Driving Home the Need for Dialogue

Can't Leave It for Times of Crisis, Says Vatican Aide

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, SEPT. 28, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Monday's meeting between Benedict XVI and Muslim leaders and diplomats, much publicized in the media, was just one step in a journey of interfaith dialogue much-traveled by the Church.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was behind the coordination of the meeting, and its undersecretary noted how the initiative was part of a series of continual works conducted at various levels, from Vatican dicasteries, to nongovernmental organizations, to local parishes and schools.

Monsignor Felix Machado wishes everyone could recognize the importance of continued dialogue, telling me that "We should not treat interreligious dialogue like an ambulance that we call only in moments of crisis."

"Often people have discounted the necessity for dialogue, thinking that when things are going well and when there are no problems, they don't need to try to understand one another so much," the monsignor explained. "They're not sensitive enough to patiently build bridges of friendships -- and I think that's a mistake."

Monsignor Machado notes that where these relationships have existed, there are fewer problems when a crisis hits. It's like preparing good foundations for a house to avoid it falling apart in a hurricane.

Benedict XVI himself has been quick to point out that some 40 years have passed since distinct measures were taken to set up more solid dialogue, particularly through the Second Vatican Council declaration "Nostra Aetate."

"This groundwork is going to survive and even thrive as people discover more and more reason or use for dialogue," says the Vatican official. "And, I think that occasions of misunderstandings, like what occurred after the Pope's speech in Regensburg, actually give us opportunities to fall back on previous work and to positively build upon it to deepen our interfaith relations."

Taking his own council as an example of initiatives that have witnessed to the power of such construction work, Monsignor Machado said: "In the past 40 years we have tried to build associations with at least four, distinct global Muslim groups and we've had ongoing encounters with them."

Therefore the path was much smoother when it came to responding directly to some Islamic groups recently, by using previous collaborations between them and the Church.

"After all these years, we were able to reunite and ask what we can do together to prevent a spiraling of violence, to calm the situation down and suggest new directions to take," he said.

The ongoing nature of this dialogue can be observed every day, says Monsignor Machado, adding that it is the Pope himself who sets the tone: "He takes every occasion to spread this message of the importance of respect and relationship with other religions."

This happens at the general audiences, as well as at private visits with ambassadors and bishops.

"When the bishops come to Rome on their 'ad limina' visits," explained Monsignor Machado, "we remind them, in the name of the Holy Father, of their duty to promote good relations with people of other religions, even if people of other faiths don't respond well to us. We ask the bishops to practice the values of the Gospel and to give them a kind of example so that we become initiators of this dialogue."

What would be a better time than now, the monsignor asks, for each of us to respond to the call of the Gospel to inform ourselves, and to listen and learn from other faiths?

"Perhaps," he says, "it will help avoid or mellow any future misunderstandings."

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.