Dialogue in the Context of Consecrated Life:

Working with Others for Justice and Peace

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

1. What do we mean by dialogue?

Some years ago, I was asked to give a talk in the city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on our Christian commitment to interreligious dialogue. The participants were mostly lay people from various parishes in the city. In the course of my talk I repeated Pope John Paul’s teaching that “each member of the faithful and all Christian communities are called to practice dialogue, although not always to the same degree or in the same way.” In the question-answer period that followed, a woman spoke up and said, “Father, I agree on the importance of interreligious dialogue, but I can’t be discussing the Trinity with my Muslim neighbors. I’m a housewife, mother of four children, and haven’t had the opportunity for higher education. I would probably explain our faith badly.” I answered that she was right and the Church doesn’t expect her to be carrying on theological discussions with Muslims. But I said, “You can teach your children from their earliest years that God also loves Muslims, Buddhists and others, and you can reinforce that teaching by your attitudes and the way you act towards the followers of other religions.”

I began with this story because I feel that many of the members of our religious Institutes might react to the Church’s encouragement to dialogue in a way similar to this Indonesian woman. We feel that we are not trained for it, and we are worried that in any theological exchange we might quickly be in over our heads. All of this points up the fact that today, even 40 years after the Second Vatican Council, many Christians still have a very restricted idea of what the Church is referring to by the term “dialogue.”

In a sense, the term “dialogue” is misleading, because it seems to imply that what Christians ought to be doing is mainly talking to people of other faiths. Many conceive of dialogue as formal interreligious gatherings where religious leaders make long speeches, or else as round-table discussions among scholars and theological experts of various faiths.

However, when we study what the Church is actually teaching about dialogue, we find that what is intended is much broader. The concept includes not only a wider range of activities than simply meetings and discussions but, more importantly, encourages a fresh existential approach to the followers of other religious traditions. In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio ( par. 57), Pope John Paul II shows just how broad a compass dialogue embraces.
A vast field lies open to dialogue, which can assume many forms and expressions: from exchanges between experts in religious traditions or official representatives of those traditions to cooperation for integral development and the safeguarding of religious values; and from a sharing of their respective spiritual experiences to the so-called “dialogue of life,” through which believers of different religions bear witness before each other in daily life to their own human and spiritual values, and help each other to live according to those values in order to build a more just and fraternal society.

In documents produced by the Vatican, these forms or expressions of dialogue have been generally elaborated as four types of interreligious encounter: the dialogue of life, action, theological exchange and the sharing of religious experience. What is involved here are various dimensions of our life as Christians which we share with the followers of other religions. It is a way of living with others as Christians that involves interaction at the levels of being (dialogue of life), doing (cooperation on social issues), thinking (study, discussion of theological issues), and reflecting (sharing of religious experience) on one’s experience of the Divine. In the Church’s vision of life shared by Christians and the followers of other religions, talking or discoursing plays a role, as it does in all forms of human life, but discussion must not dominate, nor must the shared life referred to by the term “dialogue” be limited by or reduced to formal occasions and deliberations.

Already in 1979, the Asian bishops sought to put the emphasis on dialogue as it should be practiced by ordinary Christians (that is, by “non-experts.”) Guided by a pastoral awareness that the primary hearers toward whom Church teaching is directed are not theologians but rather Christian believers living in day-to-day contact with followers of other religions, the Asian bishops gave priority to the “dialogue of life,” which they said was “the most essential aspect of dialogue.” The bishops’ words should also be of great interest to the members of our religious Institutes, as they point us in a direction in which the Consecrated Religious of our Institutes can be involved in dialogue: According to the Asian bishops, the dialogue of life occurs when:
“Each gives witness to the other concerning the values they have found in their faith, and through the daily practice of brotherhood, helpfulness, open-heartedness and hospitality, each show themselves to be a God-fearing neighbor. The true Christian and [their neighbors of other faiths] offer to a busy world values arising from God’s message when they revere the elderly, conscientiously rear the young, care for the sick and the poor in their midst, and work together for social justice, welfare, and human rights.”

The bishops are moving away from the idea of dialogue seen as mainly a way “talking or discussing” to one of “a way of living together,” with the emphasis on “sharing life” in the context of daily living. This seems to be what is behind the Pope’s statement in Redemptoris Missio that I cited before, saying: “Each member of the faithful and all Christian communities are called to practice dialogue, although not always to the same degree or in the same way.”

