Westminster Interfaith: Promoting Dialogue Between People of Faith

The agency of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster for Interreligious Dialogue

Westminster Interfaith Newsletter

Issue 67 – July 2010

God's saving grace is for all

I was recently reading the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Sufi mystic. I was struck by one of his poems in which he asks: "Where is the door to God?" He concludes by saying: "God is in the face of everyone I see". I thought this was not an altogether surprising insight given that the Bible itself says: "God said, let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves" (Genesis 1, 26). Blessed Mother Theresa used to say much the same thing when she saw Jesus in every person.

Recent Catholic theology reflected in the Church's teaching and culminating in the documents of the Second Vatican Council has highlighted the fact that God's saving grace is offered to all human beings no matter of what religion or indeed of none. Texts in the Bible on this point, and there are quite a few, often seem to go unnoticed. To quote just one example from the liturgy on the Baptism of the Lord: "Godís grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race" (Titus 2:11). The multi-religious situation of many societies in the world today raises the issues of the value of religions and the need of interreligious dialogue.

The Bishops of England and Wales have just issued a weighty document entitled: Meeting God in Friend and Stranger. Given the rapidly changing religious landscape of England and Wales, this timely document, embedded firmly in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the Popes, urges Catholics to witness to their faith as much as to engage in dialogue with people of other religions. This, the bishops emphasize, is being part of being a Catholic today, not an optional extra. The faith must be accepted in its totality. An à la carte version, picking and choosing at will is not acceptable.

What struck me first, on seeing this document, is that the bishops call it "a teaching document" not just a statement as in some of their other publications. Catholics are accustomed to see Church teaching coming down from the Holy See and often enough from Vatican departments notably the CDF. This document gives the rank and file Catholics in the parish the experience of being taught the faith by their own bishops who, as successors of the apostles, in visible communion with the Roman Pontiff, are authentic teachers of the faith in their own right. (Vatican II: Decree on Bishops, no 2)

As the subtitle of the document further states, its aim is to "foster respect and mutual understanding between the religions". More precisely, it is an invitation to Catholics to engage in dialogue with people of other religions. Echoing the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, (no 2) the bishops encourage Catholics to engage in dialogue "prudently and lovingly" with people of other religions and to acknowledge the spiritual and moral values in their culture and traditions.

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger has the distinct merit of calibrating well, on the one hand, the unique role of Jesus Christ (and the Church) as the only universal saviour of mankind and asserting on the other, with equal force, that the saving grace of Christ reaches, "in mysterious ways" through the Holy Spirit, the vast majority of people in this world who never knew Christ and the Church (Redemptoris Missio,no 29). This puts God's plan in perspective. i.e. the fact that the Church is meant to remain "the little flock". Yes, it is "the light on the mountain", but only the light, not the mountain itself. Pope John Paul II's words at the extraordinary Synod assembly in 1985 come to mind: "The Church...is at the service of the world; does not desire anything but to serve, to promote the integral salvation of man". The distinction between the Church and the Kingdom of God is therefore clearly acknowledged (no 102).

This document will not achieve its purpose if it does not filter down to the people in the parishes. As watchful pastors, our bishops, in their care of souls, have provided ways of getting this done. Large sections of the document, three out of its six chapters, deal with issues such as prayer and worship, interreligious marriage and engaging with people of other religions at the local level. In the section on interreligious marriage, an increasingly frequent reality, the document explains the various possibilities whereby a Catholic may marry a person of another religion with due dispensation not omitting the case where, in exceptional circumstances, a Catholic may marry without the presence of a Catholic priest and in a non-Catholic place of worship. Such knowledge is very helpful at parish level as it is there that such cases come up.

It is hoped that simplified versions of this document will be produced to meet the needs of the various sections of our Catholic communities. Within the parish itself, slots could well fit in the RCIA, Confirmation and the First Holy Communion programmes. Similarly, the RE programmes in schools could be updated to ensure that this document's teaching has an impact on young people suitable to their level of maturity. A whole section (nos 196-207) on Catholic schools addresses this area.

To facilitate the implementation of this document an appendix illustrates what is being done already in the various dioceses of England and Wales to promote interreligious dialogue. Clearly there is no one size fits all model. Each diocese will have to devise its ways of promoting dialogue to suit the local situation.

This document is written for Catholics in England and Wales. But it is also largely useful for Catholics in various parts of the world. It is itself a benchmark for dialogue with people of other religions. Often obstacles to dialogue stem from an ill-informed version of Christianity by non-Catholics and sometimes by Catholics themselves.

The big question is whether Catholics in England and Wales will trust their bishops and overcome their traditional fear and suspicion by launching out into the world and engaging with it? If they do, they are in for great surprises – not least finding that God has got there before they did.

Alfred Agius

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