I’m not a Catholic. I’m not, for that matter, even a [different sort of] Christian! And yet, I am very grateful for the many, many ways in which I’ve benefitted from the Catholic Church over the years. Deeping my appreciation of interfaith dialogue is one of these.
It is true that like every other religious institution, the Catholic Church has had a chequered history. In terms of relations with other faiths and their adherents, much of its history has been characterized by misplaced supremacism, narrow exclusivism, dogmatism and conflict. But, as other religious institutions should, the Catholic Church has changed over time, and today, under Pope Francis, it is deeply engaged, in various parts of the world, in seeking to promote understanding, peace and harmony between people of different faiths.
Personally, my understanding of, and involvement in, interfaith dialogue has been greatly enriched and enhanced by numerous Catholics—priests, nuns, and theologians, some of whom I have had the good fortune of meeting in person and spending time with, and others whom I have ‘met’ indirectly, through their writings. I cannot recall how many books by Catholic advocates of interfaith dialogue I’ve read so far—there have been so very many, and I continue to love buying and reading them! I’ve also been blessed with the opportunity of visiting several Catholic institutions, many of which I have found to be fascinating spaces for very creative and useful interfaith interaction.
Of course I don’t agree with everything about the Catholic Church (If I did, I’d obviously be a Catholic myself!). For instance, many of my views about God, Jesus, Mary and the Church are not the same as what the Catholic Church has laid down as official dogma. Likewise, my views on interfaith dialogue—its purpose and methods—do not correspond entirely with that of the Church and many Catholic interfaith activists. But that doesn’t prevent me from me learning good and useful things from Catholics, including about interfaith dialogue. And it certainly hasn’t dented my deep appreciation for the remarkable initiatives of many Catholic institutions and individuals to promote dialogue, better understanding and peace and harmony between people who claim to follow different religions.
Promoting interfaith harmony is a passion with me, and I don’t like missing an interfaith meeting or experience if I can help it. Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity of attending a two-day interfaith workshop conducted by a leading Catholic organization. As is typical with programmes organized by most Catholic institutions, it was arranged very efficiently, and everything with a very warm smile!
Barring a few of us, the participants were Catholic ‘religious’ as they are called—priests and nuns, who had been sent by their respective dioceses and institutions to attend the programme in order to learn more about interfaith dialogue and promoting better relations between people of different faiths. It was expected that with the exposure to interfaith dialogue that they gained through the programme, they would initiate interfaith dialogue work in their own dioceses. It was truly wonderful that the top level of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy was evidently very keen that the Catholic ‘religious’ get actively involved in promoting interfaith dialogue and harmony even at the grassroots’ level. The openness to learn about and from other faiths and their adherents was remarkable.
Resource persons introduced the participants to various recent Church documents that stress the importance of interfaith dialogue, providing theological justification for the same. Interfaith dialogue, it was pointed out, could go along with sharing news about one’s faith with others. It was also a means to build peace and understanding between people of different faith backgrounds in a world torn apart by conflicts and hatreds in the name of religion.
Interfaith dialogue does not mean that dialogue participants must dilute their commitment to their own religion, but it certainly helps one to open up to and appreciate the ample goodness found in other religions, too. There was ample celebration of that goodness in the programme, with interfaith prayers, consisting of reading passages from scriptures associated with other faith communities that have a universal resonance, and songs that people of all faiths could identify with. Besides, there was an entire session where resource people from different faith traditions spoke about commonalities between various faiths. It was a treat to see a Sufi Muslim, a Hindu monk, a Bahai, a Theravada Buddhist, a Sikh, a Protestant pastor and a Catholic priest all sitting together in a row, each taking their turn to address the participants on the values that various religions share and reflecting on how to promote harmonious relations between people of different faiths.
Now just imagine how wonderful it might be if other religious organizations could replicate this little experiment in interfaith bonhomie across the whole wide world!