2. Dialogue or proclamation, or dialogue and proclamation?

This shift in emphasis has important implications for the much-publicized debate about “dialogue and evangelization.” The Pope is proposing that dialogue with the followers of other religions should be a characteristic of the mission in the world that Jesus entrusted to the community of his disciples. Our mission to follow Christ includes many aspects: daily prayer and worship of God, a special concern for the poor and victims of oppression and injustice, care for the sick and aged, theological reflection on the meaning of Christian faith in each cultural context, proclamation of faith, that is, sharing “the reasons for our hope” with all those who are seeking truth, and catechesis, the communication of our faith to new generations of Christian disciples. So also, a basic element of our Christian mission is the encounter with people of other faiths.

We could say that dialogue is the other side of the obligation to proclaim our faith. There are millions of people in the world who are seeking God, who are looking for a way to live in accord with God’s will, who want to find meaning, a reason for living in their daily situations. We have a duty to share with them the faith that has given direction to our lives, that inspires us and gives us the courage to love, that gives us reason for hope in moments of failure and desperation.

But in our world we also encounter many other millions, people who are good and honest and self-sacrificing, who are not searching for God, precisely because they have already found and daily encounter the Divine in and through the religion they already follow. They might be Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, or followers of the Traditional Religion of various continents. God’s Spirit is guiding them, enabling them to pray and worship, teaching them to live in accord with God’s moral will, inspiring them often to reach the heights of self-sacrifice, generosity and service of others, and enabling many to plumb the depths of spirituality and mystical experience. They love their religion. It means as much to them as our own Christian faith means to us.

Do we have anything to say to such people? Do we have anything to learn from them? Can we be enriched by the testimonies of their lives and their faith? Are there possibilities of working with them for the common good, for justice and world peace? Or do we simply turn our backs and wash our hands of them because they are convinced of the rightness of their religious path and committed to following its teachings and hence are not interested in becoming Christians?

The Church teaches that we have much to communicate and much to learn. This whole world of positive relations with the followers of other religions is summed up in the word “dialogue.” Already in 1979, in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul had this to say:
What we have just said must also be applied...to activity for coming closer together with the representatives of the non-Christian religions, an activity expressed through dialogue, contacts, prayer in common, investigation of the treasures of human spirituality, in which, as we know well, the members of these religions are not lacking. Does it not sometimes happen that the firm belief of the followers of the non-Christian religions - a belief that is also an effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body - can make Christians ashamed at being often themselves so disposed to doubt concerning the truths revealed by God and proclaimed by the Church and so prone to relax moral principles and open the way to ethical permissiveness. It is a noble thing to have a predisposition for understanding every person, analyzing every system and recognizing what is right; this does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality...” (RH, 6).

This dense paragraph is packed with advice on which we can build. The Holy Father emphasizes the importance of common prayer, coming together before the Source and Final Goal of our religious journey. Three times (1986, 1993, 2002) the Pope invited the followers of other faiths to pray with him for peace in Assisi. He notes that the benefits of dialogue are not only for others, but also for us Christians. Cannot the firm belief of the followers of other religions often make us ashamed of our own doubts and laxity? He stresses that the belief of others is “an effect of the Spirit of truth.” He underlines the nobility of the commitment to dialogue, of being open to understand others, analyze their belief systems, and recognize all that is good in them. None of this, concludes the Pope, involves losing confidence in the beauty and truth of our own Christian faith.

Since interreligious dialogue is a part of the mission of the Church, we can rephrase the question better as one of understanding the relationship between “dialogue and proclamation” as two authentic and irreplaceable aspects of evangelizing activity. In real life, there is no opposition between dialogue and evangelization. A farmer or housewife who has been blessed with a strong Christian faith but has not had the opportunity to engage in advanced religious studies is called to approach his or her neighbors of other faiths in a spirit of dialogue. Such Christians need not enter into subtle theological investigation, but they should live with respect and openness for their neighbors, to share the joys and crises and sorrows of life with others.

Christians are called to share life, and that includes common efforts for justice and peace. Sometimes it means simply living together in harmony or working for reconciliation after conflicts. At other times it demands coming to the aid of the weakest and neediest in their midst, taking action in defense and solidarity with the poor and victims of injustice. On certain occasions, it could mean sharing the reasons for why we live the way we do. We are motivated, as are our partners in daily life, our coworkers for justice and peace, by our personal encounter with God.

