonaventure's University in New York State, spoke on Hindu mystical
literature, especially on Ramanuja and the love-poetry of devotional
Hinduism. Father Francis Berna, OFM, then discussed the path of St. Francis
of Assisi. Both the similarities and the differences between the two
traditions became evident in the lively exchange that followed.
The next day, Dr. John Borelli, from the Secretariat for Ecumenical and
Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops,
chaired a meeting of distinguished Hindu and Catholic scholars to explore
the possibility of establishing a national-level dialogue between Hindus and
Catholics in the United States. This meeting was held at Mundelein Seminary
in response to a request from the staff of the Pontifical Council for
Interreligious Dialogue, who had expressed the desire to see such a dialogue
initiated in the United States.
In recent years, the Center for Development in Ministry has hosted several
Christian-Jewish retreats that have brought together priests and rabbis for
times of prayer, discussion, and renewal. Rabbi Herman Schaalman, one of the
most prominent Jewish leaders in the Chicago area, has twice addressed
students in the course on Fundamental Theology. Rabbi Schaalman spoke on
Jewish-Catholic dialogue after the Shoah and the importance for the Jewish
community of Nostra Aetate (The Declaration on the Church's Relation to
Non-Christian Religions) of Vatican II and of Cardinal Bernardin's address,
"Antisemitism: The Historical Legacy and the Continuing Challenge for
Christians," delivered at Hebrew University of Jerusalem on March 23, 1995.
Rabbi Schaalman was a close friend of the late Cardinal Bernardin and
accompanied him on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1995. In his remarks
in October, 1997, Rabbi Schaalman expressed his hopes for the Catholic
seminarians to be outstanding leaders in building bridges of understanding
and trust.
Faculty members of Mundelein Seminary have also been active in
interreligious dialogue. Father John Lodge, the Academic Dean of Mundelein
Seminary, wrote his dissertation at the Gregorian University on St. Paul's
view of the relation of Christians and Jews to God's plan of salvation, as
expressed in Romans 9-11 (Romans 9-11: A Reader-Response Analysis [Atlanta,
GA: Scholars Press, 1996]). Fr. Lodge brought the tools of recent literary
criticism to bear on Paul's use of rhetoric to explain the place of
Christians and Jews in God's salvific plan. Fr. Lodge's argument is an
important contribution to Jewish-Catholic dialogue and understanding.
Father Raymond Webb teaches English as a second language each summer at
Bethlehem University in Israel. Through his contacts in the Holy Land he has
developed an extensive knowledge of Islam. He is currently the coordinator
for Muslim-Catholic relations for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
I have been active in a variety of interreligious dialogues, especially in
Buddhist-Christian exchanges. I was a member of the Research Committee of
the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, and I serve as an
advisory member of the Board of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, an
organization of Catholic monastics established at the request of the Holy
See to facilitate dialogue and exchange with Asian monastics. The highlight
of the Board's recent activities was the Gethsemani Encounter of 1996, held
at Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky, at the request of the Dalai Lama. About fifty
Buddhist and Catholic leaders participated in a weeklong discussion of
aspects of monastic and spiritual life (The Gethsemani Encounte: A Dialogue
on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics, ed. Donald W.
Mitchell and James Wiseman [New York: Continuum, 1997). I am also a member
of the Faiths in the World Committee of the National Association of Diocesan
Ecumenical Officers. This committee is currently planning the first national
Buddhist-Catholic dialogue and retreat, which will be held in Malibu,
California in October, 1998.
As Mundelein Seminary prepares pastors for a new millennium of Christian
life, the developing dialogue among the world's religions promises to be an
increasingly important factor shaping the life of the Church.
   Last modified: August 26, 1998