Interreligious dialogue – Let a thousand documents now bloom in action!

Pope Francis’ first visit to the Holy Land beginning Saturday has prompted veteran Asia Church journalist Hector Welgampola to revisit the long string of past efforts of Church leaders and offices related to interreligious dialogue and outcomes from these, why theologizing on interreligious dialogue fell short and what Pope Francis contributes to the Church’s movement towards dialogue and cooperation among followers of various religions.

Following is the full text of Welgampola’s commentary: 

Interreligious Dialogue – Let a thousand documents now bloom in action!

A Commentary by Hector Welgampola

A Jewish rabbi and an Islamic imam joined Pope Francis on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. That was more than a symbolic gesture. It brought back memories of Saint John XXIII’s wish to restore relations with Abrahamic faiths. In the early days of the Second Vatican Council, that wish made him whisper a council agenda item to Cardinal Augustine Bea. As then head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, the cardinal had been working on the draft decree on ecumenism. Pope John asked him to include in that draft, a para clearing Jews of blame for deicide.

That was a pentecostal prompting. It helped Council Fathers see the need for a separate Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions: Nostra Aetate. After Pope John’s death, Pope Paul VI set up a new secretariat to implement that declaration. The Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions, later named as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), was launched on Pentecost Sunday 1964.

Since then, PCID has held numerous conferences and symposia. Over the past half-century, such events have produced a thousand or so documents on interreligious dialogue. These days, PCID’s 50th anniversary is being celebrated worldwide, and more documents may be added to the collection. But what next?

Even amid such multiplicity of documentation, we still need to refocus on the original declaration’s historic call for “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions.” Currently ongoing jubilations may lead to a salutary outcome, if they help evaluate the futility of sterile monologues about dialogue.

True, modalities for dialogue-based collaboration with other religionists have been discussed by Church leaders, particularly in Asia, where the major religions originated. Especially during the 1970s and 1980, various institutes (BIRA, BIMA) of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) noted that interreligious dialogue must lead to interreligious cooperation. Later on, some of these moves helped Church leaders discern that such interaction has to embrace the cultural, socio-political and economic aspects of people’s everyday life. Asian theologians urged all religions to provide a complementary moral and religious foundation for Asian societies struggling for liberation. But theologizing failed to be translated into action.

Such discernment was unproductive due to several factors. Here are a few:

* Firstly, the Church’s theological approach to dialogue still speaks a language alien to other religions.

* Secondly, absence of a mutually acceptable practical agenda for dialogue failed to ease other religionists’ long-standing suspicions about proselytism.

* And thirdly, in spite of all the documented discernment on the need to embrace the cultural, socio-political and economic aspects of people’s everyday life, the Church failed to build on people’s interpersonal collaboration already prevalent in the public square.

The public square is the venue where followers — not just preachers — of various religions live and work together. It is an interactive forum where persons of various religions witness to their respective values and develop a social ethic enhanced by cultural commonalities. It is pluralism in action. Hence, 50 years after all the theological cud chewing about dialogue, now it is time to overcome these and other hurdles to interreligious collaboration. It is time to learn from the lived witness of Christians collaborating with fellow humans in everyday life.

A small lesson about the enduring praxis of interreligious collaboration can be learned from the antecedents of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Rabbi and the Imam accompanying him on the visit are two persons who had interacted with him in the public square in his native Argentina. The grace of their interpersonal witness is now at the service of the entire Church. May this small Pentecostal flame help lead us beyond the theological maze of high-profiled dialogue!

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has dedicated decades of his life as a journalist to serving as Executive Editor of the Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN). He led and mentored what used to be a wide network of correspondents and staff of that agency based around Asia and other continents so they would  work together primarily to produce top quality content. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita.

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has dedicated decades of his life as a journalist to serving as Executive Editor of the Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN). He led and mentored what used to be a wide network of correspondents and staff of that agency based around Asia and other continents so they would work together primarily to produce top quality content. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita.

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