Msgr. Michael Fitzgerald, MAfr


1. A definition of dialogue

Before presenting some reflections on how interreligious dialogue can be developed, it may not be out of place to recall what is meant by this term. This is how it is defined in the document Dialogue and Proclamation:

In the context of religious plurality, dialogue means "all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment", in obedience to truth and respect for freedom (n. 9 = G933).

From this definition it can be seen that interreligious dialogue is a response to religious plurality. As mobility increases and communications become easier and more rapid, so our world becomes more marked by this religious plurality. This makes dialogue a greater imperative. Moreover it can be noticed that in recent years both the awareness of diversity and the desire for dialogue have increased.

It should be noted that the term chosen to define dialogue is "relations". This indicates something much wider than verbal exchange. Not only formal exchanges are intended, but also gestures of solidarity, action together, and even silent presence. The importance of non-verbal communication should not be underestimated.

Such relations, which to merit being called dialogue must be positive and constructive, can exist between individual believers at an informal level, or between representatives of communities. The range is extremely wide, as will be pointed out shortly. It must be said, however, that whether at the level of individuals or communities, dialogue takes place between people, not between systems.

The goal of dialogue is first mutual understanding, to try to understand the other as that other wants to be understood. If this goal is to be achieved, openness is required, a willingness to listen to the other, a readiness to overcome prejudice if necessary, a desire to learn. Nevertheless, this openness must be two-way, allowing on each side the possibility of self-expression. Thus dialogue includes witness to one's own beliefs and convictions.

A further goal is mutual enrichment. Relations with people of other religions could degenerate into rivalry or be contaminated by a polemical spirit. Where the relationship is positive, it will lead to admiration for what is good in the other religion. This will provide a stimulus to deepen one's knowledge not only of that religion but of one's own as well. Positive relations will encourage spiritual emulation.

2. Forms of dialogue

The document Dialogue and Mission was perhaps the first to present four forms of dialogue. These were briefly and conveniently summarized in Dialogue and Proclamation:

a) The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupation's.

b) The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people.

c) The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritage, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values.

d) The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute (n. 42 = G966).

This typology is not exhaustive, nor are the definitions perfect. In particular it might be better to speak of the dialogue of discourse, or dialogue of formal exchange, since such dialogue need not be, and in fact is not, confined to theological issues. Nevertheless this division into four forms has proved its worth pedagogically. It will be followed here since it provides useful pegs for the reflections to be presented.

3. Dialogue of life

From the description given above it can be seen that the dialogue of life is not something passive. It is not mere co-existence. Nor can one speak of dialogue if the choice is made, or is imposed upon one, to live in a ghetto. So this form of dialogue requires openness, a desire to enter into relations with others. Its aim is to establish good neighborly relations, to ensure that people are living in peace and harmony.

How can this be done? Perhaps the first thing is to stimulate an active interest in the other, a healthy curiosity. If new neighbors arrive we observe them, trying to find out what they are like. Can this not be applied to people of a different religion who come and settle in a particular region, or even if they are only going to be present on a temporary basis? Acquiring knowledge about others helps to overcome prejudices. This knowledge can be made available, through booklets, through talks, through meetings, but it can also be acquired through direct contact between followers of different religious traditions.

Paying visits to one another's homes is a normal way of increasing neighborliness. The description given above talks about sharing joys and sorrows, so it could be presenting congratulations at the marriage of a son or daughter, or on the birth of a child, or offering condolences at a time of bereavement. It might include giving a helping hand when someone is sick or elderly, or when the car has broken down. Life itself provides occasions for meeting and thus for dialogue.

Sometimes these visits may be organized. Westminster Interfaith, an initiative of the Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster, London, holds every year a walk through the streets of London. Each time a different area is chosen. The walkers, or pilgrims, go from one place of worship to another, from the Baptist chapel to the Buddhist temple, from the synagogue to the Sikh gurdwara, from the Anglican or Catholic church to the Hindu temple. In each place the local community is able to receive the group on its own terms, offering an opportunity for rest and refreshment, but also a chance to learn something about the host community. The walkers too, as they go along, are drawn to share their own stories, as pilgrims are wont to do. This annual walk thus helps people of different religious traditions to grow in unity, while at the same time they give a united witness to the wider public.

