Written by Father Max Mizzi in May 2006
Inter-religious dialogue is a new movement in the Catholic Church and also in the other Christian Churches. Through the centuries no official dialogue existed between the many religions on earth - on the contrary. Their followers ignored each other and, indeed, they had numerous conflicts, wars and even persecuted each other. This they did sometimes in the name of God. Unfortunately that is also true to some extent even today. In our present year of 2006 we have in fact witnessed conflicts between Hindus and Christians in India and between Moslems and Christians in Sudan, Nigeria and other places.
The Second Vatican Council and the peace meeting in Assisi
In the Catholic Church the beginning of inter-religious dialogue is to be traced to "the Second Vatican Council" (1962-1965) especially with the Council Degree "Nostra Aetate" by which Catholics are encouraged to have positive relationships with the followers of the various religions particularly with the Jews and the Moslems, who are followers of the other monotheistic religions. In fact both the Muslims and the Jews adore, acknowledge and worship the same one God, as we Christians do.
The Council document makes reference also to the Hindus, to the Buddhists and to the other religions.
This opened a new horizon for the whole world and changed the attitude of the Catholic Church towards the other religions. It also changed for the better the relationship between the religions of the world. The followers of the different religions rather than ignore each other or persecute each other, now started to have a relationship of dialogue, friendship, respect and collaboration. With this Council document there was a sigh of relief not only among Catholics, but also among the other Christians and the followers of the world religions. When the Second Vatican Council was over the Catholic Church soon started to make contacts with the followers of the other religions. There was a very good response on all sides. It was like "tasting the waters" as we say. It was a timid initiative which lasted about twenty years until "the World Day of Prayer for Peace" was held in Assisi on 27th October 1986.
In fact we can say that inter-religious dialogue on a large scale and in practice started after the World Day of Prayer for Peace to which Pope John Paul II invited the representatives of the world religions to pray for peace in Assisi.
After this historic event people started to talk about "inter-religious dialogue" and to, actually, have dialogue. In Assisi the concept of inter-religious dialogue came out into the light. It was not simply confined to a document any longer but it became a practice. After the meeting in Assisi inter-religious dialogue spread like wild fire all over the world. Many inter-religious talks and conferences were organized, and still are, in different parts of the world. The motive behind these meetings is to create a new spirit between the religions of the world, to bring the different religious leaders to talk with each other and to collaborate with each other in order to find new solutions to conflicts, to world poverty and injustice, to the safeguard of Creation, to eliminate violence against women and children and to encourage respect and love towards each other in the human family.
Following this new spirit numerous initiatives were taken. In 1988 the Global Forum of Spiritual and Political Leaders' conference was held in Oxford, England. Besides the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa of Calcutta also participated. In 1993 in Chicago, USA, followed what was called the Parliament of the World Religions in which participated some three hundred religious leaders, politicians and scientists from many parts of the world including the Dalai Lama. The Parliament of the World Religions has met twice after the meeting in 1993, namely in Cape Town, South Africa and in Barcelona, Spain. Marking the New Millennium, in the year 2000, a big meeting of the world's religious leaders was held in New York, USA. This time it was at the United Nations. This was considered to be a recognition by the United Nations of the importance of inter-religious dialogue. It's difficult to say how many, and when, such various international meetings have been held, because they are numberless.
Such meetings can change the face of the world. They are perfect instruments of peace, collaboration and love. Conflicts must be solved not by violence, hatred and wars, but through sincere dialogue, respect and justice. Religious leaders or any individual must never use religion as an excuse for violence. That is against the very essence of religion and against God in whose name many conflicts are carried out, and is a serious crime against the human family.
Apart from these big international meetings many others not less important are held between different religious commissions and delegations such as Catholic and Jewish representatives, Hindu and Catholic delegations, meetings between Moslem and Christian delegates, or between Buddhist and monastic life representatives, and other forms of dialogue across previous barriers. These are mostly held on spiritual and theological topics such as prayer, meditation, the monastic life, and so on. Strict theological dialogue is still in the very early stages. It is easier for the religious leaders to talk about peace and injustice, spirituality and meditation for example, than to discuss God, redemption, eternal life and so on. But the way has also been opened to theological dialogue.
Because of the World Day of Prayer for Peace and the inter-religious dialogue that followed the prayer meeting of 1986, Assisi has become a place well known among the world religions. It is considered by the followers of all religions to be a very holy place. This is mainly because of St Francis who is the saint of peace and love, and he respected the whole of Creation. St Francis can rightly be considered the forerunner of inter-religious dialogue because of his meeting with the Moslems in the Middle East, especially with the Sultan of Egypt, Melek el Kamil, in 1219-20 during the 3rd Crusade. After the peace meeting in 1986, Assisi has been called "Prophecy of Peace". Furthermore Pope John Paul II often referred to the "Spirit of Assisi", which is the spirit of prayer, of peace and of dialogue.
The 'Spirit of Assisi" should not be confined only to associations or to religious leaders. Every individual man and woman is called to foster dialogue, understanding, respect, peace and love among the followers of religions. This should not be difficult especially in those countries where people from different cultures live together such as in many parts of Europe. It is very sad to see that many religious and social barriers still exist among people who live and work shoulder to shoulder. Many meetings and dialogues could be organized just on a small scale, in small groups of people from various cultures. It could be over a cup of tea or a meal for example. Such small groups can work wonders.
The world needs instruments of peace and dialogue, today's society needs prophets of peace and the religions of the word need collaborators.
Fr. Maximilian Mizzi OFM Conv.
Delegate for ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue at the Sacro Convento and the Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi