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What Dialogue Means for Catholics and Muslims

 

An address by Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett

This text and introduction was first published in Origins: CNS Documentary Service 30, 41 [March 29, 2001], and appears here with the permission of Origins

Introduction from Origins

"Dialogue in society involves compromise.... But when people of faith talk to one another they are not attempting any compromise. Our goal in interreligious dialogue is not to construct one religion for the whole world but to share and learn from one another," Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle, co-chairman of the West Coast Dialogue of Muslims and Catholics, said Feb. 13, 2001, in an address to the group's second annual meeting, which took place at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, Calif. "In interreligious dialogue we are compelled to make our language understandable, acceptable and well chosen so that we can be both truthful and charitable to one another," said Brunett. Interreligious dialogue is characterized by "clarity, an outpouring of thought, meekness, humility, kindness, patience, generosity, prudence and trust," he said. Dialogue participants "seek to understand how each of them understands what one must do to be holy." Brunett said that for many places in the world "a culture of dialogue" may seem exotic or even "an impossibility because of wars and communal violence. But here in the United States we have been living a culture of dialogue from the beginning.... This means that we Catholics and Muslims in the United States, each with our own histories not just as Catholics and Muslims in this country, but also as Pakistanis, Indians, Kashmiris, Arabs, Irish, Italians, Germans, Mexicans, have an obligation to show Catholics around the world that we can dialogue on religion." The West Coast group is co-sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the "shurah" (consultative) councils of Northern and Southern California. The NCCB is Catholic co-sponsor of two other regional U.S. dialogues with Muslims: a Mid-Atlantic dialogue, begun in 1998 and a Midwest dialogue started in 1996. 

Archbishop Brunett's address

On behalf of all the Catholics who are attending our West Coast Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims, I wish to thank Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi and everyone here at the Islamic Society of Orange County for inviting us this evening, treating us to dinner, offering us an opportunity of prayer and hosting us for this program.

Dr. Siddiqi was a guest of the Vatican for the interreligious assembly which took place in Rome in October 1999 as one of the final preparations for the celebrations for the jubilee year 2000. There were several Muslims from the United States who were invited to attend. In all, there were 200 participants from 29 religious traditions who met over four days in late October of 1999 in the synod hall in the Vatican. The materials from the meeting were published under the title, "Toward a Culture of Dialogue."

For many places in the world, "a culture of dialogue" may seem exotic, or at least novel, and in some places an impossibility because of wars and communal violence. But here in the United States we have been living a culture of dialogue from the beginning. In the United States the interactions of cultures and ethnicities, religious beliefs and practices, and historical circumstances - sometimes violent, sometimes consciously negotiated, at other times benignly indifferent - led to the development of a tradition of religious freedom in the United States. This tradition has been enormously influential throughout the world. The commitment to religious freedom has unfolded with each new generation.

To be sure, the tradition is also marked by mistakes, failures and violations. We are not perfect in the United States, but our understanding of religious freedom continues to evolve as part of the American experience in the present. It will continue with the arrival on these shores of every new religious community. In a society with this very important freedom, religious and civic symbols exercise enormous power. The United States has become a nation with an exceedingly rich diversity of cult and belief.

This means that we Catholics and Muslims in the United States, each with our own histories not just as Catholics and Muslims in this country, but also as Pakistanis, Indians, Kashmiris, Arabs, Irish, Italians, Germans, Mexicans, have an obligation to show Catholics and Muslims around the world that we can dialogue on religion. Our dialogue of culture in the United States, which has not always been a story of one success after another, does have this important success to talk about - that Catholics and Muslims can be friends and can talk to one another as believers.

In October 1999, the interreligious assembly that Dr. Siddiqi, and Dr. Borelli on the Catholic side, attended in Rome issued a message. This assembly was planned so that most of the time could be spent by the 200 participants listening to one another. There was only one major paper of significant substance that served as a keynote or an introduction to the discussion. Much time was spent in small groups and then reporting to the whole assembly. A drafting committee then brought a draft of a message to the assembly, and again all 200 participants had an opportunity to offer comments for changes. The assembly concluded with a service that Pope John Paul II attended and which included speakers from various religions, including an American Muslim (Warith Deen Muhammad), and the reading of the message.

In their message, Dr. Siddiqi, Dr. Borelli and the others raised many important points. Here is a sampling of that message:

  1. We are convinced that our religious traditions have the necessary resources to overcome the fragmentations which we observe in the world and to foster mutual friendship and respect between peoples.
  2. We are all aware that interreligious collaboration does not imply giving up our own identity but is rather a journey of discovery.
  3. We learn to respect one another as members of the one human family.
  4. We learn both to respect our differences and to appreciate the common values that bind us to one another.