Another organized form of the dialogue of life that can be referred to is the Duyog Ramadan program in the Southern Philippines. This is a program to help Christians accompany (the meaning of the word duyog) Muslims during the month of Ramadan. By appropriate sermons and talks, and special programs on the radio, the Christians are made aware of how Muslims observe Ramadan and why. In this way greater understanding can be built up, and possible tensions overcome.

The mention of Ramadan evokes the idea of greetings for the feast which concludes this month, Id al-Fitr. On the occasion of Christmas and the New Year we send greeting cards or letters to relatives and friends. With some people this is the only contact we have in the year, but we would be loth to break it. So acknowledging the feasts of people of other religions is a way of showing recognition and esteem for them. Since 1967 our Council has sent a message of greetings to Muslims for Id al-Fitr. There have only been two exceptions: in 1971, when there was no message at all (probably because the official at the Islam desk was away traveling) and in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War, when the message was sent by Pope John Paul II himself. In recent years our Council has started sending a message to Buddhists for Vesakh, and to Hindus for Diwali. These messages are well received, and are certainly a way of building up good relations.

You may feel that this point is being labored, but it seems to me that it takes on a special significance at this time when preparations are being made for the celebration of the Jubilee of the year 2000. If we are ready to join others in their celebrations, they may be less likely to take offense at ours or feel threatened by them, and they may be ready to join us in some way.

4. Dialogue of action

After having mentioned the four forms of dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation goes on to say:

The importance of dialogue for integral development, social justice and human liberation needs to be stressed. Local Churches are called upon, as witnesses to Christ, to commit themselves in this respect in an unselfish and impartial manner. There is need to stand up for human rights, proclaim the demands of justice, and denounce injustice not only when their own members are victimized, but independently of the religious allegiance of the victims (n. 44 = G968).

Reference is made here to Christians, to Catholics, to Local Churches, but they are not the only ones working for greater respect for human rights. It is encouraging to see for instance in Pakistan, where Christians constitute a very small minority of the population, Christians and Muslims have been protesting together against certain measures, such as the proposal to have one's religious belonging included on one's identity card, or the blasphemy law.

It is not necessarily religious bodies that "stand up for human rights". There are human rights leagues in many countries, including within the Islamic world, whose members have often shown great courage in condemning abuses. Then one could think of a body such as Amnesty International whose present Secretary General is a Muslim. Such "neutral" bodies can often provide a better opportunity for interreligious cooperation in this field, since they are not dominated by any one religion.

The passage from Dialogue and Proclamation continues:

There is need also to join together in trying to solve the great problems facing society and the world, as well as in education for justice and peace (ibid.).

This, it would seem to me, was the inspiration behind an organization such as the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). Unitarians, Jews and Buddhists felt that they were faced with the same problems, and that they would benefit by trying to tackle them together rather than separately. The first world conference was held in Kyoto in 1970, and the decision was taken to establish a permanent organization. A Catholic bishop, Archbishop Angelo Fernandes of New Delhi, gave enthusiastic support. One of the distinctive features of WCRP is that it brings into play the respective religious motivations for commitment to justice and peace. More recently the movement has become more action-oriented. Standing committees are being formed for questions of development, for environmental concerns, for the rights of children, for action on poverty. Whether this will pay lasting dividends has yet to be seen, but already some achievements can be pointed to. WCRP has contributed to the setting up of an interreligious council in Sarajevo. It has set up a similar council in Sierra Leone which has become engaged in the rehabilitation of child soldiers.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue does not belong to WCRP but does give it support. It could be said that the Council does not itself engage in the dialogue of action, but it certainly is committed to reflection with other believers on this form of dialogue. For instance, a Catholic-Muslim Liaison Committee was established in 1995 between our Council and representatives of International Islamic Organizations. The contacts made during the period prior to the formal agreement to set up the committee rendered possible a joint reflection on the problems raised by the U.N. Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994. Much older than this is the Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee which, naturally has been much concerned with combating anti-Semitism, but also recently issued a statement on the environment.

It must not be thought that all the action is taking place at the international level. Work for justice and peace is an integral part of the Church's evangelizing mission. It has to be carried out at all levels. It forms part of the Church's diakonia. The commitment to education, to medical work, to social action, is not confined to the Church's members. These services are offered to all. They will continue to exist in a multi-religious environment, even when the Christians are in the minority.

