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from issue no. 10 - 2004

CHURCH. Words from the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue

Let us be more afraid of aggressive Christians

A meeting with Monsignor Michael Louis Fitzgerald on the daily life of the dialogue among the faiths today

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Devotion in a Catholic church in Colombo in Sri Lanka

Devotion in a Catholic church in Colombo in Sri Lanka

«Paul VI said that the Church is in dialogue with everyone. There must be a dialogue outside the Church, with those who have different faiths or none, and one within the Church, to create unity again. Dialogue with those who don’t have our faith doesn’t mean relativism or religious indifference, but» - in his first epistle Saint Peter teaches us - «but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence» [1 Pt 3.15]. There are unfortunately some « aggressive, disrespectful Christians who do harm to us all», outside and inside the Church. These are the opening words of our interview with Michael Louis Fitzgerald, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who wanted us to record a simple and clear-cut statement straightaway:
“Immediately after the first attacks suffered this summmer on the Christian and Catholic churches in Iraq we, with our friends of the Islamic-Christian Linkage Committee, unanimously condemned the terrorist acts. We believe that a clash between Islam and Christianity neither can nor should be spoken of”.
In May this year the fortieth anniversary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was celebrated, the setting-up of which was announced by Paul VI at Whitsun in 1964. A plenary assembly was held on the occasion at which members of the Council, coming from all parts of the world, exchanged mutual information and advice on the daily situation of interreligious dialogue. These internal discussions among leading figures in the field are rarely mentioned by the media but they are actually the only ones that offer a grasp of the daily situation in interreligious dialogue, leaving theorizing aside. They are therefore worth looking at again, above all now. «At the Plenary Assembly there was wide-ranging discussion of the state of relations with all the greater religions and of the pastoral work to be done on the sects and the new religious movements, but», Monsignor Fitzgerald underlines, «after the reading of the general report on the work done by the last Plenary Assembly in 2001, we obviously spent almost a whole day talking about Islam».

Some contributions are worth looking at again. For example that of African Cardinal Pengo.
MICHAEL LOUIS FITZGERALD: He explained that in his country, Tanzania, meetings and seminars with Moslems have been held for some time, but normally they deal more with social or political questions than religious or theological topics and the cardinal confessed it wasn’t his impression that the Moslems are very eager to get to know Christianity. Maybe some, perhaps the more extremist, who want more detail so as to be able to use it in feeding argument. Another way of proceeding must be found, a more profitable one.
Such as?
FITZGERALD: The way is that of small Christian communities. In Africa, as in Latin America and Asia, the parish is often a meeting-place for many different small communities, people who live in the same neighborhood or who work together, who read and meditate together on the Gospel, and pray for the problems of daily life. «Don’t let them be closed communities», the cardinal pleaded and, given that they live in surroundings in which a friend, a workmate or neighbor is often of another religion, they can also invite them in. Additionally, when the small local community of Christians is thinking of suggesting a solution to some social problem, it’s better to bring those who aren’t Christian into the debate. He stressed that «if the service to the people is performed all together, it’s very much better, and helps to create sincere friendship».
Girls study in a  religious school in Sumatra in Indonesia

Girls study in a religious school in Sumatra in Indonesia

Asia, too, is a continent that notoriously suffers from religious quarrels. As was made clear by the contribution of Cardinal Darmaatmadja of Jakarta…
FITZGERALD: In Indonesia there are conflicts and difficulties with Islam that we described as «horizontal and vertical». The former concern different ethnic and opposing groups, and that happens when there is migration of people from one island to another. But if a Moslem ethnic group lands on an island of Christians, the clash is not of civilizations, is not religious, but has to do with interests. The vertical conflict is instead caused by dissatisfaction with central government. If freedom and democracy are missing, the dissatisfaction is greater and it’s simpler for outside powers to stir up civil war between groups and communities peaceful up till then. Here, too, it’s not a matter of talking of battling faiths. So true is it that the Indonesian religious leaders gathered to make detailed judgment on the conflicts, and out of that came a moral movement. Last year we welcomed in the Vatican the people in charge of the larger Moslem groups of Indonesia, together with Cardinal Darmaatmadja, the Secretary of the Council of the Protestant Churches, Hindu and Buddhists leaders, all come in delegation to the Pope to share in an assessment on the war in Iraq: it is not a conflict between Christians and Moslems. Giving hospitality to a delegation from the country that boasts the largest Moslem population in the world was important.
But it seems that discussion on relations with Islam at the Plenary Assembly was one-sided.
FITZGERALD: No. Many members of our Pontifical Council surveyed the difficulties created in their own world by Christians. There are the glaring cases of groups which – in India, in the Sri Lanka, in Indonesia and in many other countries - preach Jesus in a manner, to use a euphemism, that is not in tune. In Sri Lanka, for example, the Catholic bishops have been forced to make a public declaration to distance themselves from these Christians who assert their faith in Jesus Christ in a manner that has no respect for anybody, Christian, of other faiths or atheist.
The Church can’t claim to be immune from fundamentalism...
FITZGERALD: There are, so to speak, “aggressive Catholics”. They’re fond of nourishing the suspicion that anybody open to dialogue is not a good Christian. When Paul VI wrote Ecclesiam Suam he had in view the need not only for ecumenic and interreligious dialogue, but also that within our Catholic Church. One can’t expect those who feel themselves in possession of the truth within the Church, and who are therefore intransigent, to build bridges of peace in the world. Those who from these positions make themselves – for whatever reasons – champions of dialogue toward the world are not credible. Not least because the best and most effective dialogue is that sustained by the ecclesial community. That is: dialogue is the daily life of Christians.
I recall a definition of Father Thomas Michel: «We are better evangelists when we’re not conscious of it». Dialogue, that is the life of faith of the Christian, is not a matter of consciousness or of “self-consciousness” of the faith. That is just another affirmation of self, it is not the life of Christians. The life of Christians is Jesus. Those who engage in dialogue don’t have the “immediate” purpose of converting their interlocutor, but have the desire in their hearts of maybe one day kneeling together before Jesus with their interlocutor. I once happened to tell the Iranian ambassador that I would be glad to share my faith with him...

At the end of our talk we learned once again what dialogue and Christian testimony are for Monsignor Fitzgerald. Seeking out on his shelves The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, he told us that «one day Saint Francis, who had decided to go out to preach, asked a brother to accompany him. So they began walking, for a long stretch, going through places and houses, greeting passers-by and acquaintances, until the brother asked him somewhat impatiently: “But Francis, when do we start preaching?” And he: “But why, what’ve we been doing all day?”».

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