In May, 1998, I accepted a request from the Jesuit Conference to coordinate the United States Assistancy's work in response to the directives of the 34th General Congregation on Mission and Interreligious Dialogue (See NJN, October 1998). I started compiling a list of Jesuits involved in dialogue and the study of religions and also of those who, more informally, have had regular contact with people of other traditions in the course of their ministry. I had conversations with the provincials, Jesuits in leadership roles in formation, and individual Jesuits in various ministries. At the invitation of James P. Bradley of the New Orleans Province, I spoke at their Province Day in June, 1999, and used the occasion to clarify some aspects of the Congregation's document on dialogue, to highlight relevant aspects of the history of Jesuit encounters with people of other faiths, and to ask how dialogue can make sense in modern America's pluralistic culture.
Thereafter, in consultation with the provincials, I put together an Assistancy Advisory Committee on Interreligious Dialogue, to help me in this work: James T. Bretzke (JSTB; Wisconsin), Raymond A. Bucko (New York), Philip J. Chmielewski (Chicago), William J. Farge (New Orleans), Paul L. Heck (New England), Raymond G. Helmick (New England), Ignatius F. Ohno (Oregon), James D. Redington (Maryland), John A. Saliba (Detroit), Carl F. Starkloff (Missouri), Augustine H. Tsang (California). Joseph P. Horrigan from the Upper Canada Province is also going to be working with us, since many issues link the two assistancies. All members of the committee have had significant interest in some interreligious or crosscultural activities, either scholarly or pastorally. The advisory committee met at Jesuit Hall, St. Louis University, February 25-27, 2000, where we were graciously hosted by John W. Padberg and the Jesuit community. This was the first such gathering of Jesuits for this purpose in the United States - and hopefully a fruitful beginning to a larger initiative by US Jesuits.
Key to the meeting was the opportunity for the committee members to get to know one another, sharing personal stories and apostolic experiences. Since the committee includes Jesuits from all the provinces, we were also able to learn more about local initiatives directly related to dialogue, and also about organizing efforts in other areas that might serve as a model for our work. Organizing Jesuits on an assistancy level is a daunting task, so we also examined the roles of the convener and the committee, and asked what kinds of planning is really feasible on an assistancy level.
On Saturday we were able to enter into more substantive discussions about mission and dialogue, realizing that we cannot make steady progress in the area of dialogue without a good understanding of the Church's positions on evangelization and dialogue, and a sense of what a fruitful Jesuit contribution might be to the Church's larger mission. We agreed that dialogue is indicative of the providential situation in which we find ourselves today; as Pope John Paul II affirmed in 1986 while addressing various religious leaders in Madras, India, "By dialogue we let God be present in our midst, for as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God." Our conversations affirmed that dialogue is a positive value, a necessary response to the situation in which we find ourselves. We also saw that dialogue has to be integrated with other aspects of our work, ranging from a broad commitment to the evangelization of culture to our work in education, in the ministry of the Exercises, with the dispossessed and refugees, and on the whole must be linked with practical issues which concern Americans of all religious backgrounds - particularly in situations of actual or potential violence where religions can either aggravate or alleviate tensions. We did not have time to analyze any issue in depth, but at least gained a good sense of the balances required for fruitful dialogue with people of other faiths.
On Sunday we concluded with some brainstorming about what to do next. I am in contact with Bradley M. Schaeffer, President of the Jesuit Conference, and Thomas Michel, Director of Interreligious Dialogue for the Society; committee members will be in touch with their own provincials. We also sketched various practical strategies: e.g., a website for dialogue-related news and documents (http://puffin.creighton.edu/jesuit/dialogue/); the composition of a booklet containing brief sketches of different religions and a useful bibliography on religions, the Jesuit history of interreligious encounters, and Church documents. Though no plans have yet been made, we envision one or more conferences over the next several years: e.g., a conference for interested Jesuits and some of our lay colleagues, and especially with persons of other faith traditions. I may also work together convening a small conference for scholars who are specialists in Jesuit mission history.
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