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Assisi 2012 – Where we Dwell in Common.

So, I have had a bit of a break from blogging, mostly to focus on other writing, and owing to other distractions. Rome can do that.

However, I find myself now with about 30 pages of back-notes for blogs, and sitting in Assisi for a conference of the Ecclesiological Investigations Network, so it seemed opportune to begin again with some observations from the first day. The theme is Assisi 2012: Where we Dwell in Common – Pathway sofr Dialogue in the 21st Century. The three thematic tracks are intra/inter ecclesial issues (ecumenism/ecclesiology), interfaith/interreligious issues, and Faith and World/Culture.

We arrived yesterday and started with an opening plenary prayer in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, home of the Porzincula, and greeted by Assisi Archbishop Domenic Sorrentino and Friar Fabrizio Migliasso, Custodian of the basilica.

There are a few familiar faces (Peter Phan, Rick Gillardetz, Dennis Doyle, Michael Kinnamon), and a few names I finally get to put faces to (Paul Murray from Durham, the other Viggo Mortensen).  But I confess I am a little surprised how few I knew or knew of – one more reminder of how insulated pontifical academia can get.

Participants number over 200, from 55 countries, and several different churches and faiths. The opening panel offered insights into the theological situation in Italy for the participants, and the opening keynote was offered by Paul Arthur of North Ireland, offering lessons from the peace process there for dialogue initiatives. Peter Phan offered a humorous evening toast, and Dennis Doyle delivered a deadpan response. This morning began with a plenary panel composed of Brad Hinze (US), Mary Getui (Kenya), and Eleni Kasselour Hatzivassiliadi (Greece)  and a response from Deivit Montealegre (Argentina).

The late morning, we had parallel plenaries, with mine focused on interchurch issues, such as:

  • The Burdens of History: Must Tribalism Always Prevail?
  • Hierarchy or Network of Truths? Hermenutical Principles and Challenges of Dialogue about Doctrinal Issues
  • Does a Doctrinal Teaching Office have an Ecumenical Future? (Which focused on a recent report of the Group des Dombes)

The afternoon held smaller breakout sessions with panels of smaller papers, and more direct discussion. I chose one with a Chilean and Tanzanian students from Louven, and Michael Walsh, the British church historian. He offered a look into an as-yet unpublished encyclical of Pius XI, Ecclesia Christi – On the True Church of Christ. It is one of two released in the archives of his pontificate.

It is so healthy, and people are so approachable. It is like a retreat, except that daily life in Rome is like a retreat, so I guess having a packed schedule is the retreat from the retreat. Having the daily intellectual stimulation with world class scholars is a nice break though. It is such a culture clash from the daily pontifical experience though, nobody is here speaking in official capacity, and everyone is quite open. No holds barred in critiquing the narrowing hermeneutic of the Council, calling to task shoddy scholarship, or directly challenging other churches for inconsistencies or unusual doctrinal stances.

I present on Friday, offering some observations on non-priestly ministries as opportunities for ecumenical convergence. Diaconate and lay ecclesial ministry anyone? 


Settimana di Preghiera per l’unità dei Cristiani 2012 in Roma

If you ever thought that Rome was not interested in ecumenism, you should think again. The calendar below is an unofficial list of everything going on during these days that has been advertised in connection to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, or the preceding Day of Reflection on Jewish-Christian Dialogue.

ROMA + 18 – 25 JANUARY 2012

Tutti Saremo Trasformati dalla Vittoria di Gesu Cristo, Nostro Signore”
“We will all be transformed by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ”

Tuesday, 17 January

1730     Giornata di Riflessione Ebraico-Cristiana: La Sesta Parola: «NON UCCIDERAI»
S. E. Mons. Benedetto Tuzia Commissione diocesana per l’Ecumenismo e il Dialogo Rav Riccardo Di Segni Rabbino Capo della Comunità Ebraica di Roma
Prof. Mauro Cozzoli Professore Ordinario di Teologia Morale, Pont. Università Lateranense
Pontificia Universitá Lateranense, Aula Pio XI

Wednesday, 18 January

1730      The Encounter of the African Traditional Religions, Islam and Christianity in Northeastern Nigeria:
Toward a Contextual Theology of Interreligious Dialogue
Doctoral Defense of Rev. John Bogna Bakeni, Russell Berrie Alumnus
Pontificia Universitá San Tommaso, Aula X

