Msgr. Michael Fitzgerald, MAfr

The Role of Dialogue in Mission


1. Interreligious Dialogue as Part of Evangelizing Mission

"Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church's evangelizing mission" ( Redemptoris Mission. 55; Francesco GIOIA (ed.) Interreligious Dialogue in the Official Teaching of the Catholic Church 1993-1995, n. 178 X hereafter cited as G ). With this everything has been said. But this statement is a conclusion, the result of reflection and practice. What is its background?

The answer is of course the renewed vision of Vatican II, the new consciousness which the Church has of herself. However, rather than go over the teaching of the Council, I prefer to base myself on two post - conciliar documents both produced by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The first is entitled: The Attitude of the Church toward the Followers of Other Religions. Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission (1984) ( referred to as DM ). The second, Dialogue and Proclamation (1991), was produced together with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples ( it will be referred to as DP ).

2. Love as the Source

God is love ( 1 Jn 4:8,16 ). This saving love of God has been revealed and communicated to mankind in Christ and is present and active throughout the world by means of the Holy Spirit. The Church is the living sign of that love in such a way as to render it the norm of life for all. This mission, Christ's own, is one of love because in him it finds its source, goal, and way of proceeding ( cf. Ad gentes, nn. 2-5,12; Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 26 ). Each aspect and activity of the Church's mission must therefore be imbued with the spirit of love if it is to be faithful to God who commanded the mission and continues to make it possible throughout history ( DM9 = G816 ).

Four affirmations can be drawn from this passage:

- the source of mission is divine love;

- this love is revealed in Christ;

- the love is made present through the action of the Holy Spirit;

- all activities of the Church are to be imbued with love.

3. The Trinitarian Model

"In the Trinitarian mystery, Christian revelation allows us to glimpse in God a life of communion and interchange" ( DM22 = G829 ). This life and love is manifested exteriorly:

- the Father is the source; in him "we contemplate a pervasive love unlimited by space and time" ( ibid. );

- through God the Son, the Word made flesh, this love is communicated;

Man X every man without any exception whatever X has been redeemed by Christ. And with man X with each man without any exception, whatever XChrist is in a way united ( Redemptor hominis, n. 14) (DM23 = G830 );

- in the Spirit we see the respectful penetration of God's love; the Spirit " acts in the depth of people's consciences and accompanies them on the secret path of hearts toward the truth ( cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 22 )" ( DM24 = G831 ). The Spirit thus "both anticipates and accompanies" the Church in her mission. The role of the Church is therefore to discern the signs of the Spirit's presence, to follow the leads given by the Spirit, and to serve humbly and discreetly.

4. Mission's building blocks

The mission of the Church is a " single but complex and articulated reality " ( DM13 = G820 ). It is like a building made up of different storeys. Or perhaps better, it is like a train with linked carriages all pulled by the engine of love. Some of the elements of this mission can be enumerated:

- presence and witness; this is simply Christian life lived as a response in faith to God's love;

- liturgical life, prayer, contemplation, or the celebration of God's love as manifested in Jesus Christ, a celebration which necessarily takes on a communitarian dimension, which has its high point in the eucharist, celebrating the total giving of God in Christ which invites a total return;

- service, as an imitation of God's love, especially for the poor, the lowly;

- interreligious dialogue, as an imitation of God's love expressed in the patient attraction which is exerted; it can be defined as walking together toward the truth, and working together in projects of common concern;

- announcement and catechesis, or a proclamation of God's love as made manifest in Jesus Christ, coupled with the invitation to enter the community of those who believe in Christ.

In the English translation of this paragraph, before the last - mentioned element, announcement and catechesis, is to be found the word " finally ". This has led some to consider the other elements as mere preparation, as pre-evangelisation, and only direct proclamation as true evangelization. Yet the word "finally" is not in the original Italian text; it has been added in English for purely stylistic reasons. It cannot therefore be used as a basis for a theory of mission.

At the most one could say that the first four elements can lead up to announcement or proclamation, but they are not finalized by it, they are not motivated by proclamation. The liturgy is not celebrated in order to proclaim Jesus Christ, though indeed Christ is proclaimed, for instance in the eucharistic acclamation. Similarly Christians do not engage in works of mercy as a pretext for preaching Jesus Christ but, like the Good Samaritan, out of compassion for those who are suffering. In the same way interreligious dialogue is not motivated by a desire to "convert" the partner in dialogue.

