Pope John Paul II and Interreligious Dialogue

Author: Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr.

Pope John Paul II and Interreligious Dialogue

Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr.
President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue

Total commitment to a 'dialogue of salvation'

Karol Wojtyła was elected Pope in October 1978, choosing the name John Paul II as a sign of continuity. In April of the following year he received in audience the members and consultors of the Secretariat for Non-Christians (which he was later to rename Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue). He said to them:

"The late Paul VI, who founded this Secretariat, and so much of whose love, interest and inspiration was lavished on non-Christians, is no longer visibly among us, and I am convinced that some of you wondered whether the new Pope would devote similar care and attention to the world of the non-Christian religions".

Answering his own question, John Paul II referred to his first Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, published the previous month, in which he had remarked how the Second Vatican Council had given "a view of the terrestrial globe as a map of various religions".
He spoke of the esteem the Council had shown for 'the values enshrined in other religions, and concluded with a firm assurance: "The non-Christian world is indeed constantly before the eyes of the Church and of the Pope. We are truly committed to serve it generously".

Living up to the commitment

John Paul II most certainly lived up to this commitment.

He did not hesitate to accept the invitation of the King of Morocco, Hassan II, to address young Muslims. Some 80,000 listened to him in the stadium of Casablanca in August 1985.

In January of the following year, in New Delhi, he visited the monument to Mahatma Gandhi. For long moments he knelt down in silent prayer and then rose to speak in praise of the "apostle of non-violence".

On 13 April 1986 the Pope made a historic Visit to the Rome synagogue.

On 27 October of the same year he welcomed in Assisi religious leaders, both Christians and people of other religions, whom he had invited to come together to pray for peace in the world. This day was important both for its contents and its style. The religious leaders gathered around the Pope in friendship, united in fasting and also in the final fraternal meal. Prayers were offered, but care was taken that distinctions of belief not be blurred.

The Pope himself drew a lesson from the events of the day, saying: "Let us see in it an anticipation of what God would like the developing history of humanity to be: a fraternal journey in which we accompany one another toward the transcendent goal which he sets for us".

This Day of Prayer in Assisi, seen by so many thanks to television, truly caught the imagination and aroused in people of different religions a desire to meet. As people become conscious of the growing religious plurality of today's world, so the necessity is recognized of engaging in relations which cross religious boundaries.

John Paul II repeated the invitation to Assisi, in January 1993, to pray for peace in Europe and particularly in the Balkans, and again in 2002 as a response to the events of 11 September 2001.

In his teaching ministry John Paul II reflected on the impact of religious plurality. He saw it as his mission to apply the vision of the Second Vatican Council. Time and again he returned to the teaching of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the relations of the Church to non-Christian religions.

Speaking once to Bishops from Iran he stated:

"The Second Vatican Council's declaration Nostra Aetate gives clear indications that inspire the Church for its interreligious dialogue. They are mainly: respect for one's personal conscience, rejecting all forms of coercion or discrimination with regard to faith, freedom to practice one's religion and give witness to it, as well as appreciation and esteem for all genuine religious traditions".

For John Paul II the vision of the Council was centred on Christ.

Already in his first Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, he had emphasized a line from the Document on the Church in the Modern World: "For, by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).

He often referred to this truth in order to show that the Church, and therefore also the Pope, must be interested in all human beings, and not be deterred by religious differences.
Similarly he took up another affirmation found in the same paragraph of Gaudium et Spes:

"Since Christ died for all (Rom 8:32), and since all men are in fact called to one end 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" (n. 22).

So people are not to be condemned just because they are not Christians. Recognizing that God, through the Holy Spirit, is at work in them, it is possible to engage in a dialogue which is not mere politeness but is a form of entering into the Paschal Mystery, a death to egoism in order to live for others. This is truly a dialogue of salvation.

It should not be thought that this emphasis on dialogue signals an end to the missionary outreach of the Church.

Vatican II's Decree on the missionary activity of the Church, Ad Gentes, states clearly that "the pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature" (n. 2).

John Paul II, in order to stimulate the faithful application of the Council, wrote an important missionary Encyclical, Redemptoris Missio. It should be noticed that this Letter adopted a broad understanding of mission, not confined to the explicit proclamation of the Name of Jesus Christ, but comprising other activities of the Church, including interreligious dialogue.
The Letter states very clearly: "Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church's evangelizing mission" (n. 55). It explains further:

"Dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self-interest, but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements and dignity. It is demanded by the deep respect for everything that has been brought about in human beings by the Spirit who blows where he wills".

Value of dialogue, importance of the Spirit

Two elements in this passage are worth noting.

The first is the intrinsic value of interreligious dialogue. It is not to be considered as a mere preparation for the task of proclamation or announcing Jesus Christ and inviting people to become members of the Church through baptism. It has its own aim, which is to enable people of different religions to live in harmony and peace, to understand one another better, to work together on behalf of humanity and to help one another to respond to God's call.