1830       The Venerable English College – Celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

1900      Celebrazione, Consulta delle Chiese Evangeliche Romane
Pastore Herbert Anders, Chiesa Luterana
S. E. Mons. Benedetto Tuzia Commissione diocesana per l’Ecumenismo e il Dialogo
Chiesa luterana, via Toscana 7

Thursday, 19 January

1600     Celebrazione ecumenica finlandese, festa di S. Enrico di Finlandia
S.E.R. Mons. Teemu Sippo, vescovo della diocesi cattolica di Helsinki. Seppo Hakkinen, vescovo della diocesi evangelico-luterana di Mikkeli.
Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

1630      Impulses of the Spirit: Promotion of Human Rights, Justice, and Peace since Vatican II
Rev. Drew Christiansen, SJ, editor-in-chief of America Magazine
Ecumenical Celebration of the Word
Canon David Richardson, ChStJ, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See
Monsignor Mark Langham, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
Centro Pro Unione, Via del Anima 30 (Piazza Navona)

1830       Veglia Ecumenica Diocesana di Preghiera
Basilica Santa Maria in Trastevere

Friday, 20 January

1730      Vespri ecumenica Seppo Hakkinen, vescovo della diocesi evangelico-luterana di Mikkeli
S.E. Teemu Sippo, vescovo della diocesi cattolica di Helsinki
S.E. Mons. Brian Farrell e Mons. Mathias  Türk.
Chiesa di S. Brigida, Piazza Farnese 96

Saturday, 21 January

1000      Abdullahi An-Na’im Human Rights Theory and Jacques Maritain’s Natural Law: A Comparative Study
Doctoral Defense of Dott.ssa. Paola Bernardini, Russell Berrie Alumna
Pontificia Universitá San Tommaso

Sunday, 22 January

1100      Catholic Eucharist with guest preacher,
Canon David Richardson, ChStJ, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See

Oratorio di San Francesco Saverio del Caravita

1830       Ecumenical Prayer Service/Churches Together in Rome
Prof.ssa Donna Orsuto, DSG, Preaching
Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church, Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo

Tuesday, 24 January

1245      Anglican Eucharist with guest preacher
Rev. Kenneth Howcraft, Methodist Representative to the Holy See
Anglican Center in Rome, Piazza del Collegio Romano 2

1830       Dialogo Interreligioso in Chiara Lubich e nel Movimento dei Focolari
Dott. Roberto Catalano, Centro Dialogo Interreligioso
Istituto Tevere – Centro pro Dialogo, Via di Monte Brianzo 82

Wednesday, 25 January

1730      Vespers at the Papal Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura
Pope Benedict XVI Solemn Closing of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

2000     Veglia di preghiera ecumenica
Mons. Charles Scicluna
Chiesa Santa Brigida, Piazza Farnese 96

Thursday, 26 January

1800      Chiesa Cattolica: Essenza – Realtà – Missione
Presentazione: Dott. Rosino Gibellini
Intervento: S.E.R. Cardinal Walter Kasper
Responso: S.E.R. Cardinal Kurt Koch
Centro Pro Unione, Via Santa Maria dell’Anima 30

The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas: Catholic, Ecumenical, and Interreligious

I wrote the following for Koinonia, the newsletter of the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. It was published in the winter 2012 issue:

For Avner, an Israeli Jew, Yom Kippur this year meant spending the day at a Benedictine retreat center with his new housemates and attending his first Catholic mass. It inspired him to fast for the Day of Atonement for the first time in years.

For Kassim, a Muslim father of three from Ghana, his first Sunday in Rome was marked by the celebration of the Eucharist as well – at St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Benedict XVI and all the bishops of Africa, including Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Matthew, a Christian born in Singapore and living in Australia, experienced for the first time a Shabbat meal with a rabbi; Muhamed, a Sunni imam from Bosnia studied the liturgy of the hours in the Latin tradition alongside a Belarusian Orthodox scripture scholar and a Syro-Malabar Catholic liturgist.

When a rabbi, an imam, and a minister sit down together, it sounds like the beginning of a joke. Mention that they are housemates, too, and you suspect there is a punch line coming. Add that this is in the heart of Rome, in a Catholic residence for students of the Pontifical Universities in the Eternal City, and your skepticism is almost justified.

For twenty-five years, however, the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas has been just that: a Catholic collegio [1]committed to the formation of future theologians and church leaders in their Catholic identity – and precisely by virtue of that commitment, also a house of hospitality to ecumenical and interreligious scholars in Rome.