Therefore " dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self-interest, but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements and dignity" ( Redemptoris Missio, n. 56 = G179 ). This is expressed in almost chalcedonian language:

In the light of the economy of salvation, the Church sees no conflict between proclaiming Christ and engaging in interreligious dialogue. Instead, she feels the need to link the two in the context of her mission ad gentes ( one could perhaps say: in the context of her mission tout court ). These two elements must maintain both their intimate connection and their distinctiveness; therefore they should not be confused, manipulated or regarded as identical, as though they were interchangeable ( ibid. n. 55 = G178 ).

5. The Dialogical Dimension of Proclamation

Before ever talking about interreligious dialogue, some attention can be given to dialogue as such. It is "a manner of acting, an attitude, a spirit which guides one's conduct. It implies concern, respect and hospitality toward the other. It leaves room for the other person's identity, modes of expression, values" ( DM29 = G836 ). The conclusion drawn from this is that "dialogue is thus the norm and necessary means of every form of Christian mission.... Any sense of mission not permeated by such a dialogical spirit would go against the demands of true humanity and against the teachings of the Gospel" ( ibid. ).

The reason for this is that, as Pope Paul VI taught in Evangelii Nuntiandi, the Holy Spirit is the chief agent of evangelisation ( cf. n. 75 ). The Spirit is at work both in the one who proclaims and in those who hear the message that is proclaimed. It can be said that the Spirit is at the same time ahead of the work of evangelisation, present during the work of evangelisation, and leading this work.

The Spirit is at work before the evangeliser arrives on the spot:

The evangelising Church must always remember that her task is not exercised in a void. For the Holy spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is present and active among the hearers of the good news even before the Church's missionary action comes into operation ( cf. Redemptor hominis, n. 12; Dei Verbum, n. 53 ) ( DP68 = G992 ).

The Spirit is present at the very time of proclamation, not only to inspire the right words, but also to open hearts. It will then be seen that "proclamation is a response to the human aspiration for salvation" ( DP67 = G991 ).

The Spirit must also be the one to lead:

Mindful of what God has already accomplished in those addressed, the Church seeks to discover the right way to announce the Good News. She takes her lead from divine pedagogy. This means learning from Jesus himself, and observing the times and seasons as prompted by the Spirit ( DP69 = G993 ).

Proclamation has therefore to be "progressive and patient, keeping pace with those who hear the message, respecting their freedom and even their's lowness to believe" ( Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 79 )" ( ibid. ). There must be moreover respect for an active reception on the part of the hearer of the word. This may entail " a process of purification and enlightenment ". It will lead to an inculturation of the Christian message as it becomes incarnated in the culture and spiritual tradition of those addressed, so that the message is not only intelligible to them, but is conceived as responding to their deepest aspirations, as truly the Good News they have been longing for ( cf. Evangelii nuntiandi, nn. 20,62 ) ( DP70 = G994 ).

6. The Goal of Interreligious Dialogue

Proclamation includes an invitation to faith in Jesus Christ, to accept baptism and so to enter into the community of the Church. It can be said therefore that proclamation is really concerned with conversions to Christianity. The word " conversions " is used advisedly in the plural, as something which can be counted and registered in statistics.

Interreligious dialogue is not geared towards such conversions, implying a change of religious adherence. Yet the term "conversion" has a much wider acceptance, as "a general movement toward God" ( DP11 = G935 ), a "humble and penitent return of the heart to God, in the desire to submit one's life more generously to him" ( DM37 = G844 ). To the extent that interreligious dialogue encourages the partners to open themselves up to God in this way it can be truly considered a dialogue of salvation.

It should be clear then that if dialogue does not aim at making Buddhists or Muslims into Christians, neither can its aim be said to be making Buddhists into better Buddhists and Muslims into better Muslims. It would seem better to categorize the movement of conversion as a more ardent and sincere response to God. In this sense interreligious dialogue does not merely aim at mutual understanding and friendly relations. It reaches a much deeper level, that of the spirit, where exchange and sharing consist in a mutual witness to one's beliefs and a common exploration of one's respective religious convictions. In dialogue, Christians and others are invited to deepen their religious commitment, to respond with increasing sincerity to God's personal call and gracious self-gift which, as our faith tells us, always passes through the mediation of Jesus Christ and the work of his Spirit ( DP40 = G964 ).

Mutual understanding and friendly relations have been mentioned. These indeed do form part of the goal of interreligious dialogue, even if they do not exhaust its meaning. Dialogue has been defined as:

" 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 " ( DP9 = G933 ).

