WASHINGTON — Participants at a recent interfaith conference in the nation's capital discussed how interreligious dialogue can play an important role in establishing peace and fighting secularization in America.

Dialogue between faiths “can serve our nation and the world in ways that professional diplomats cannot,” said auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout of Washington, who delivered the keynote address at the event.

He explained that a shared “commitment to an authentic and robust dialogue will foster understanding and peaceful coexistence.”

Held Nov. 10 at St. Paul’s College in Washington, the “Generations of Faith” conference was the second of its kind sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It included talks, personal testimonies, discussion groups and prayers from different faith traditions.

The event drew young adults and leaders of the Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh religions. Highlighting the need for dialogue among U.S. faith communities, participants discussed how to foster cooperation and understanding among members of different religions. 

Bishop Knestout, who co-chairs the Mid-Atlantic Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, explained that the young people of today must be open to respectful conversation with others.

In a global world with immediate communication, people are more likely than ever to be interacting with those who are different than them in language, culture and religion, he said. Religious dialogue is therefore a necessity, and the next generation must understand how to engage in such dialogue successfully.

In a time when God is “pushed to the margins of cultural forms and expression,” young people crave truth and feel the presence of suffering and the absence of God in their lives, Bishop Knestout added.

Ecumenical dialogue is a response to Christ’s call to proclaim the truth to others while recognizing that other religious traditions contain some expressions of truth as well, he said.

The secular response to religious diversity is to push all religious beliefs out of public life, Bishop Knestout warned. But while this approach has become prominent in the modern era, it is dangerous to all religious beliefs and fails to respect “the reality of the spiritual dimension of life.”

Interreligious dialogue that builds and maintains relationships among different faith traditions is therefore even more important in protecting the role of religion from the secularism that threatens it, he explained.

The bishop stressed the creation of relationships built on friendship and trust as the foundation for a clear understanding of similarities and “an honest discussion of differences.”

Father John Crossin, executive director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. bishops’ conference, emphasized the important role that listening plays in fruitful dialogue.

“Listening is crucial to our relationship to one another and to our relationship with God,” he said.

Successful dialogue requires “a personal investment of our being,” free from both the external distractions of our busy world and the internal anger, resentment or other emotions that may prevent us from truly encountering the other people in the dialogue, he explained.

This commitment requires spiritual maturity grounded in daily prayer and relying upon God for divine guidance and help, Father Crossin noted. It also requires a willingness to be silent and truly listen to what others are saying rather than simply responding with our own views.

Ultimately, dialogue can be fruitful not only because it builds friendship and mutual understandings, Father Crossin said, but also because it “requires us to examine our own faith more intently and to understand it better.”