The Lay Centre was founded by Dr. Donna Orsuto, of Ohio, and Ms. Riekie van Velzen, of the Netherlands, in 1986 – a time when, surprisingly, there were still very few lay students in the pontifical universities, and when no Roman collegio was open to people who were not priests, seminarians, or religious. It was born out of the Foyer Unitas (literally, Hearth of Unity) of the Ladies of Bethany, which they had operated since 1952 as an information and hospitality center for non-Catholic pilgrims to Rome, including some of the ecumenical observers at Vatican II.

During the recent twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations, the co-founders, Dr. Orsuto and Ms. van Velzen were honored by Pope Benedict XVI as Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and Dame of the Order of Pope St. Sylvester, respectively.

Three-fold Mission

The Lay Centre’s mission is threefold:

  • To provide a formation program for the resident student community based on the four pillars of Christian formation identified by the Holy See: spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral.
  • To provide ongoing adult faith formation to the expatriate Anglophone communities of Rome.
  • To provide a series of international programs giving church leaders from around the world a unique opportunity to explore the history and theology of Rome.

There are currently twenty-two residents of sixteen nationalities and from five continents. They are agnostic and Jewish, Shi’a and Sunni, Orthodox and Catholic (even Latin and Eastern!). In such a milieu, there is ample opportunity for a dialogue of life and hands-on learning from a cross-cultural context.

Food and mealtimes always provide such occasions: One student is vegetarian, the three Muslims have three different approaches to halal, and during advent the Orthodox have gone temporarily vegan. As an Italian dinner is never complete without wine on the table, the Sicilian blood-orange juice was redubbed “Muslim red wine” by those not permitted to partake of the Christian variety. Dinnertime conversation can range from the World Cup to circumcision practices in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A trip to the kitchen for a midnight snack can turn into a two-hour conversation about different religions’ perspectives on agnosticism and secularity.

The Prayer Life of the House

As a lay Catholic Christian community, the prayer life of the house is decidedly in that tradition; members of other churches are welcome to participate, and members of other faiths are welcome to observe, as appropriate. Before the main community meal of the day, all who choose to do so pray either midday prayer or vespers in common, and every day ends with a form of night prayer. A weekly community night includes the celebration of the Eucharist with a guest bishop or priest, dinner, and a formation session. Meal prayers might come from any tradition and be in any language.

Prayer also presents the opportunities for respectful presence and observation at the prayer of another religion, like the Jewish and Muslim encounters with the Mass mentioned above. Prayer can be a time for hospitality: During a recent evening event, one of the Muslim guests asked his Lay Centre hosts for a quiet place to pray maghrib. One Catholic resident immediately went to his room to retrieve a prayer mat he kept for just such occasions, as the other resident volunteered to wait during her friends’ prayer to make sure he was not disturbed.

In October, the Lay Centre organized [2] a pilgrimage to Assisi to join Pope Benedict XVI and other leaders of the world’s religions for the Pilgrimage of Peace, Pilgrimage of Truth,marking the 25th anniversary of the historic first interreligious gathering in Assisi with Pope John Paul II. Though the official agenda included several speeches and declarations of commitment to peace, no form of common prayer was scheduled.

Prayer, pilgrimage, and community are separated only with difficulty, however. As the group wandered around the ancient town for half an hour before dinner, some found their way to San Stefano, a simple 12th century church. Instinctively, Christians made their way to the front benches to quietly pray, while in the vestibule, an imam and a dervish began their own prayers. Our agnostic housemate took time to reflect outside with a cigarette.

Like the medieval church in which we found ourselves – simple, quiet, and peaceful – the prayer and reflection expressed our unity and our diversity. It is precisely this community without communion which marks life in the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas and makes it an oasis of hospitality and dialogue in the heart of Rome.

A.J. Boyd is a graduate student in ecumenism at Rome’s Angelicum University, and graduate assistant at the Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue. Before returning to studies full-time, he was a lay ecclesial minister for the Archdiocese of Seattle and active in ecumenical and interreligious work in the United States. This is his third year at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas.


1 In the Pontifical Roman system, Universities are the accredited institutions of post-secondary education. Colleges, which are generally seminaries, are the residences and houses of formation where most university students are presumed to live and receive the balance of their formation.

2 In collaboration with the Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue (Rome)


Year in Review

As the Year of Grace 2011 ended, I reviewed my “to write” file for the blog, and found no less than 22 pages of notes on events and ideas I had not had time to develop into full posts. Here is a list of some highlights from the last year, with links to posts if I have them and as I develop them!






  • Short visit home in the Pacific Northwest
  • Cascade Covenant Church
  • Helping my sister move: 16 hours on the road, 45 minutes unpacking the truck
  • My brother’s new house


  • Netherlands: visiting Eveline, Clare
  • New York/New Jersey: visiting Courtney, Liam, Rob
  • Lay Centre 25th Anniversary Colloquium: My paper on the laity and ecumenism


  • Archbishop Sartain of Seattle in Rome for Pallium
  • EuroPride in Rome – monastic perspectives from the hill


  • Notre Dame Chorale Concert at Sant’Ignazio: Michael and Kerri Castorano
  • Eucharistic Procession with Cardinal Marc Ouellet
  • Notre Dame Glee Club and Fr. Michael Driscoll in Rome
  • Lay Centre alumnus Theodosius Kyriakidis debuts his documentary film on Greek Christians in Asia Minor; another alumnus Mustafa Cenap Aydin of Turkey responds
  • Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald and Leijla Demiri present on Interfaith Dialogue of life
  • Beatification of JPII


  • Fr. Michael Casey, O.Cist. visits Lay Centre
  • Assisi and Florence with Courtney and co.
  • David Ford and Stephen Kepnes: The Future of Theology
  • Annual JPII Lecture David Ford on Scriptural Reasoning
  • Paschal Triduum  in Rome
  • Culture Week in Rome
  • Meeting with Fr. Norbert Hofmann


Earlier unwritten posts:

  • Cardinal Levada visits the Lay Centre
  • Springtime of Faith Summit in Rome – local presenters include two cardinals, two professors, and me!

Ideas, ongoing or upcoming:

  • Liberal and Conservative in the Church (see june 26, Feb 2)
  • Nostra Aetate, Dabru Amet, and Common Word
  • ARCIC III and Personal Ordinariates
  • Clericalism and Anti-clericalism
  • Laïcite, laity, secularism, and secularity
  • Vocations: discernment or recruiting office?
  • Catholic Education beyond parochial schools
  • “Catholic” vs. “Roman Catholic”: What’s in a Name?
  • The Bologna Process and Pontifical Universities
  • Papal honors as ecclesiological indicator
  • Liturgy Wars: Episode V – The New Translation
  • Call for a Common Easter
  • The Big Sort
  • Ecumenical Updates: Where have we got with all this dialogue?
  • Wikipedia as Courtyard of the Gentiles: A call for biographical articles on great ecumenists and other theologians
  • A Parable: The Kingdom of God is like the Electromagnetic Spectrum and it is Easier for a Colorblind Man to Pass Through 400-789 Terrahertz than to Enter it…
  • Upcoming article in Koinonia
  • Upcoming article and presentation for Assisi 2012: Ecclesiological Investigations Network conference

And finally: “The Diaconate in the International Ecumenical Dialogues: Toward an Understanding of the Deacon as Minister of Unity.” a tesina to be submitted for the License in Sacred Theology…

Assisi 2011: Pope Benedict XVI


Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Distinguished Heads and Representatives of Churches, Ecclesial Communities and World Religions,
Dear Friends,

Twenty-five years have passed since Blessed Pope John Paul II first invited representatives of the world’s religions to Assisi to pray for peace. What has happened in the meantime? What is the state of play with regard to peace today? At that time the great threat to world peace came from the division of the earth into two mutually opposed blocs. A conspicuous symbol of this division was the Berlin Wall which traced the border between two worlds right through the heart of the city. In 1989, three years after Assisi, the wall came down, without bloodshed. Suddenly the vast arsenals that stood behind the wall were no longer significant. They had lost their terror. The peoples’ will to freedom was stronger than the arsenals of violence. The question as to the causes of this dramatic change is complex and cannot be answered with simple formulae. But in addition to economic and political factors, the deepest reason for the event is a spiritual one: behind material might there were no longer any spiritual convictions. The will to freedom was ultimately stronger than the fear of violence, which now lacked any spiritual veneer. For this victory of freedom, which was also, above all, a victory of peace, we give thanks. What is more, this was not merely, nor even primarily, about the freedom to believe, although it did include this. To that extent we may in some way link all this to our prayer for peace.

