Dialogue Between Cultures and Between Religions

Author: Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan


Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan,
President, Administration of the Holy See’s Patrimony


On Thursday, 7 March, Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan, President, Administration of the Holy See's Patrimony, gave the Jubilee Inaugural Lecture at the Chavara Institute of Indian and Interreligious Studies (CIIS) in Rome. Bl. Kuriakosa Elias Chavara founded the Indian Congregation of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (C.M.I.) in 1855 and was beatified in Kerala by Pope John Paul II in 1986. The Institute for Indian and Interreligious Studies was formally inaugurated on 15 September 1977 with an opening lecture by Cardinal Garone. On 20 October 1999 the Centre was upgraded to its present status on the occasion of the centenaryof the birth of the late Fr Placid, CMI, an eminent historian and theologian of the Oriental Churches in India. At the same time it was renamed to honour the Bl. Chavara, founder of the CMI who run the Institute. The Centre offers regular courses and holds an annual lecture series. This year is its 25th year of service. Cardinal Cacciavillan led off the observance with his Address on Thursday afternoon.

Swami Agnivesh gave the Annual Address 2002 on Thursday and the three Dharma Dialogue Lectures on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Cardinal Cacciavillan developed the work of interreligious dialogue as a necessary step towards understanding and peace and also as a way of opening the door to proclaiming the Gospel of salvation in places where ancient Hindu and Buddhist religions are established. The Cardinal drew on his experience of life in India and reflected on the teaching of John Paul II.

I have known the CMI, Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, from 1981 on, when I went to India as Apostolic Nuncio. I stayed there for nine years. I had an excellent relationship with Fr Thomas Aykara, then the Prior General of the Congregation, a gifted and pleasant person, and a scholar too. The CMI were among the leaders in the field of interreligious dialogue, and in that of inculturation. Besides, they were doing fine work in some missionary dioceses in North India.

Chavara Institute honours Bl. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, CMI

At that time I also had an experience of "dialogue of life and heart" (to use an expression which I will quote later on): personal contacts with many people, encounters of various kinds, participation in multireligious events.... I still treasure fond memories of all this. It was an experience of unity and universality, yet rich in diversity.

This "Chavara Institute of Indian and Interreligious Studies" was established in 1977, 25 years ago, and we are gathered here to celebrate its Silver Jubilee. Thank you for inviting me.

The Institute's very name first introduces us to Bl. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, who founded the CMI in 1855 and who was raised to the honour of the altars by His Holiness Pope John Paul II in Kerala on 8 February 1986. Some of us took part in that historic papal celebration.

John Paul II: dialogue, contact, cooperation

The theme which I would like to discuss is obviously a very timely one. Its importance has been increasingly felt in recent decades, especially some months ago, after the tragic events which we all shared in and unanimously condemned.

We need to have, first and foremost, a strong personal conviction of the importance of dialogue and that we then do everything in our power to spread the same conviction and to allow it to take root in the hearts of others.

Much could be said about this subject. I will limit myself to offering some information and some observations, drawing upon the papal documents of recent years.

1. Pope John Paul II uses the expressions "interreligious dialogue", "meetings with the leaders of the great world religions", "contact, dialogue and cooperation withthe followers of other religions", "positiverelationship with other religious traditions" (n. 31 of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Asia" promulgated in New Delhi on 6 November 1999), "relationship of openness and dialogue with the followers of other religions" (n. 55 of the Apostolic Letter "NovoMillennio ineunte" of 6 January 2001), "dialogue between cultures" (Message for the 2001 World Day of Peace, entitled "Dialogue between Cultures for a Civilization of Love and Peace"), and "mutual openness between the followers of the various religions" (ibid.).

His Holiness uses the words "meeting", "encounter", "spirit of encounter and cooperation between religions", in referring to Assisi 1986 (n. 31, "Ecclesia in Asia") and to Assisi 1986 and Saint Peter's Square 1999 (Message for the 2001 World Day of Peace), and describing those "meetings" as "highly symbolic" in n. 55 of "NovoMillennio ineunte".

The two references just quoted make us naturally think of the Assisi Meeting of 24 January 2002, the memory of whichis still alive and fresh. Addressing his greetings and welcome to the participants—representatives of Churches and Ecclesial Communities as well as representatives of other Religions—the Holy Father called the Meeting a "gathering of prayer for peace ... a significant continuation of that of 1986" (OsservatoreRomano, 25January 2002, p. 6). And we think also of the day of fasting for peace on 14 December 2001.

First goal: peace and the good of humanity

2. It is precisely here that we find specified an important goal and result of these encounters and initiatives: that is, the pursuit of "peaceand the good of humanity"("Ecclesia in Asia", n. 31) or, as the Pope himself says in "NovoMillennio ineunte", n. 55: "This dialogue (which includes the above mentioned "meetings", "contacts", "relationship of openness", etc.: Ed.) will be especially important in establishing a sure basis for peace and warding off the dread spectre of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history. The name of the one God must become increasingly what it is: a name of peace and a summons to peace".

Likewise in the Message for the 2001 World Day of Peace (n. 16): referring to his "many encounters with representatives of other religions", "especially the meeting in Assisi in 1986 and in St Peter's Square in 1999", His Holiness states that "mutual openness between the followers of the various religions can greatly serve the cause of peace and the common good of the human family".

And in the Message for the World Day of Peace (dated 8 December 2001 and entitled "No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness") of 1 January 2002, one reads (nn. 12-13): "The various Christian confessions, as well as the world's great religions, need to work together to eliminate the social and cultural causes of terrorism. They can do this by teaching the greatness and dignity of the human person, and by spreading a clearer sense of the oneness of the human family.

This is a specific area of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and cooperation, a pressing service which religion can offer to world peace. In particular, I am convinced that Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious leaders must now take the lead in publicly condemning terrorism and in denying terrorists any form of religious or moral legitimacy.... The help that religions can give to peace and against terrorism consists precisely in their teaching forgiveness, for those who forgive and seek forgiveness know that there is a higher Truth, and that by accepting that Truth they can transcend themselves". From these thoughts and concerns of the Pope a prayer then arose in his Christmas Message of 25 December 2001: "May Christ be the light and support of those who believe and work, sometimes in the face of opposition, for encounter, dialogue and cooperation between cultures and religions".

Assisi 2002 has been a renewed and more intense appeal in favour of peace, as well as of justice, forgiveness and life, love; a "solemn appeal" that His Holiness, "together with the leaders of various religions, addressed to the men of our time"; he himself then added: "Thus we have placed another milestone on the road to building a civilization of peace and love";and after thanking again the religious leaders who responded to his invitation, John Paul II said: "Together we affirmed in Assisi that the mission of religion consists in fostering peaceful coexistence among peoples and cultures, in reciprocal respect" (Holy Father's remarks at the Angelus of Sunday 27 January 2002).

Peace, common good, justice, forgiveness, life, love, mutual respect are goals and fruits of dialogue (and of everything else that it involves). In "Ecclesia in Asia", n. 31, the Pope mentions "some forms of dialogue already taking place with good results, including scholarly exchanges between experts in the variousreligious traditions or representatives of those traditions, common action for integral human development and the defence of humanand religious values".

Second goal: recognition of common values

3. In this dialogue and its forms, in these contacts, common actions or various possible ways of cooperation (outstanding among them, those encounters of prayer for peace) there is also the recognition of common values. In fact, "when cultures are carefully and rigorously studied, they very often reveal beneath their outward variations significant common elements. This can also be seen in the historical sequence of cultures and civilizations. The Church, looking to Christ, who reveals man to himself, and drawing upon her experience of 2000 years of history, is convinced that 'beneath all that changes, there is much that is unchanging'. This continuity is based upon the essential and universal character of God's plan for humanity.... There are values which are common to all cultures because they are rooted in the nature of the person". "These values", the Pope continues, "express humanity's most authentic and distinctive features.... It is necessary to foster people's awareness of these shared values, in order to nurture that intrinsically universal cultural 'soil' which makes for fruitful and constructive dialogue". In this context there is the pursuit of the values of solidarity, education and reconciliation, besides or together with those of peace, life and forgiveness mentioned above. All this is well set forth in the Message for the 2001 World Day of Peace, nn. 7, 16-21.

In the same Message we first find an analysis of cultural differences (nn. 1-6, 8), a reminder of the need for mutual respect (nn. 8, 14) and for avoiding both a radicalization of cultural identity and the slavish conformity of cultures, or at least of key aspects of them, to cultural models deriving from the Western world (nn. 9, 10); the latter being the negative and dangerous aspect of globalization (n. 11). The challenges of migration (nn. 12-14) are also dealt with: problems regarding welcome, respect, acceptance or tolerance, integration, possible tensions, cultural equilibrium....

A third goal: common religious values

4. Dialogue between religions (interreligious dialogue) obviously refers also to commonreligious values. It helps to acknowledge and to take note of these, to deepen and to promote them. But it concerns differences too. It helps then to ascertain these differences, and to understand them.

I have already quoted John Paul II as speaking of "scholarly exchanges" ("Ecclesia in Asia", n. 31). There is another important text in "Novo Millennio ineunte", n. 56, about "approaching dialogue with an attitude of profound willingness to listen". His Holiness explains: "We know in fact that, in the presence of the mystery of grace, infinitely full of possibilities and implications for human life and history, the Church herself will never cease putting questions, trusting in the help of the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth (cf. Jn 14,17), whose task it is to guide her 'into all the truth' (Jn 16,13).

"This is a fundamental principle not only for the endless theological investigation of Christian truth, but also for Christian dialogue with other philosophies, cultures and religions. In the common experience of humanity, for all its contradictions, the Spirit of God, who 'blows where he wills' (Jn 3,8), not infrequently reveals signs of his presence which help Christ's followers to understand more deeply the message which they bear. Was it not with this humble and trust filled openness that the Second Vatican Council sought to read 'the signs of the times'? Even as she engages in an active and watchful discernment aimed at understanding the 'genuine signs of the presence or the purpose of God', the Church acknowledges that she has not only given, but has also 'received from the history and from the development of the human race'. This attitude of openness, combined with careful discernment, was adopted by the Council also in relation to other religions. It is our task to follow with great fidelity the Council's teaching and the path which it has traced".

Dialogue can open the door to proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ

5. Another important point of Christian doctrine finds its place here, namely that of the relation between dialogue and announcement or proclamation; in other words, the question of dialogue in the perspective of evangelization, dialogue as a way or step in announcing the Gospel.

In this regard, the position of the Christian side can be presented as follows:

a) "Christians bring to interreligious dialogue the firm belief that the fullness of salvation comes from Christ alone and that the Church community to which they belong is the ordinary means of salvation.... Although the Church gladly acknowledges whatever is true and holy in the religious traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam as a reflection of that truth which enlightens all people, this does not lessen her duty and resolve to proclaim without failing Jesus Christ who is 'the way and the truth and the life'.... The fact that the followers of other religions can receive God's grace and be saved by Christ apart from the ordinary means which he has established does not thereby cancel the call to faith and baptism which God wills for all people" ("Ecclesia in Asia", n. 31).

b) "We Christians are in duty bound, while engaging in dialogue, to bear clear witness to the hope that is within us (cf. 1 Pt 3,15). We should not fear that it will be considered an offence to the identity of others, what is rather the joyful proclamation of a gift meant for all, and to be offered to all with the greatest respect for the freedom of each one: the gift of the revelation of the God who is Love, the God who 'so loved the world that he gave his only Son' (Jn 3,16)" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 56, where the Pope refers to the "Declaration 'Dominus Jesus' on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church" issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, 6 August 2000).

c) Besides the need of having firm faith in Christ and of being joyous witnesses to hope, "a dialogue of life and heart" is also required: "the followers of Christ must have the gentle and humble heart of their Master, never proud, never condescending.... Love of others is indispensable" (Ecclesia in Asia, n. 31).

Proclaim the person of Christ: thanks to God and love for our neighbour

6. Now, some remarks on the above points a) b) c):

As to the possibility of being "saved by Christ apart from the ordinary means", there is the following text in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (n. 22) of the Ecumenical Council Vatican II: "By his incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in certain way united himself with each man.... Since Christ died for all (cf. Rom 8, 32), and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" (this text is quoted in "Ecclesia in Asia", n. 21 and in the Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio, nn. 10 and 28). Yet, even as we hold this truth, we also believe that Jesus Christ himself, the Risen Lord, has commanded: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..." (Mt 28,18-20; quoted in "Ecclesia in Asia", n. 19).

The actual possibility of knowing Christ and of loving him, as well as of having all the related "ordinary means", is indeed a great "gift", a "treasure" which Christians themselves first received and which they are now duty-bound to pass on to others. A gift which calls for humility, thankfulness and sharing.

The words "with the greatest respect" remind us of what Pope John Paul II said to representatives of non-Christian religions in Madras, India on 5 February 1986 (some of us were there): "The Church's approach to other religions is one of genuine respect.... This respect is twofold: respect for man in his quest for answers to the deepest questions of his life, and respect for the action of the Spirit in man" (text also quoted in "Ecclesia in Asia", n. 20).

And finally, regarding love or charity, it is very significant that in "Novo Millennio ineunte" His Holiness deals with interreligious dialogue in a chapter entitled "Witnesses to Love". There (n. 50) we find also the following statement: "The proclamation of the Gospel ... is itself the prime form of charity", yet "the charity of works ensures an unmistakable efficacy to the charity of words". Charity of works is indeed an essential part of evangelization, and nobody can deny that the Church is committed to it (cf. "Ecclesia in Asia", chap. VI).

My talk is now at its end. The teaching and the example of this great Pope, John Paul II, on intercultural and interreligious dialogue always remain solid points of reference. I am sure that the "Chavara Institute" will continue to receive light and encouragement from him as it carries out its great work.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 March 2002, page 8

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