Dialogue and proclamation are not to be opposed. Dialogue itself contains an element of proclamation insofar as it includes witness to one's own beliefs, while proclamation can never be an imposition of the truth but must always be conducted in a spirit of dialogue. They are both activities of the Church, to be carried out in obedience to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

This leads to the second observation, the importance of the Spirit. The Spirit was already mentioned in the quotation given above from Redemptoris Missio. The passage continues:
"Through dialogue, the Church seeks to uncover the 'seeds of the Word' (AG, nn. 11, 15), a 'ray of that truth which enlightens all men' (NA, n. 2); these are found in individuals and in the religious traditions of mankind. Dialogue is based on hope and love, and will bear fruit in the Spirit. Other religions constitute a positive challenge for the Church; they stimulate her both to discover and acknowledge the signs of Christ's presence and the working of the Spirit, as well as to examine more deeply her own identity and to bear witness to the fullness of Revelation which she has received for the good of all".

In a previous section of the Encyclical, building on an earlier teaching which he had given in Dominum et Vivificantem, a Letter explicitly dedicated to the Holy Spirit, John Paul II had referred to the universal action of the Spirit, affecting "not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions". It was this trust in the work of the Spirit, he said, that had guided him in his Meetings with a wide variety of people.

So he was led to reaffirm a conviction he had expressed on the occasion of the Assisi Day of Prayer for Peace: "Every authentic prayer is prompted by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in every human heart".

For John Paul II the Second Vatican Council was a providential preparation for the Third Millennium.

In his Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, inviting the Church to prepare for the Great Jubilee which was to usher in this millennium, he reflected on the Church's rediscovery of her own identity and on the call to conversion and renewal which this entailed. "On the basis of this profound renewal", he stated, "the Council opened itself to Christians of other denominations, to the followers of other religions and to all the people of our time".

In preparation for the Jubilee, the Pope invited the Church to engage in a three-year reflection, concentrating each year on a Person of the Blessed Trinity. The final year was dedicated to the Father. The Pope suggested that this would be an appropriate time to reflect on the unity of the human family, despite all the divisions that exist within it, including those of a religious nature. He therefore encouraged interreligious dialogue, stating: "In this dialogue the Jews and the Muslims ought to have a preeminent place".

John Paul II was able, at least partially, to fulfil his desire to make his own Jubilee Pilgrimage to places of significance in the history of salvation. Though because of the circumstances he was unable to undertake the Abrahamic lap of the journey, which would have taken him to Ur in Southern Iraq (a special commemoration of Abraham, in the Vatican, at which some Jews and Muslims were present, replaced this leg of the  Pilgrimage), he did manage to follow in the steps of Moses in Egypt and to accomplish his own Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

There was no interreligious gathering on Mount Sinai, as had been hoped, but the Pope had a very significant and remarkably cordial Meeting with Muslim leaders at al-Azhar, in Cairo.
In Jerusalem, where the symbol of the Pope inserting his own petition in the Western Wall still speaks to Jews, a Meeting of Jews, Christians and Muslims did take place, though not without some tension arising over diverse claims to the Holy City. There were also separate Meetings with both Jewish and Muslim religious leaders.

The following year the pilgrimage in the footsteps of Paul took the Pope to Greece and then to Damascus and the famous Meeting in the Omayyad mosque.

An appreciation for all religious traditions

John Paul II was not concerned only with the so-called great religions of the world. He showed an appreciation for African traditional religions. For example, addressing Vodu representatives in Cotonou, Benin, in February 1993, he praised them for their attachment to the values of their tradition while at the same time referring to the newness of the Gospel. His words are worth quoting in full:

"You have a strong attachment to the traditions handed on by your ancestors. It is legitimate to be grateful to your forebears who passed on this sense of the sacred, belief in a single God who is good, a sense of celebration, esteem for the moral life and for harmony in society.

"Your Christian brothers and sisters, like you, appreciate what is beautiful in these traditions because, like you, they are sons and daughters of Benin. However, they are equally grateful to their 'ancestors in the faith', from the apostles to the missionaries, who brought them the Gospel. The missionaries let them learn the 'Good News' that God is Father and has become close to people through his Son, Jesus Christ, the bearer of a joyful message of liberation".

It is also necessary to mention how John Paul's action in favour of peace endeared him to many, and to Muslims in particular.

He condemned the first Gulf War. He opposed sanctions against Iraq and Libya. He never ceased to speak out on behalf of Lebanon, which he called "a message" for mankind, and already in 1989 took the unusual step of writing a Letter to all Muslims about this issue.
He appealed for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, writing to both Netanyahu and Arafat. He tried to prevent the invasion of Iraq, sending Cardinals to plead with Saddam Hussein and George Bush. Surely it is this action that brought so many Muslim leaders to attend his funeral and many more to send letters of condolence.

Given the present state of the world, marked by religious plurality, the further development of interreligious relations remains urgent.

Let me conclude by quoting some words of John Paul II spoken in November 1992. At the end of his Address to the Members of the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, he said:

"Finally, I express my gratitude to you all for your Council's generous sharing in my apostolic service of the Church throughout the world. Your work contributes to the fulfilment of what I have always considered to be a very important part of my ministry: the fostering of more friendly relations with the followers of other religious traditions".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 May 2005, page 8

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