In this context, the real question is not whether the Church should be proclaiming the Gospel or engaged in dialogue, but rather whether Christians are actually sharing life with their neighbors of other faiths. The basic distinction is not between a Church in dialogue or one that proclaims the Gospel, but rather that between a Church that follows the Spirit’s lead to partake humanly in life with others, and thus constantly engaged in dialogue, witness, and proclamation, and a Church that is closed in on itself and exists in a self-imposed ghetto with little concern for and involvement with people of other faiths with whom Christians share culture, history, citizenship, and common human destiny.

When people of various faiths live together - not simply co-habiting the same town but together - the question of dialogue or proclamation doesn’t arise. When they work, study, struggle, celebrate, and mourn together and face the universal crises of injustice, illness, and death as one, they don’t spend most of their time talking about doctrine. Their focus is on immediate concerns: on taking care of the sick and needy, on communicating cherished values to new generations, on resolving problems and tensions in productive rather than in destructive ways, on reconciling after conflicts, on seeking to build more just, humane, and dignified societies. When believers cooperate in such activities, at certain rare but privileged moments, they also express what is deepest in their lives and hearts, that is, their respective faiths, which are the source of strength and inspiration that forms the motive force which drives and guides all their activities.

3. Working with others for justice and peace

In the words of the Asian bishops that I cited above, they list “working together...for social justice, welfare, and human rights” as one of the manifestations of the dialogue of life. All around the world, Christians are striving, together with the followers of other religions, to build peace and to establish just societies. The examples that I offer are mainly from Asia, since that is because it is the part of the world with which I am most acquainted, but Africa, Europe and the Americas could provide many parallel instances.

In fact, I just returned four days ago from Bangkok, where we held an interreligious seminar on the theme of “The Study of Peace and Techniques of Conflict Transformation.” A significant facet of this seminar is that it was jointly sponsored by Christians and Muslims. The organizers were, on the Christian side, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), representing the Catholic bishops of 17 Asian countries, and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), an association of about 120 Protestant and Orthodox Churches in the same region; on the part of the Muslims, the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), with Muslims in 16 Asian countries. We had, as well, several Buddhist observers, who want to work with us in the future.

Each of the Catholics, other Christians, and Muslims represented a different Asian country. The goal we set for ourselves was to prepare a certain number of Christians and Muslims who would be able to analyze the political, economic, social, and religious factors involved in confessional conflicts and who would be knowledgeable and trained in the techniques of conflict transformation. We hope that in this way we will have some Muslims and Christians in each country who can intervene and work to resolve problems when conflicts occur. We hope that together, we can draw up a curriculum for Peace Studies that can be integrated into the preparation of religious leaders - imams, religion teachers, seminarians, catechists.

This is just one example of interreligious cooperation for peace. I could also mention the work of Peace Advocates Zamboanga (PAZ), an association in a particularly troubled part of the Philippines, that tries, through conferences, seminars, marches, and publications, to promote peace in the region. In fact, in almost every big city in the southern Philippines, there are similar groups dedicated to countering confessional tensions through education for peace, advocacy for the victims of violence and unjust arrests, and support of peace initiatives proposed by the government or rebel forces.

In the area of justice, the examples are too many to give an exhaustive list. They include interreligious efforts to support workers’ rights in Korea, to provide shelters for battered women in Thailand, to bring about reconciliation after the conflicts in Gujarat in India and in the Moluccas and Poso in Indonesia, to provide a compassionate response to the plight of refugees in Australia, to assist Bangladeshi workers detained in Malaysia, to defend the civil status of Hill Tribe peoples in Thailand, to defend squatters threatened with summary expulsion in the Philippines, to publicize the cases of Christians accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, to protest the torture of detainees in police stations in Nepal and Sri Lanka, to oppose the practice of indentured workers in India, to educate the public in Malaysia about the casual discrimination faced by those who suffer from HIV-AIDS. If time permitted, I could give many other examples.

4. Interreligious involvement of consecrated religious for justice and peace

I can name women and men of Catholic Institutes of consecrated life who are actively involved in all these examples of interreligious dialogue for justice and peace. Moreover, they are not acting as isolated individuals, but with the full support of their superiors and communities. There are many instances in which religious houses provide the location of planning and organizational meetings and consecrated religious contribute to “unseen tasks” without which modern efforts for peace and justice would not get off the ground (fax machines, computers, telephones, addressing envelopes, contacting speakers, distributing and posting notices, invitations, and the like.)

I don’t say that we religious do more than others, but it is clear that the involvement of many sisters, brothers and priests of our Institutes in interreligious justice-and-peace activities is not simply a hoped-for dream, but one of the “signs of the times” where God’s Spirit can be seen moving visibly in today’s Church. There are several factors that make the involvement of Religious men and women especially valuable, of which I would like to mention four.

1. In many societies, even those in which Christians are a small minority, Catholic Religious bear a certain moral weight. Our presence and participation in peace and justice causes is not easily ignored either by the general populace or by the political and military leadership. We are known and respected, as it says very simply in Perfectae Caritatis, the Vatican II document on Religious Life, as people “who lead lives dedicated to God.” There is a presumption, also among Jews, Muslims, Buddhists etc., that because of our vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity our actions are not motivated by gain, ambition, or family ties, but rather by an unselfish commitment to serve God and others. Thus, our involvement in issues of peace and justice can bring a sense of gravity and seriousness to the cause.

2. Since religious are recognized as “people of God,” their visibility in justice and peace issues has not only publicity value, but brings God and the question of God’s moral will into the very secular environment in which these issues are usually played out. What could too easily become a simple debate among clashing sectors of society is transformed by the active participation of Religious into a moral issue that everyone in the society must confront. For example, during the days of the public demonstrations against the corrupt dictatorship of Suharto in Indonesia, one of the photos that was most widely distributed and reprinted by the press was that of a group of young women, some of them Catholic sisters, others Muslims wearing the typical headscarf. Together they were presenting a petition to protest corruption in government. If it is true, as is said, that a picture is worth 1000 words, no more eloquent testimony could have been found to express interreligious solidarity in favor of public morality in politics.

3. In most parts of the world, Religious have a sort of “immunity” from arrest, violent suppression, and general mistreatment. There is a reluctance on the part of civil and military authorities to act in high-handed and extra-judicial ways towards religious. On the one hand, such treatment results in bad publicity for the authorities, who do not want to be seen as being “in opposition to God,” while, on the other hand, authorities are themselves often sincere religious believers, Christian or other, and may genuinely revere Religious. While this is true as a general rule, the violent attacks against and even murders of Religious men and women in many parts of the world are evidence that suffering and even martyrdom are sometimes called for when a Religious becomes involved in questions of justice and peace.

One can argue that the sister or priest should not have more security than their lay collaborators, who often take heroic risks for which they and their families may pay dearly, it is a reality that Religious can often “get away” with forms of social justice activism that would not be possible for others. Many Christians, Muslims, and others who work in the precarious field of promoting justice and peace urge the involvement of Catholic Religious in the expectation that the “immunity” the Religious enjoy will also extend to others in the movement. In other words, the involvement of the religious can in some cases “protect” their co-workers.

4. Questions of gender justice are becoming increasingly urgent in many parts of the world. Here women Religious have a special role to play. In traditional societies, the worlds of men and women are subject to strict social segregation. It is socially unacceptable for priests and other unmarried men to deal directly with women, particularly in the case of Islamic and Orthodox Jewish societies. By contrast, in such societies, Catholic women religious can move freely and are usually quite warmly received by their Muslim and Jewish sisters. Catholic sisters can thus play a key role in conscientizing and facilitating the work of gender justice, accompanying women in their struggle to obtain their due rights and dignity. We need many more Sisters in our Religious Institutes who will take on the apostolate of interreligious dialogue among women on issues of justice and gender equality. It goes without saying that given the increasing role of women in public life as well as their traditional teaching role in the family, the interreligious encounter among women must not be restricted to questions of gender justice. The participation of women in building peace and promoting justice cannot be underestimated in today’s world.

5. Conclusion

Perfectae Caritatis states that “The manner of life, of prayer and of work should be suited to the physical and psychological conditions of today’s religious. It should also...be in harmony with the demands of the apostolate, with the requirements of culture and with the social and economic climate” (PC, 3). Today, interreligious life has become an inescapable element of our pluralist societies. If we, as Consecrated Religious, are to work effectively for justice in those societies and to strive seriously to build both communal peace at the local level and peace among nations, we must involve ourselves in ongoing interreligious efforts and be ready to take part in new initiatives as the need arises in our continually evolving societies.



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