Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue

By Carol Corgan

  On September 11, 2001, I was in the early weeks of teachingmy social justice course to seniors at Gonzaga College High School in Washington,D.C. Just after class, about 9:15 a.m., I was passing the headmaster’s office. Our registrar and several other members of the administration and faculty were transfixed before the television.And I, like everyone else, was drawn into the events of the day. One airplane had already hit the World Trade Center.Before long,we saw smoke billowing forth fromthe Pentagon, severalmiles away.

One of our students lost his mother, a flight attendant, on American Airlines Flight 77. Other students were frantic about their parents who worked on Capitol Hill, at the White House, in the State Department, and at the Pentagon. Our school community immediately felt the tragedy and shared the question on everyone’s lips: “Why?”

As a teacher, it became apparent that I would need to revise the material we were covering in our social justice class. To help my students reflect on the events rapidly unfolding, on the national response that would follow, I would have to address the history of the Middle East conflict, as well as Catholic doctrine on war and peace.

I gradually adjusted to this new approach.What I found over the semesters of 2001-02, and as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq unfolded, was that it was impossible to cover the issues involved without addressing in greater detail the beliefs of Muslims, Christians and Jews. It was necessary not only to speak of how we are similar but also to delineate differences which previouslymay not even havemade it into a high school lecture, for example, how Jews,Muslims and Christians view the Holy Land. More than ever before,my task became to inform more thoroughly and to broaden my students’ capacity to understand.

In the five years since, I have taken on a share of teaching our senior foundational theology course.One of our tasks is to challenge the pervasive “culture of relativism,” but from the Catholic vantage of respect for other religions through dialogue and cooperation. We use Nostra Aetate, from Vatican II, to underscore the Church’s affirmation of the activity of the Spirit in all that is right and true in the religions of the world.What I realize over and over again is that, though surrounded by a plethora of media, today’s young people mostly use technology to escape fromthe pressing problems we all face rather than to learn more about them.

Although well-to-do professionals and diplomats of many religious backgrounds and cultures often live right next door to our students in this cosmopolitan city and region, young people often remain unaware of who Buddhists are, where Shintoism is practiced, what Hinduism and Islam might have to do with tensions between India and Pakistan, and the fundamentals of Islam.No surprise, then, that a few continue to voice the tired phrase “all religions are basically the same.”

As someone firmly committed to interfaith dialogue, I have continually voiced my conviction that the faithful who are dedicated to dialogue bear the responsibility and have the opportunity to heal the wounds brought upon the world in the name of religion. Over time, I have had the satisfaction of seeing students grow and change.Through regularly assigned reflection papers, I have seen cracks develop in the wall of ignorance. In the foundational theology class, I recently gave an assignment asking students to reflect on why it was essential for a Catholic to understand other religions. One young man wrote:

I went to a Catholic day school and had it pounded into me that everyone is equal in God’s eyes. I realize how profoundly this has affected my life. The whole religious atmosphere I had been raised in promoted peace, understanding, and the desire to discover why someone believes something. Being raised in this Catholic tradition allows me to accept that my preconceptions of Islamwere wrong, and letsme see how the Bible is interpreted by some literally, and by others non-literally. I have learned a lot, but perhaps the most important thing I have learned up to this point is that before I cast judgment on a religion, I must first try to understand it.
Teaching high school seniors is exciting. They are intellectually curious as never before. They revisit their childhood “whys” with an ability to begin understanding the complexities under-girding reality.This time of life is wonderfully suited to religious formation. Students are idealistic, and they respond to Christ’s call to love neighbor. In our Jesuit schools,we like to invoke Fr.Pedro Arrupe and his call to form “Men (and Women) for Others.” In our divided global culture, in our country which is more and more diverse, we are called to reverence Christ present in the Other as Buddhist, or Animist, or Jew, orMuslim.We strive to form our young people in such a way as to meet this particular Other’s needs. Just as we have shaped our curricula to reflect an awareness of the needs of the poor,we seek to shape our courses to meet this demand of social justice.

Corgan is a member of the U. S. Jesuit Advisory Board on Interreligious Dialogue and Relations and is trained in Ignatian spirituality. She has taught for 11 years at Gonzaga College High School in Washington,D.C.

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