Promoting Mercy, Mutual Understanding and Spiritual Companionship among Believers:
Recommendations for Future Directions for Interreligious Dialogue
Pope Francis and the Future of Interreligious Dialogue Conference
Georgetown University, Washington, DC
13 September 2018
Future directions for interreligious dialogue, including how Pope Francis is promoting interreligious dialogue and relations, were the subject of candid conversations over two days at Georgetown University, September 13-14, 2018. Fifty church and religious leaders and scholars met in closed session to take stock of accomplishments, failures, and frustrations regarding official Catholic efforts intersecting with academic and pastorally and spiritually oriented efforts for interreligious dialogue over the five decades since the close of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
At Vatican II, the bishops of the Catholic Church promulgated the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate) and other documents encouraging Catholics to enter into dialogue and relations to promote mutual understanding and trust, cooperation for the common good, and spiritual companionship. Pope Francis, in the five years since his election, has reinvigorated the commitment to the dialogue initiatives of Vatican II and added new orientations.
In his words of welcome to participants, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia referred to this commitment to interreligious dialogue as “this uplifting of human dignity through dialogue,” drawing from both Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Evangelii Gaudium and a statement of the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. He thanked participants for coming to Georgetown University, where this commitment is alive in various ways, and how their presence at the conference demonstrates “the ongoing importance of this commitment and enliven it, in this moment, in these times of challenge across our nation and our world.”
Five individuals who have kept close watch over Pope Francis’ efforts shared their views in a public session on Thursday evening, September 13, in Copley Formal Lounge on the campus of Georgetown University. An audience of 150 heard Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a long-time friend of the pope and still in frequent contact with him, emphasize Pope Francis’ enthusiasm to keep dialogue moving forward. “Pope Francis is always pressing forward for fresh insights and new horizons for joint activities,” the rabbi observed.
Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, bishop emeritus of Jordan and the Holy Land, who as President of the Lutheran World Federation in 2016, in Lund, Sweden, opened a year of common commemoration of the Reformation with Pope Francis, attested to the commitment and personal engagement of Pope Francis to journey together with all peoples. The joint agreement in “Lund will not be a lonely event in Church history but the initiation of a long journey together in mission and together in the service of humanity to further God’s kingdom in our globalized world,” the bishop predicted.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who for 19 years was secretary and then president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome, observed how Pope Francis has maintained truly the helpful orientations of his predecessors since Vatican II and has added new emphases, especially a desire for taking dialogues and relationships into local situations to address those needs. He reported that initiative for the Vatican’s Christian-Muslim dialogues had generally come from the Muslim partners during his years of service in Rome.
Sr. Margaret Mary Funk, a Benedictine nun from Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Indiana, served as executive secretary for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, an association of Catholic monastics promoting interreligious cooperation and exchanges with Buddhist, Hindu and other monks and nuns. She drew attention to Pope Francis’ important role as a spiritual guide, following the Ignatian practice of Jesuits, as he seeks to encourage deeper spiritual companionship. She noted that there is more to do, especially including the leadership of women and their gifts in all aspects of church life.
Fr. Indunil Kodithuwakku, the fifth and final member of the public panel, is currently Under Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He identified mercy as Pope Francis’ main message and suggested a number of ways for adapting interreligious dialogue for promoting mercy. Pope Francis’ message for this year’s World Day of the Poor, scheduled for November 18, encourages interreligious cooperation: “Dialogue between different experiences, and humility in offering our cooperation without seeking the limelight, is a fitting and completely evangelical response that we can give.”
Invited participants met all-day Thursday and until mid-day on Friday in a series of six sessions reflecting on major events and initiatives in the last five decades, identifying achievements, frustrations, and lessons learned for more effective dialogues in the future. Before meeting, invitees were reminded of three critically important suggestions for interreligious dialogue that Pope Francis offered to a primarily Muslim audience at Al-Azhar Conference Centre in Cairo on April 28, 2017: “Three basic areas, if properly linked to one another, can assist in this dialogue: the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, the courage to accept differences, and sincerity of intentions.”
One panel reflected on the way forward in Christian-Muslim relations, another panel, on relations between Christians and Buddhists and Christians and Hindus. Four participants summed up various suggestions and comments from previous panels and offered their insights. Three participants, Fr. Indunil Kodithuwakku, Archbishop Felix Machado of the Diocese of Vasai near Mumbai, India, and a former Under Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and John Borelli, the organizer of the conference for Georgetown University, drew a few interim conclusions. For example, they encouraged the Pontifical Council to spell out specific ways for promoting the theme of mercy as public notice and encouragement.
Participants also reiterated the importance of maintaining the dialogues of theological and other scholarly specialists and preparation of useful materials for religious instruction and formation for dialogue. They also acknowledged the value of drinking deeply from intellectual and spiritual traditions through dialogue and friendship. They underscored the importance of hospitality and the formation of friendships and trust especially for developing projects to benefit those suffering injustice, persecution and poverty. They also acknowledged that bigotry and resentment toward some religious groups and toward immigrants need to be seriously countered. Participants generally agreed that there is a pulling back in wealthy nations from welcoming and providing for new arrivals in their societies. They noted how complex issues continue to bedevil interreligious relations today based on unrest and worries felt, accurately or falsely, because of overlapping religious, ethnic, national and racial identities.