Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue

Ecumenical and interreligious--
one Church, one mission, one world
and two sets of friendships

By John Borelli

A friend of mine is a California Superior Court judge and chair of the ecumenical commission for the Diocese of Orange. Outside this year’s “Red Mass,” a journalist remembered her to say, “People of all faiths really look forward to it and say they really feel included as part of the liturgical celebration.”

“I don’t think the reporter got that quote from me quite right,” she emailed. “I didn't lump other Christians into other faiths.”

She takes her service to ecumenism and interreligious relations seriously. She attends annual workshops on Christian unity and once participated in a summer institute on interreligious relations for diocesan personnel.With her ongoing formation, she fusses over what is appropriate and meaningful for some and less so for others. She has spoken at the local mosque and sometimes prays with a Presbyterian congregation. She would be the first to welcome a Presbyterian or a Muslim to any Catholic event, but for this Eucharist she had gone out of her way to reach out to fellow Christians.

Would that the press understood the difference! When the pope visited St. Louis in1999, dozens of Christian leaders participated in Vespers. An imam, whom I know,was quite moved to be one of the few interreligious guests. Commentators identified John Paul II’s promotion of unity as the reason for this “interfaith” event, noting that a rabbi read from Isaiah with the pope presiding .Unity, yes, but there are kinds of unity, one not less than another, and Vespers is primarily Christian prayer, a way we celebrate the unity Christians already share.

John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council for renewal, updating and ecumenism.He appointed the revered biblical scholar, Augustin Bea, S.J., to head a newly established Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, charging him with making the council ecumenical. Cardinal Bea organized responses to the schema on the church, gathered consultors to draft one on ecumenism and initiated contacts with other churches for observers and for consultation on conciliar drafts.

We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and theDecree on Ecumenism in 2004. Both bear the same date of formal promulgation, November 21, 1964, along with the Decree on the Eastern Churches. On that day, Paul VI declared that the Decree on Ecumenism“explained and completed” the Constitution on the Church. Ten years ago, John Paul II asserted that “the movement promoting Christian unity is not just some sort of‘appendix’ which is added to the church’s traditional activity. . . ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does...” In the Decree on Ecumenism, the Council urged the Catholic faithful “to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.”

In the language of the Constitution on the Church, the Council recognized “ many elements of sanctification and of truth” in other churches and ecclesial communities and that“ these gifts belonging to the Church of Christ are forces impelling toward Catholic unity.” Then, after further reflections on the unity Christians already share, the Council acknowledged our various relationships with “those who have not yet received the Gospel.”First there are Jews, then Muslims, and then all “who seek the unknown God.”

Cardinal Bea’s work was not solely ecumenical. Sometime after the Jewish scholar Jules Isaac visited his friend John XXIII, the pope asked Bea to do something about Jewish relations. A text on a spectrum of interreligious relations gradually emerged through the Council’s four sessions. Paul VI’s encyclical on the church, early in 1964, provided a vision of a church in dialogue with the world, with people of all religions, especially with Jews, and with other Christians.Then on Pentecost Sunday in 1964, with passage of a separate document on interreligious relations assured, Paul VI created another secretariat, now the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and welcomed other believers to dialogue: “No pilgrim, no matter how distant he may be religiously or geographically will any longer be a complete stranger in this Rome.”

In 2005, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. The Council urged Catholics “to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions”and “while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture.”

In the past 40 years, we have been exploring these relationships with other Christians and with peoples of other faiths. In the decade after the Council, I entered graduate school and shifted to what we identified in Fordham’s Theology Department as “history of religions.” As I studied the languages and religions of India and China, I knew that interreligious dialogue would be a major part of my life and appreciated the foundation the Council had provided. By a few years after my doctorate, I had gradually become involved in ecumenical dialogue, too. Early on, I met with an ecumenical task force promoting Christian-Muslim relations. The 34th Jesuit General Congregation recognized in 1995 that interreligious dialogue is essential to Christian witness.

Dialogue, cooperation, friendship and growing communion are shared elements in ecumenical and interreligious friendships, but nuance is very important for relationships.When we discuss precious aspects of religious life, we are compelled to attend to the specifics of each relationship.

Dr. Borelli is Special Assistant to the President of Georgetown University for Interreligious Initiatives and a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He served more than 16 years at the USCCB staffing ecumenical and interreligious relations, especially dialogues with Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.


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