Interreligious Dialogue Benefits the Common Good and the Formation of Young People

(photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY – Fifty years ago Wednesday, the blessed Pope Paul VI promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, entitled in Latin Nostra Aetate. Yesterday in Rome, Pope Francis received representatives of the world’s religions in a General Audience held inside St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. The event commemorated the Council’s declaration on “what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship” (NA, n. 1), a theme of great importance to the Holy Father who has often discoursed on the “culture of encounter.”

Pope Francis’ Prayer for Interreligious Dialogue

In his address, Pope Francis noted that “The Council’s Declaration was an expression of the Church’s esteem for the followers of other religious traditions, and her openness to dialogue in the service of understanding and friendship.” He said that “The past fifty years have seen much progress in this regard,” especially among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Noting that “The world rightly expects believers to work together with all people of good will in confronting the many problems affecting our human family,” he invited prayers “that in accordance with God’s will, all men and women will see themselves as brothers and sisters in the great human family, peacefully united in and through our diversities.”

As the Declaration teaches, the human family has much in common: “One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God” (NA, n. 1). This oneness can fructify fellowship, provoking common questions among persons, especially young people. In the search for answers to life’s mysteries, religion has a privileged role to play.

Finding Commonality in Asking Life’s Deepest Questions

At the beginning of yesterday’s General Audience, a section of Nostra Aetate was read that states that “Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men.” That section identified some of the perennial questions often raised among persons of religious belief: “What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompassed our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?”

Unfortunately, young people don’t always find easy access to answers to these questions. In his first Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, entitled in Latin Evangelii Gaudium (‘Joy of the Gospel’), Pope Francis lamented that “Young people often fail to find responses to their concerns, needs, problems and hurts in the usual structures” (EG, n. 105). Nevertheless, “many young people are making common cause before the problems of our world and are taking up various forms of activism and volunteer work” (EG, n. 106). Oftentimes, they do so in a spirit of interreligious friendship; certainly, that was in evidence at today’s General Audience.

A young Muslim man named Aabid was inside St. Peter’s Square Wednesday morning. He works here in Rome for a humanitarian relief service. “I work with young people of different religious backgrounds, helping them to find their path,” he explained. “They bring to me their questions, which are the questions we all ask precisely because they’re human questions,” he added.

Sitting nearby were two young Jewish students named Daniel and Aaron who study at the Sapienza University. Both agreed, “It’s true. Young people face many questions in common.” But, Daniel noted that, “For me, it is also very important to find the answer from within my religious tradition.” He added that “There is a lot of beauty in the world’s religions and we share so much in common, but young people need to grow their roots in their own traditions,” he added. Aaron said that “I can appreciate another person’s religious heritage, but I have my own. It connects me to my ancestors and to my history. We find our answers by journeying together, but also by being rooted in our heritage.”

In asking similar questions, young people find they face common challenges and problems.

From Common Questions to Serving the Common Good

Wednesday’s commemorative event in Rome took place amid escalating tensions in the Middle East. Recent weeks have seen further advancements by ISIS as well as bloodshed in the Gaza Strip. Despite those challenges, many young people remain committed to a vision of interreligious friendship.

On Tuesday, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi spoke at a conference on “Migrants and Cities: New Partnerships to Manage Mobility.” He is the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva. In his remarks, he said that the migrant crisis could “turn much of the world into a global city.” And, he noted that “migrants have been relegated to confined areas … these areas function as a type of exclusive social ‘barrier,’ a sort of enclave for the wealthy classes, who shelter themselves within walls of protection against the insecurity that comes from social inequalities.”

Jordan is one place where the migrant crisis has been particularly problematic. A young Jordanian man named Saeed participated in this week’s General Audience. He explained that ISIS has caused “many hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek safety in my country” and he notes that “they have been coming in large numbers already since last year.” As a practicing Muslim active in a variety of youth groups and humanitarian initiatives, he says that he and his family “try to help them, but we can only do so much because really this is a problem all of us must face together. It is really an international crisis.” About the Christian refugees arriving in Jordan, he explains that “There are differences, of course. But, we try to help them. We are all human. We must work together.”

However, the problem of division and civil unrest extends beyond the challenges posed by ISIS. In recent months, violence has erupted at the Gaza border, resulting in the deaths of eight Israelis and forty Palestinians. Last Saturday, the Christian Youth of Palestine sponsored a prayer vigil in all the Catholic parishes of Palestine, Israel, and Jordan. The event, which was open to persons of all faiths, was an attempt to break down barriers of division.

According to Fr. Bashar Fawadleh, the group’s chaplain, the initiative was created because “Young people want to pray for peace throughout the Middle East, but especially for peace in Jerusalem, which is our city, our capital, the Holy City of peace that these days has again become the scene of blood, violence, oppression, and death.”

David from New York participated in the General Audience Wednesday. “I’m very connected to my family and friends back in Israel, but they didn’t tell me about this prayer vigil initiative. That’s great that common ground practices like that are happening. We need to find a way beyond the violence,” he said. “I am in Rome just for this week,” he explained. He is studying medieval history and philosophy at the University of Oxford, but he says “I hope to find a way to become active in interreligious dialogue like this when I complete my studies. Already, I have Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends whom I visit whenever I go to Israel, which is almost every year.”

A Silent Prayer, a Realization

Before the conclusion of this week’s General Audience, there was a moment of silence for personal prayer. Afterward, a Catholic pilgrim named Anna from Canada said “You know, Jews are waiting for the Messiah; and, we are awaiting the return of Jesus. Wouldn’t it be something else if we were waiting for the same person? Maybe we should work together for peace before he gets here,” she smiled.