There can of course be different situations. There are those in which the Church is in control. She has her own institutions: schools, universities, hospitals, dispensaries, training centers, and so on. There still has to be much reflection when the pupils, students, patients, staff, belong to another religion or to a variety of religions. What is to be the ethos of the establishment? How are the followers of other religious traditions to be made to feel at ease? Such situations offer many opportunities for serious dialogue.

Another type of relationship is created when the Church does not have its own institutions, but members of the Church, either as individuals or as recognized religious bodies, work within already existing structures. These may be under state control or belong to the private sector. A case in point would be Libya, where a request was made to have religious women to work in hospitals. It can happen, in these circumstances, that cooperation is strictly professional and that there is little opportunity for real dialogue. Yet in the long run relations of dialogue can be built up, helped by the generous witness of those who are engaged in this work.

There are also private initiatives bringing together people of different religions, even though religion may not be the decisive factor for the enterprise. There are areas of health care or social services where governments find it difficult to meet people's needs. Care of the handicapped is a case in point. This has led, in the countries of the Maghreb for instance, to the formation of private associations, in which Christians are involved alongside Muslims. It is obvious that in these circumstances much dialogue is needed, to determine the aims of the association, to ensure the right spirit, to agree on the financial basis. A great deal of confidence is needed to be able to work harmoniously together. So the dialogue of action can truly be considered a form of dialogue.

5. Dialogue of discourse

When the word dialogue is mentioned, people immediately think of formal meetings and learned discussions. As has been said above, this is not the only way of engaging in dialogue, yet it does have its importance.

The dialogue that takes place in formal exchanges can take many different forms. As regards the number of religions, the dialogue can be bilateral, such as Christian-Jewish, Christian-Muslim, Christian-Buddhist, or trilateral, Jews, Christians and Muslims together, or multilateral, with people of many different religious traditions taking part. Each of these types has it own special advantages. Bilateral dialogue can allow greater focus not only on common issues but on divergent elements, seeking greater clarity. The trilateral dialogue is particular in nature, referring to the common Abrahamic heritage, however this may be understood. Multilateral dialogue can sometimes take away the edge of confrontation which can arise in bilateral meetings.

Meetings will also differ in the number of participants, going from large congresses to groups that can meet in people's homes. If the first type allows the "good news" of dialogue to be carried to a larger public, it also runs the danger of becoming theatrical. It is often more possible for serious discussion to take place in smaller groups.

A similar reflection could be made concerning the frequency of meetings. Some are unique experiences. Others may be occasional happenings, yet others may be regular occurrences with a built-in time schedule. Here again, for progress in mutual understanding a certain continuity is useful.

Another difference in these meetings regards the topics addressed. These may be theological, or social issues.

Finally, there can be a difference in the quality of participants. The policy may be to work through institutions, thus leaving it to the dialogue partners to choose their own participants. On the other hand, there may be a preference for issuing direct invitations to persons who are already known. In the first case there is a greater possibility of achieving some kind of representatively. The second option may offer a greater guarantee of fruitful dialogue.

If the dialogue of discourse is to succeed, then perhaps certain conditions need to be fulfilled. the preparation for the meeting should be carried out, if possible, in cooperation with the dialogue partners. This preparation should be serious, but there should not be too great a rigidity in the running of the meeting; it is important to leave openings for spontaneous discussion. Care must be taken to maintain a true dialogical spirit; this means not only avoiding polemics, but also not restricting the exchanges to a purely academic approach. It may be necessary to accept that there will be a certain amount of repetition, if not in the same meeting, at least from one meeting to another. New people are often brought into the dialogues, and this is a good thing, but it also means that the fundamentals have to be explained over and over again. Very often meetings wish to end up with a common statement. Here it is elementary wisdom not to want to say everything so that at least something can be said together.

6. Dialogue of religious experience

To some extent this can be a specific form of the dialogue of discourse, when the topics for discussion are selected from the realm of spirituality. One example of this is the Christian-Muslim seminar on holiness held at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in 1985. In this meeting papers were read on the concept of holiness in Christianity and Islam, the teaching on the paths to holiness, and also concrete examples of holy people.

A similar discussion of spiritual teaching has taken place in the encounters of the Ribât al-Salâm, a group that used to meet at the monastery of Tibhérine, in Algeria, until the assassination of the seven monks. A theme having been chosen in advance, it was explored in the Christian and Islamic traditions, and time was given to sharing on this theme. Yet these encounters were particular in that a considerable time was given over to prayer.

