Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue

How does inter-religious dialogue in a Jesuit high school work?

By Peggy Crawford

Every day Americans are bombarded with images and words that convey an amazing array of ethnic, cultural, racial and religious diversity amidst the noise of the information highway. This is the world our teenagers live in every day, and it is into this world that we send them, alone, after high school.

This is the world for which we must attempt to prepare them if we are to fulfill the Jesuit ideals listed in the “Graduate at Graduation” of our students being open to growth, intellectually competent, religious, loving and committed to doing justice. Having our students engage in the beginnings of inter-religious dialogue in our high schools is an important way to prepare them for the world they will encounter when they leave our protective custody.

As religious studies department chairperson at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis , I am often asked about the meaning of our assertion to be a Jesuit, Catholic and Interfaith high school. As this implies, we embrace diversity in all aspects of our community, particularly our religious diversity.

Our student body is roughly 50% Roman Catholic, 46% Protestant denominations, 3% Jewish, and 1% Other including Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and non-religious. We are Jesuit and Roman Catholic in our foundations and orientation, but we welcome and embrace students and faculty and staff of all religious faiths and traditions.

The freshman religious studies required course is world religions, which helps to assimilate our students into our religious diversity and introduce an understanding of the five major world religions to students who have, up to that point, mostly only learned about their own.

Our other religious studies classes are taught from an interfaith perspective, drawing on the various world religious traditions to inform our study of morality, social justice, philosophy and theology in the core courses. We also have a 30-hour community service requirement during which our students interact with people in the community of all faith traditions.

One of the most commonly asked questions is whether our students might forego their own traditions in favor of another once they have encountered them. This is not our experience. As a matter of fact, when asked, our students respond to this question by stating that they actually become more grounded in their own faith traditions as a result of learning about other traditions and having to answer questions from their peers about their beliefs and practices.

In order to answer such questions the students must become more informed about their own faith, and in doing so they often discover something new and worthy of sharing. I, myself, discovered this to be true in my high school years as I began dating my future husband, a devout Baptist with many questions about the mysterious world of Roman Catholicism. I was amazed at his lack of information and the many misconceptions that he had been taught by his well-meaning parents who were trying to protect him from what they considered to be the heresy of the papacy. Out of necessity I had to research the origins of the rituals and devotions with which I had grown up in order to understand them in such a way as to explain them to someone without my background and experience. I learned more during those months about my faith than I had in the previous 10 years of catechism classes.

In conversations with prospective parents I remind them that their children will encounter enormous religious diversity when they send them off to colleges and universities around the country.

I remind them that James Fowler, in his foundational book “Stages of Faith,” stated that we must each go through the process of questioning, searching and doubting in order to come to an adult understanding of faith which we can call our own.

Is it not wise, I ask, to invite our children into this dialogue during their high school years while they are still living within the protective cocoon of the home, the church community, and the school community?

When we allow and encourage the same type of intellectual curiosity in regard to religious diversity that we demand of them in the sciences, mathematics, literature and the arts we send a clear message that education in the diverse religious experiences of the world is just as important as other educational endeavors.

And we have the advantage of being able to guide this education through dinner table conversation, youth group discussions, and classroom learning. Once they have left home for university we lose some of these valuable opportunities for input and clarification that are present with the high school student.

Inter-religious dialogue is an endeavor that begins with an awareness of the diversity of religious traditions in our world and continues throughout life. What better time to begin that dialogue than in the Jesuit high school?

The Jesuit tradition has always been one to champion the cause of inter-religious dialogue, and the Jesuit high school has long been a place where young people are challenged to think critically about the world in which they live and to become men and women for others.

At Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School this education includes learning about the rich variety of religious traditions in the world and coming to an appreciation of this diversity in light of our own traditions. Our high school youth are bombarded with a dizzying array of messages every day, at Brebeuf Jesuit we strive to add to this the voice of tolerance and understanding for people of all faiths and traditions.


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