DIALOGUE - Msgr.
Michael Fitzgerald, MAfr
A definition of dialogue
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:
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Forms of dialogue
document Dialogue and Mission was perhaps the first to present
four forms of dialogue. These were briefly and conveniently
summarized in Dialogue and Proclamation:
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.
The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate
for the integral development and liberation of people.
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.
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).
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.
Dialogue of life
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dialogue of action
having mentioned the four forms of dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation
goes on to say:
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).
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.
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.
passage from Dialogue and Proclamation continues:
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Dialogue of discourse
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.
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.
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.
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.
difference in these meetings regards the topics addressed.
These may be theological, or social issues.
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.
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.
Dialogue of religious experience
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
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.
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.
type of dialogue has flourished mainly between Buddhists and
Christians. It has been more difficult to develop it with other
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.
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:
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).
Dispositions for dialogue
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.