The Holy Father’s prayer intention for the month of November is dialogue. This intention is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ pontificate, and a continuation of his encouragement to the United States Bishops in his address to them at St. Matthew’s in Washington DC to “dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.” While all of these dialogues are not accessible or necessary for every person, I don’t doubt his encouragement to “dialogue fearlessly” is for every person. Dialogue is relational and active. It is a dynamic mode of being that requires relationship, indeed friendship, with the religious other. It is encounter.
After the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the question became how to pastorally and practically implement the teachings of the Council. Specifically in reaction to the Declaration on non-Christian traditions and the Decree on Ecumenism the (what is now) the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) and the (what is now) Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), were formed respectively, to focus on the Catholic Church’s relationships with those of other religious traditions, as well as other Christians.
In 1984 the document, Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission, was produced by the then Secretariat for Non-Christians. The document lays the foundation for the Christian call to dialogue as mission, that is “working for the extension of the Kingdom [of God] and its values among all men and women,” (11) through the example “of Jesus… to respect the freedom of conscience of the human person.” “Mission must always revolve about people in full respect for their freedom.” (18) By following the teaching from the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Catholics must respect the inherent dignity of the human person to follow their conscience. In doing so, it necessarily follows that dialogue is intrinsic to the mission of the Church.
Dialogue and Mission laid out four ways of engaging in the practice of dialogue. While this document was produced by the now PCID, the framework for engaging in dialogue is accessible to the ecumenical cause as well. The Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs practices the first mode of dialogue, the dialogue of theological exchange on behalf of the United States Bishops. Interreligious and ecumenical dialogues have different goals, interreligious for mutual understanding, ecumenical for working toward greater Christian unity. However, engaging in dialogue with the religious other can also foster greater Christian fellowship. As Saint Pope John Paul II astutely observed, interreligious dialogue “can also be a way of realizing unity among Christian Churches which are moved by the same love of Christ.”(Address to Secretariat for Non-Christians, March 3, 1984).
While the dialogue of theological exchange is a very specialized form a dialogue requiring an academic grasp of tradition, the meat of Dialogue and Mission is for the every person. The dialogue of life, the dialogue of common social action, and the dialogue of religious experience are accessible to any level of experience. Whether a parish is just beginning dialogue for the first time, or are seasoned practitioners, these three ways of being in relationship with the other, with encountering the other are suitable for engagement. They must also be supplemented by an attitude of hospitality and humility.
(1) The dialogue of theological exchange is practiced among scholars and religious leaders from various traditions.
(2) The dialogue of life is about attitude and the spirit that guides personal conduct. For the Christian it is about witnessing to the Gospel in all facets of life with engaging and living peacefully with the religious others.
(3) The dialogue of common social action is emerging as an important form of dialogue. There are groups of varying religious backgrounds coming together to live out their faith commitments by working together to combat homelessness, hunger, workers’ rights, and other social ills. The world today needs the common witness of people of faith.
(4) The dialogue of religious experience is where those who are deeply rooted in their own religious traditions share experiences of prayer, contemplation, faith, as well as religious expression.
It is built in the mission of the Church to encounter the religious other in a spirit of friendship. Dialogue and Mission sets out a feasible framework for the local parish to reach out to their neighbors in various ways. Dialogue need not be a daunting task, though it does take patience and humility to truly foster deep spiritual friendship. It is way to live out our Christian call to witness to the human dignity of every person laid out in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, upheld by the Council Fathers, and encouraged and modeled by Pope Francis.
Julia McStravog, is the Program and Research Specialist for the USCCB's Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.