VATICAN CITY — Worrying that the Church in Europe might one day simply be vanquished could be a self-fulfilling prophecy — unless Catholics respond positively to the challenge rather than trying to shut other views out, warns the Vatican's top official for dialogue with other religions.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, warned in mid-May that by saying Europe is becoming like another North Africa where the Christian faith was all but wiped out is, in a sense, “going to help fulfill that.”

Unlike the conquests of North Africa by the Byzantines, the Visigoths and the Muslims, the archbishop said that in Europe today there “isn't an invasion” of a region where “the Church was already weak at the time.” Rather, he said, there is a “pacific influx of Muslims and other religions into Europe.”

And instead of decaying in the face of this influx, it “should wake us up, it should be a salutary shock and make us more lively in our approach to religion,” the archbishop told the Register. “I don't think we should close in on ourselves and become like a fortress.”

The archbishop was speaking during a break at the end of a five-day plenary assembly of the pontifical council — an event he described as “extremely useful.” The May 14-19 meeting was also a celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Vatican dicastery.

In his address to the assembly, Pope John Paul II praised the curial office for its “ecclesial service” of profitable contacts and dialogue initiatives with other religions that, he said, had been carried out with “diligent determination.”

Interreligious dialogue is important in proposing “a firm base of peace,” the Holy Father said, recalling his 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium). It was a point echoed by Archbishop Fitzgerald who, in an interview with Vatican Radio, said dialogue should be regarded as a means to reinforce the bond between religions and to avoid conflicts.

But interreligious dialogue is not without its critics. Some high-ranking members of the Curia are said to be “gravely concerned” that dialogue confuses the Gospel message. Others have accused of it being a “dialogue at all costs,” a watering down of Christ's redemptive action, a betrayal of the doctrine of the Triune God and of promoting a “relativist mood” to an already relativist and secularist society.

John Paul noted these criticisms in his remarks to the council, stressing that while dialogue must continue as “it is part of the evangelizing mission of the Church,” it must also avoid “all relativism and religious indifference.”

In responding to the criticisms, Archbishop Fitzgerald said dialogue should not be an attempt to forge a unity at all costs.

“There is a great usefulness at looking at our differences … just to be ourselves,” he said. “When we are like that we will see there are certain points in common but there are many fundamental differences and that helps us take away the relativism.”

The key, he said, is rootedness in Christ, which comes through sound formation.

One bone of contention for many opponents of interreligious dialogue has been the historic meetings at Assisi, where leaders of all the world's major religions have gathered at John Paul's initiative to pray for world peace. According to the critics, the Assisi meetings served to foster a misperception that all believers of various religions worship the same God.

“Absolutely not,” countered Father Felix Machado, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. “What actually happened in Assisi does not correspond at all to what journalists were saying.”

“It was nothing at all about people praying together but — as the Holy Father said very clearly — we came together to pray,” he said.

Like Archbishop Fitzgerald, Father Machado places much emphasis on the essential need for formation, a central theme at the plenary assembly.

“The Catholic Church knows where the limits of interreligious dialogue lie,” he explained. “If only the faithful would study the documents of the Catholic Church more and see there is really no need for relativism to enter into this. It is ignorance that gives rise to a lot of ambiguities and relativism.”

According to Archbishop Fitzgerald, “We have to try to see the logic of another religion. We then come to a common acceptance. It's not tolerance, it's respect.”

For an exemplar, Father Mach-ado believes we need look no further than the Pope himself, whose steadfast commitment to Christ and the Catholic faith has attracted some members of other religions who want him to be their protagonist and leader.

Ancestral Religions

One member present at the meeting who has been particularly grateful for the work of the council is Father John Gorski, president of the International Association of Catholic Missiologists.

The association is trying to discover the religious experience of American Indians in their ancestral religions and to bring this into dialogue with the Gospel for the first time in their history.

He agrees with Archbishop Fitzgerald's call for respect and common acceptance and refers to the Pope's words that interreligious dialogue is not just a question of tactics but rather a profound “respect for the action of the Holy Spirit among all the peoples, all the cultures and all the religions.”

“We have to look for how people are experiencing this paschal action of the Holy Spirit,” Father Gorski concluded. “That's the challenge, and we're not accustomed to that.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.