In some ways the goal of interreligious dialogue is very general. It is much less specific than ecumenical dialogue in its strict acceptation. The Ecumenical Directory of May 1993 makes this clear:

There are increasing contacts in today's world between Christians and persons of other religions. These contacts differ radically from the contacts between the Church and ecclesial communities, which have for their object the restoration of the unity Christ willed among all his disciples, and are properly called ecumenical ( n. 210 = G1016 ).

Yet the same document goes on to underline the ecumenical dimension of interreligious dialogue:

In practice they ( these contacts ) are deeply influenced by, and in turn influence ecumenical relationships. Through them, Christians can deepen the level of communion existing among themselves, and so they are to be considered an important part of ecumenical cooperation ( ibid. ).

7. Interreligious Dialogue X a Duty of All

Interreligious dialogue may be considered by some a marginal activity, something which can be left to a few experts. This is not the thinking of John Paul II. He has presented his position very forthrightly in Redemptoris Missio:

Each member of the faithful and all Christian communities are called to practise dialogue, although not always to the same degree or in the same way ( n. 57 = G180 ).

The importance of dialogue had been underlined already by Vatican II. The decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops, Christus Dominus, states:

Bishops should dedicate themselves in their apostolic office as witnesses of Christ before all men ( n. 11 ).

In other words, they are not bishops solely for the Catholics in their diocese, but for all its inhabitants of whatever religion or none they may belong to. They are therefore encouraged to establish relations on as wide a scale as possible:

Since it is the mission of the Church to converse with the human society in which she lives, bishops especially are called upon to approach men, seeking and fostering dialogue with them. These conversations on salvation ought to be distinguished for clarity of speech as well as for humility and gentleness so that truth may always be joined with charity, and understanding with love. Likewise they should be characterised by due prudence allied, however, with that trustfulness which fosters friendship and thus is naturally disposed to bringing about a union of minds ( ibid., n. 13 ).

This text mentions "bishops especially", since it is specifically dealing with the role of bishops. Yet the use of the qualifier "especially" shows that bishops do not have a monopoly of dialogue. In fact here, as in other aspects of their ministry, they need the cooperation of all. Interreligious dialogue provides a field for collaborative ministry.

John Paul II, in Redemptoris Missio, says that in this area "the contribution of the laity is indispensable" ( n. 57 = G180 ). He speaks first about the example that they can give in their life situations, and also the relations that they can build up through their activities. Specific mention is made of the possibility of contributing through research and study.

Though dialogue takes place between individuals, not systems, a passage from Dialogue and Proclamation suggests that even religions as such can be brought into dialogue:

The Church encourages and fosters interreligious dialogue not only between herself and other religious traditions, but even among these religious traditions themselves. This is one way in which she fulfils her role as " sacrament, that is, a sign and instrument of communion with God and unity among all people " ( Lumen gentium, n. 1 ). She is invited by the Spirit to encourage all religious institutions and movements to meet, to enter into collaboration and to purify themselves in order to promote truth, and to live in holiness, justice, love and peace X dimensions of that kingdom which, at the end of all time, Christ will hand over to his Father ( cf. 1 Cor 15:24 ) ( DP80 = G1004 ).

Christians should not be jealous if others are engaging in dialogue. There is much room for healthy emulation.

8. Dialogue at the Service of the Kingdom

This last quotation can provide a good introduction to the final consideration, namely that dialogue is one way of working for the coming of God's kingdom. This idea had already been presented by Dialogue and Mission.

The reign of God is the final end of all persons. the Church, which is to be " its seed and beginning " ( Lumen gentium, nn. 5,9 ), is called from the first, to start out on this path toward the kingdom and, along with the rest of humanity, to advance toward that goal ( DM25 = G832 ).

This text calls to mind a passage from the discourse of John Paul II at the conclusion of the Day of Prayer for World Peace, held in Assisi on 27 October 1986:

The very fact that we have come to Assisi from various quarters of the world is in itself a sign of this common path which humanity is called to tread. Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others. We hope that this pilgrimage to Assisi has taught us anew to be aware of the common origin and common destiny of humanity. 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 ( n. 5 = G546 ).

Interreligious dialogue can thus act as a reminder to Christians that they are not alone. They are called to cooperate with people of other religious traditions. They are called to welcome the help of people of other religious traditions as they respond to God's will and strive to contribute to the coming of God's kingdom.

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