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Inter-Religious Dialogue

by

Cardinal Simon Pimenta

An eminent leader of the Catholic Church in India emphasises the need for tolerance based on dialogue, at various levels, between followers of different religions.

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Engagement in inter-religious dialogue does not mean ignoring or playing down the essential particularness or distinction of any religion.

     There are different forms of inter-religious dialogues:

1.  The Dialogue of Life:  When people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and pre-occupations.

2.  The Dialogue of Action:  When people of different faiths collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people.

3.  The Dialogue of Theological Exchange: When specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages.

4.  The Dialogue of Religious Experience: When persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, e.g. with regard to prayer and contemplation. 

     It is obviously not possible, nor is it suggested, that one should, or that one is expected to, engage in all these different kinds of inter-faith dialogues. But one must be open, and prepared to engage in whatever form, according to one's background, training, experience, it is possible for him to do so.

     I feel that the dialogue of life and the dialogue of action could be the ones in which the generality of people could engage in. This is so because in this kind of dialogue, people of different faiths interact with one another on practical matters that concern them in their daily lives, e.g. births, deaths, marriages, festivals, neighbourly concerns.

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The Catholic Church, especially after Vatican Council II, which was held in Rome in four different sessions lasting three months each (1962-1965) has encouraged its members to have inter-faith dialogue. In its Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to other religions, the Church has given official sanction and encouragement to such dialogue in these words: "The Church has this exhortation for her followers: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral good among them, as well as the values in their society and culture".

     Following the Vatican Council, the Pope established, in Rome, a special body: "The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue" to attend to this work. This Council has established contacts all over the world, including India, and maintains cordial relations with several organizations, including the Somaiya Bharatiya Sanskriti Peetham of Bombay.

     I may mention here that a qualified priest from Bombay is at present the Assistant Secretary of this Council. The President of this Council - a Nigerian Cardinal - has come to India twice to attend conferences and to establish contacts. The Pope himself has twice invited leaders of different religions, including from India, for meetings of inter-religious types in Rome and Assisi.

     Pope John Paul II, as is well-known, has paid visits to almost all countries. Wherever there is a sizeable number of followers of other religions, he makes it a point to meet with them, and, if possible, to speak to them. For his 10-day visit to India in 1986, such a meeting was scheduled to take place at Madras on February 5.

     In the course of his speech, he said: "The Catholic Church recognizes the truths that are contained in the religious traditions of India. This recognition makes true dialogue possible ….". Again, on his visit to Delhi in November, 1999, he attended a meeting with representatives of other religions.

The need for inter-religious dialogue was again spelt out in the following words by the Pope in his Document which he published after the month-long meeting of Asian Bishops in Rome, 1998: "The advent of a new millennium offers a great opportunity for inter-religious dialogue and for meetings with leaders of the world's great religions. Contact, dialogue, and co-operation with the followers of other religions is a task which the Second Vatican Council bequeathed to the whole Church as a duty and a challenge".

     In his letter to the Catholics in preparation for the Jubilee 2000, he wrote: "As far as the field of religious awareness is concerned, the eve of the Year 2000 will provide a great opportunity, especially in view of the recent decades, for inter-religious dialogue…"

     And, again, in a Letter to the Catholics at the beginning of the new millennium, the Pope wrote: "… we should consider the great challenge of inter-religious dialogue to which we shall still be committed in the new millennium in fidelity to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council… This dialogue must continue."

     The Catholic Bishops Conference of India has a Commission for Ecumenism and Dialogue; the Archdiocese of Bombay, too, has a Commission for Inter-Religious Dialogue. These bodies, as also other Associations organize or take part in inter-religious dialogue meetings.

     It is evident from all this that the Catholic Church is quite open to inter-religious dialogue. However, it must be admitted that we all need to do more in this regard in the interest of the nation and for the good of our people. 

Worthy of mention with respect to inter-religious dialogue is the Somaiya Bharatiya Sanskriti Peetham, Mumbai, which organized international seminars for inter-religious dialogue. In February of this year, this organization had arranged its fourth international seminar: Hindu-Christian Inter-faith Dialogue on "Mahavakyas" in Hinduism and Christianity, jointly with the Universities of Florence and Turin, Italy. Representatives from India and abroad, including one from the Vatican, attended this seminar, and some of them presented papers.

     The hand-out spelled out very succinctly the reason for organizing such seminars and meetings in these words: "Interfaith dialogues, seminars and meetings are a need of the hour when the growing thrust of materialism has forced thinking people all over the world to go back to the religious and philosophical foundations of life. These seminars strive to enhance the spirit of tolerance and understanding amongst scholars. It is our strong conviction that by respecting the differences of the practices and seeking the unity of thought we can hope for a peaceful and harmonious co-existence of different faiths." I was invited to preside over the concluding session of this seminar.

     At this seminar, the organisers had chosen to study some of the Mahavakyas (great propositions) of Hinduism and Christianity. The Mahavakyas of different religions which express certain truths can be instrumental in promoting inter-faith dialogue. In all, 12 papers were presented at the seminar by Hindu and Christian scholars.

     Just as Hinduism has Mahavakyas, so does Chris-tianity, and, I presume, other religions as well. Some of Christ's Mahavakyas are well known, e.g. I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE. I would consider Christ's Sermon on the Mount which contains the Beatitudes (which Gandhiji was fond of and referred to) as a series of Mahavakyas. This Sermon on the Mount was one of the sources of inspiration for Gandhiji's philosophy and movement of non-violence.

     It is a sad commentary that in our so-called modern, sophisticated world there are tensions and conflicts among different religions or religious communities or in the name of religion. Inter-religious harmony is the need of the hour everywhere.

     We seem to be stressing more and more the things that divide us, whereas we should be emphasizing the things that unite us. We should stress the convergences rather than the divergences.

            We should work on the things that we hold in common, and not so much on the differences that we might have. In this context, seminars and inter-faith meetings and dialogue would be helpful to come to understand one another's view points, and to promote peace and harmony among religious groups, and, by extension, in the larger community of the country.

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