These are very fine statements made by persons from many religions speaking together, and they offer some excellent words for our reflection. But what can we Catholics and Muslims say to one another? Reflecting on this thought, Pope John Paul II said in a document issued on Jan. 6, 2001 ("At the Beginning of the New Millennium"):

"This [inter-] religious dialogue must continue. In the climate of increased cultural and religious pluralism which is expected to mark the society of the new millennium, it is obvious that this dialogue will be especially important in establishing a sure basis for peace and warding off the dread specter of these religious wars which have so often bloodied human history. The name of the one God must become increasingly what it is: a name of peace and a summons to peace" (No. 55).

Six Steps to Dialogue
Thirty-five years ago the Catholic Church took a dramatic stand to promote constructive, peaceful and religious relations with Muslims. First, the Catholic Church instructed Catholics how they should appreciate Muslims by promulgating these words from the Second Vatican Council in 1965:

"The church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to people. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin mother they also honor and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms deeds and fasting" (Nostra Aetate, 3).

Second, the pope (Paul VI in those days) established an office in Rome so that "no pilgrim, no matter how distant he may be, religiously or geographically, no matter his country of origin, will any longer be a complete stranger in ... Rome," and over the course of more than three decades, hundreds of Muslim pilgrims to Rome have been received as guests at that office - the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. It was that office that planned the 1999 interreligious assembly. If you visit Rome, you not only have a place to go, but a place to be received with dignity and respect.

Third, every year since 1967 the Catholic Church has issued greetings to Muslims throughout the world at the end of their fast of Ramadan, on the 'Id al Fitr. As a bishop, I am sent those greetings to share with Muslims in my archdiocese or to write my own greetings, and all the thousands of bishops in the world have a similar opportunity.

Fourth, the Catholic Church continues to instruct its members on Islam and other religions and the good reasons for dialogue.

Fifth, the Catholic Church encourages Catholics to form dialogues, and this can take place in many ways - living room dialogues in neighborhoods and communities; dialogues that lead to cooperative efforts on particular projects to assist those in need; the dialogues of specialists where our religious beliefs are examined and the dialogue of religious experience, where we share more deeply of ourselves and our prayers and understanding of living a life devoted to God. We do this in the United States, and this dialogue on the West Coast is one of three that we have formed on a national level to promote rapport, cooperation and understanding.

Sixth, wherever the pope travels, he wants to meet with the representatives of other religions, and Muslim leaders have been among the most enthusiastic to meet with him. When he came to Los Angeles in 1987, a formal interreligious dialogue was a part of that trip and included a Muslim representative. As you know, this pope has traveled to many lands - Egypt, where he was received the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar University - Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon and many African countries, including even Sudan. When he was in Morocco, the king asked him to address the young people of that country, and he did that in Casablanca. It was that talk to Muslim youths where he made some of his clearest statements on Christians and Muslims:

Christians and Muslims: We have many things in common as believers and as human beings. We live in the same world. It is marked by numerous signs of hope, but also by signs of anguish. Abraham is the model for us all of faith in God: submission to his will and trust in his goodness. We believe in the same God, the one and only God, the living God, the God who creates worlds and brings creatures to their perfection.

There are some who think interreligious dialogues are like other dialogues - for example, negotiations between countries, bargaining between labor and management, or any attempts to find middle ground between disputing parties. This is not the case. Dialogue in society involves compromise. Our American political system gets things done by using compromise, and that is good. Compromise often makes a family get along better. Labor and management have to compromise or planes don't fly, goods are not delivered, phones are not serviced and heath care workers can't take care of those who are sick, injured or dying. Compromise is a way for these things to happen.

But when people of faith talk to one another, they are not attempting any compromise. Our goal in interreligious dialogue is not to construct one religion for the whole world, but to share and learn from one another. Interreligious dialogue is both a process of spiritual growth and a set of experiences that can have a transforming effect on those engaged in it. Interreligious dialogue is the art of spiritual communication (to quote Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam) and can be described as "among the best manifestations of human activity and culture" (ibid.).

Interreligious dialogue has certain characteristics: clarity, an outpouring of thought, meekness, humility, kindness, patience, generosity, prudence and trust. In interreligious dialogue we are compelled to make our language understandable, acceptable and well-chosen, so that we can be both truthful and charitable to one another.

Every interreligious dialogue has a spiritual character. The participants maintain their religious practice, they invite their partners to be present with them when they pray and they seek to understand how each of them understands what one must do to be holy. We seek to understand one another, to challenge one another to understand each of our beliefs most deeply and to grow in our understanding of the greatness, abundance and mercy of God.

It is for that reason we are grateful for this opportunity to gather here with you. These have been days of reflection, prayer and dialogue. The good and magnificent God has given us the courage to surrender to his all-embracing love and has given us the gift of peace. May the great and all-caring God be praised, now and forever!

Copyright (c) 2001 Catholic News Service/U.S. Catholic Conference



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