But what happened next? Unfortunately, we cannot say that freedom and peace have characterized the situation ever since. Even if there is no threat of a great war hanging over us at present, nevertheless the world is unfortunately full of discord. It is not only that sporadic wars are continually being fought – violence as such is potentially ever present and it is a characteristic feature of our world. Freedom is a great good. But the world of freedom has proved to be largely directionless, and not a few have misinterpreted freedom as somehow including freedom for violence. Discord has taken on new and frightening guises, and the struggle for freedom must engage us all in a new way.

Let us try to identify the new faces of violence and discord more closely. It seems to me that, in broad strokes, we may distinguish two types of the new forms of violence, which are the very antithesis of each other in terms of their motivation and manifest a number of differences in detail. Firstly there is terrorism, for which in place of a great war there are targeted attacks intended to strike the opponent destructively at key points, with no regard for the lives of innocent human beings, who are cruelly killed or wounded in the process. In the eyes of the perpetrators, the overriding goal of damage to the enemy justifies any form of cruelty. Everything that had been commonly recognized and sanctioned in international law as the limit of violence is overruled. We know that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty that considers itself entitled to discard the rules of morality for the sake of the intended “good”. In this case, religion does not serve peace, but is used as justification for violence.

The post-Enlightenment critique of religion has repeatedly maintained that religion is a cause of violence and in this way it has fuelled hostility towards religions. The fact that, in the case we are considering here, religion really does motivate violence should be profoundly disturbing to us as religious persons. In a way that is more subtle but no less cruel, we also see religion as the cause of violence when force is used by the defenders of one religion against others. The religious delegates who were assembled in Assisi in 1986 wanted to say, and we now repeat it emphatically and firmly: this is not the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction. In response, an objection is raised: how do you know what the true nature of religion is? Does your assertion not derive from the fact that your religion has become a spent force? Others in their turn will object: is there such a thing as a common nature of religion that finds expression in all religions and is therefore applicable to them all? We must ask ourselves these questions, if we wish to argue realistically and credibly against religiously motivated violence. Herein lies a fundamental task for interreligious dialogue – an exercise which is to receive renewed emphasis through this meeting. As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature. The God in whom we Christians believe is the Creator and Father of all, and from him all people are brothers and sisters and form one single family. For us the Cross of Christ is the sign of the God who put “suffering-with” (compassion) and “loving-with” in place of force. His name is “God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11). It is the task of all who bear responsibility for the Christian faith to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God’s peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.

If one basic type of violence today is religiously motivated and thus confronts religions with the question as to their true nature and obliges all of us to undergo purification, a second complex type of violence is motivated in precisely the opposite way: as a result of God’s absence, his denial and the loss of humanity which goes hand in hand with it. The enemies of religion – as we said earlier – see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear. But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself, now having only himself to take as a criterion. The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence.

Yet I do not intend to speak further here about state-imposed atheism, but rather about the decline of man, which is accompanied by a change in the spiritual climate that occurs imperceptibly and hence is all the more dangerous. The worship of mammon, possessions and power is proving to be a counter-religion, in which it is no longer man who counts but only personal advantage. The desire for happiness degenerates, for example, into an unbridled, inhuman craving, such as appears in the different forms of drug dependency. There are the powerful who trade in drugs and then the many who are seduced and destroyed by them, physically and spiritually. Force comes to be taken for granted and in parts of the world it threatens to destroy our young people. Because force is taken for granted, peace is destroyed and man destroys himself in this peace vacuum.

The absence of God leads to the decline of man and of humanity. But where is God? Do we know him, and can we show him anew to humanity, in order to build true peace? Let us first briefly summarize our considerations thus far. I said that there is a way of understanding and using religion so that it becomes a source of violence, while the rightly lived relationship of man to God is a force for peace. In this context I referred to the need for dialogue and I spoke of the constant need for purification of lived religion. On the other hand I said that the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.

In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God”. They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible. Therefore I have consciously invited delegates of this third group to our meeting in Assisi, which does not simply bring together representatives of religious institutions. Rather it is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force. Finally I would like to assure you that the Catholic Church will not let up in her fight against violence, in her commitment for peace in the world. We are animated by the common desire to be “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”.

 © Copyright 2011 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Vatican Assisi 2011 Page











Assisi 2011: The delegates

The official Christian delegates included Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, Archbishop Norvan Zakaryan of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Secretary General Olav Fyske Tveit of the World Council of Churches.

In all, there were representatives of the Orthodox Churches from the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, and the Ukrainian, Belarusian, Cypriot, Polish and Albanian churches. The Oriental Orthodox were represented by the Syrian Patriarchate of Antioch, the Armenian Apostolic Church (both Catholicossates) and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The Assyrian Church of the East was represented by the Metropolitan of India, the bishop of California and a priest.

The Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church, Lutheran World Federation, World Communion of Reformed Churches, the World Methodist Council, the Baptist World Alliance, World Convention of the Churches of Christ, the Mennonite World Conference, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the World Council of Churches were all represented, along with the Church of Scotland, the Disciples of Christ, the Salvation Army, and the classical Pentecostal churches.

176 representatives of non-Christian religions were present, including Reform and Orthodox Judaism; Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite and Ismaili Muslims; Hinduism (including Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma); Jainism; Zoroastrianism; Buddhism (including Shaolin, Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, Tendai, Jogye,  Jodo-Shu, and other forms); Confucianism; Taoism; Shinto; Mandaean (Gnostics); Sikh; Baha’i; traditional African, American, and Indian Religions; and “new religions” such as Tenrikyo, Ennokyo, and Myochi-kai.

Four “non-believers” were invited, a first, emphasizing Pope Benedict’s interest in the New Evanglization and his effort to engage secularism and religion on a level of common interest in the quest for truth. These included Julia Kristeva, Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst; Guillermo Hurtado, the Mexican philosopher; Walter Baier, a politician from Austria; and Remo Bodei an Italian professor of Aesthetic and philosophy.

Shi’a Muslim – Monastic Catholic Dialogue

Barely recovered from jet lag, the first event of my third year in Rome was a presentation on Muslim-Monastic dialogue at the Primatial Abbey of Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine hill.

For years, the monastic interfaith dialogue focused on the Buddhists, particularly in its Japanese Zen form, and one can remember easily the relationship of Thomas Merton and Tich Nacht Hanh. In the last decade though, there has been a general realization that we need not look so far from home, so to speak, and the Benedictines decided to initiate a dialogue with Islam… in this case, with Shi’a scholars from Qom, the study center for the Shi’a in Iran.

The public lecture was part of the schedule of the official dialogue, and our host was the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, the Rt. Rev. Notker Wolf… also known for being a rock star. Literally. It was organized and introduced by Fr. William Skudlarek, the Secretary General of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.

The lecturer was Abbot Timothy Wright, OSB, Delegate for Monastic-Muslim Relations, and the respondent was Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, Director of the new International Institute for Islamic Studies in Qom – a center which focuses on brining in western students to study Shi’a theology and jurisprudence in Iran.

Abbot Timothy highlighted the common core values of monastic spirituality and Shi’a  Islam, though, to be honest, there was little that seemed to me to be particularly monastic about the spirituality he mentioned:

  1.        Affirmation of God revealed in Word
  2.       Day and night punctuated by prayer
  3.       Exercise of opened word – lectio divina, e.g.

Though, the shared lectio divina he described sounded not unlike the scriptural reasoning  programme in Cambridge and elsewhere. Yet, with the rule of Benedict as a guide, it certainly does not hurt to have monastic engagement.

Dr. Shomali responded with an affirmation that the key to good dialogue is the building up of good relationships first, in which dialogue can happen. Relationships rather than events, should drive our encounter with the other… though obviously events can provide for the beginnings and deepening of relationships with people we might not otherwise encounter.

“Dialogue is not a formality or fashion but a part of my religious obligation. Neither is it dependent on reciprocation or appreciation.  In this it is like prayer and fasting. If no one appreciates my prayer and fasting, I do not stop!”

His advice to those interested in dialogue was simply to be a good listener, and shared the story of Moses and Pharaoh from the Quran, in which Moses objects to God sending him to waste his time trying to dialogue with someone not interested in dialogue: Pharaoh.

“Go and speak softly”, instructs the Almighty, “ for even in him there is a chance of his heart being softened.”

Consider this then. The most difficult dialogue is with the person who does not think he/she needs to dialogue with anyone – the person with a hard heart. But if there is even a chance of the heart of pharaoh being turned by soft-spoken dialogue, then there remains hope for everyone. In Dr. Shomali’s words, dialogue requires you to master being a good listener and gentle, soft and wise speaker.

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