It is the being with one another in prayer, or at one another's worship, that distinguishes the dialogue of religious experience. It is a type of dialogue that is being developed among monastics. An international secretariat has been set up to stimulate and coordinate this Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID). While the American group has developed a program of hospitality, welcoming in particular monks and nuns from the Tibetan tradition, in Europe more contact has been made with the Zen tradition of Japan, and various spiritual exchanges have taken place. These include periods of two to three weeks in a monastery of another tradition, trying to live as fully as possible the life of the monks or nuns, developing a dialogue without words. Yet the experience usually ends with a symposium in which observations can be communicated and questions raised.

This type of dialogue has flourished mainly between Buddhists and Christians. It has been more difficult to develop it with other religious traditions.

But it should not be thought that the dialogue of religious experience is confined to monastics. Interreligious prayer can be considered a form of this particular dialogue, and this is a growing phenomenon. The World Day of Prayer for Peace, held in Assisi in October 1986, has encouraged many people to come together to pray. Such prayer may take place on civic occasions, national days, or anniversaries. People may feel a need to pray together at times of crisis, or when faced with natural or man-made disasters. There can also be more private occasions when people of different religions will want to share prayer. It may not be possible to find formulae of prayers which can be recited together, since different sensibilities have to be respected. Yet, provided the participants are really attentive, listening with respect to the spiritual riches of another tradition as expressed in its prayers, can be considered a true form of dialogue.

With regard to the dialogue of religious experience certain conditions would have to be underlined. First integrity, that there should be no compromise with regard to one's own religious convictions. Secondly respect, not embarrassing people by inviting them to say words or perform gestures which they are not comfortable with. Finally humility, acknowledging the limitations of human symbols and accepting the signs of God's presence. It may be useful here to quote a passage from Dialogue and Mission:

This type of dialogue can be a mutual enrichment and fruitful cooperation for promoting and preserving the highest values and spiritual ideals. It leads naturally to each partner communicating to the other the reasons for his own faith. The sometimes profound differences between the faiths do not prevent this dialogue. Those differences, rather, must be referred back in humility and confidence to God who "is greater than our heart" (1 Jn 3:20) (n. 35 = G842).

7. Dispositions for dialogue

To conclude these reflections, which have dwelt more on types of dialogue than on its development, it may be good to say something about the dispositions needed for dialogue. A section on this will be found in Dialogue and Proclamation (nn. 47-50 = G971-974).

There is a need for a balanced attitude. It is true that the Holy Spirit is at work both in the hearts of individuals and in the religious traditions to which they belong. This does not mean that everything in these traditions is good. To think so would be ingenuus. On the other hand, these traditions cannot be dismissed as being evil or without value. That would be to take an overly critical stance. There is need for openness and receptivity, a readiness to discern what can be attributed to the work of the Spirit.

A further disposition required is a strong religious conviction. Without this there would be a danger of indifference to religious values, a temptation not to take others' religious convictions seriously. Another possibility would be that, when faced with challenges to one's beliefs, if these are not strong enough one might be put on the defensive. This could even lead to a certain aggressivity. When convictions are well rooted, this allows a respectful and receptive approach to the convictions and values of the other.

Connected with this is an openness to the truth. If the Christian is convinced that the fulness of truth is to be found in Jesus Christ, more as something by which we are to be grasped rather than for us to grasp, then the meeting with others can help in the discovery of this truth. Dialogue can thus become a true learning process.

For this to be realized a contemplative spirit is needed. this is something which has been stressed by a number of the participants in the Asian Synod. It is through contemplation that one is able to discover and admire what God is doing through the Holy Spirit, in the world, in the whole of humanity. Prayer in which a dialogue with God is developed provides a solid foundation for dialogue with others.

Finally mention could be made of patience and perseverance. If one is looking for quick results, then one should not enter into the business of dialogue. There are a number of obstacles to dialogue: ignorance, prejudice, suspicion, self-sufficiency, as well as socio-political factors which may make genuine encounter difficult. Many things have to be explained again and again, and the weariness that this arouses has to be opposed. Nor should failures and disappointments lead to discouragement. the fruits will come in their own good time. Yet it may be true here as elsewhere, that one will reap where another has sown. It is God who gives the increase.

It must be remembered that the Church's commitment to dialogue is not dependent on success in achieving mutual understanding and enrichment; rather it flows from God's initiative in entering into dialogue with humankind and from the example of Jesus Christ whose life, death and resurrection gave to that dialogue its ultimate expression.