Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 06/03/2000 info:
The Spirit of Assisi
The interreligious Dialogue

One of the most challenging dimensions of religion in our times seems to be the need of a new attitude which the Churches, Judaism and Islam have to develop in their approach to other religious faiths and world religions. In the interreligious dialogue, Christianity has a dynamic role. Judaism and Islam are not always convinced of the necessity of such a dialogue.

Among Christians there is a considerable change in attitude. The World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have both taken steps in their understanding of other religions. In the Roman Catholic Church the main breakthrough came with the Vatican II Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non Christian religions in 1965, known as Nostra Aetate. In 1986 Pope John Paul II initiated a day of prayer for peace in Assisi to which he invited 50 delegates from various Christian communities and 50 leaders of other faiths, which was an act of dialogue at the highest level. The figure of Saint Francis meeting with the Sultan of Egypt is known to everybody. What is exceptional is that this dialogue took part at the end of the Middle Ages, after the difficult period of the Crusades.

The implications of the Assisi prayer go beyond the event itself. It confers a theological imperative for interreligious dialogue, not only for the sake of the religions to come together, but also for the religions to become conscious of their task of bringing about peace in our societies.

It is interesting noting that the message of Jesus of Nazareth was not all circumscribed by a narrow ethnic and racial considerations of Judaism. Transcending the boundaries of his own religion Jesus appreciated the Gentiles and the Samaritans for their religiosity. He was open to other religions and to religious complementarity. Seeing the faith of the Roman officer of Capernaum who went to Jesus with the request to cure his sick servant Jesus told him : ´ Not even in Israel have I found such faith. Many will come from East and West and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while the children of the Kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. Jesus recognized the faith of the Canaanite woman. He healed a Samaritan leper. The Gospel of John chapter 12 knows about Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus in Jerusalem. This is one of the most challenging stories which show how Jesus understood his own religious identity and his relation to the followers of other religions. The story provides us some insights about the need for openness that should be characteristic of the followers of all religions.

Early Christianity explained the priesthood of Jesus by taking without any qualms the model of a pagan priest, the priest of the Jebusite city: Mechisedek. For early Christianity, it was important to show how well this priest realized in himself the ideals of a mediator between God and men. This could not be seen in the priesthood of the Old Covenant characterized by externalism, but only in the priesthood of Melchisedek (letter to the Hebrews 7,1-28).

The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in other religions. The question of the uniqueness and universality of Christ is a crucial issue in Christian theology. Theologians have developed three specific types of thinking in this area known as exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Exclusivism is practically abandoned by all Catholic theologians who accept the possibility of salvation for every body. Inclusivism holds that even those who do not believe in Christ will be saved, but only through Jesus, even if they do not know him. The salvific value of other religions is not taken into consideration.

Any real religious identity is to be marked by authenticity and openness through which each religion articulates its inner meaning and developps in an atmosphere of mutuality.

The uniqueness of Christianity is not its exclusiveness and a claim of superiority over other religions, but rather its capacity of transcending the categories of historically determined religious traditions. Courage is needed to recognize that God is above all considerations based upon cultures. He is greater even than our hearts. We have to open our eyes and our minds to see the inexhaustible mystery of God present in each religion. All religious experiences have their own limits and need to be purified. They must be ready to share with others what they have discovered. Without a genuine love towards others the message of the religions suffers an inner contradiction.

Christians, trusting in God and respecting the faith of others have many times been participatingg in Jerusalem in this new encounters with other traditions. The Tantur Institute has a long tradition in this field. Ratisbonne Institute normally dialogues with Jews, but at times also with Muslims. The Studium Biblicum Franciscanum has organized symposia at an academic level to discuss topics common to Jews, Muslims and Christians. This attitude of dialogue will paradoxally both preserve the identity of Christianity and at the same time transform it.

Interreligious dialogue cannot be one-sided. Christians are offering friendship to members of other religions. They must also to show their good will. The Jubilee of the year 2000 calls everyone to reconciliation. It is not enough to accuse each other of the errors of the past. Everybody must purify his own memory in order to enter this new stage of dialogue.

Giorgio La Pira was a prophet of our times. He had a profound awareness of living in a nuclear age and in a world open to space discovery. Humanity has to choose between peace and suicide. In the year 1951 he wrote to some nuns asking them to pray that the walls of Jericho should collapse. For him this expression meant the end of atheism in Russia. He wrote also very often about the reconciliation of the sons of Abraham. Unless there is reconciliation there won’t be peace.

For those who life in Jerusalem and are witnesses to rising of fundamentalisms the intuitions of La Pira can seem to be utopian. But nevertheless there are signs of a new era. Those signs are called Nostra Aetate and the Bilateral Commission between Israel and the Holy See. Many other symposia are organized to bring together Jews, Muslims and Christians. It will take time to change mentalities. Education remains a very important task. But Rome was not built in a day.

Frédéric Manns

Created / Updated Monday, March 06, 2000 at 13:00:36