Archbishop Fitzgerald in India: Church Must Preach Gospel to Everyone

NEW DELHI, India — Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, visited India in early December.

During the trip, he spoke with Register correspondent Anto Akkara, discussing issues such as dialogue and conversion that have inflamed religious tension recently in India and elsewhere in Asia.

What is the purpose of your visit to India?

This visit is in response to the participation of the Sikh leaders in the Prayer for Peace on Jan. 24, 2002, because the jatedar [chief priest of Sikhism, the predominant religion of the inhabitants of the Indian province of Punjab] of Amritsar came with a delegation to take part in the Prayer for Peace. So, we thought it would be appropriate for us to return this visit and consolidate the relations between ourselves and Sikhs.

What is your impression of Sikhism? Is there an affinity with Christianity — such as in the charity works Sikhs carry out?

First of all, it is good to emphasize that Sikhism is a monotheistic religion. The Sikhs believe in one God, and it provides an important point of contact between us and also between Muslims and Jews.

There is the principle of equality. The principle behind the langar [common meal in Sikh temples] emphasizes that “first eat together and then you pray.” When you eat together, you mix with everyone; there is no special place for anyone. This is an experience of equality. I think we can find this also in Christianity when we put so much emphasis on the dignity of the human person.

There is also the aspect of charity of the Sikhs with the gurud-waras [Sikh temples] willing to feed so many people and offering hospitality. There is also the idea of voluntary service, which is very strong in Sikhism. People come and clean the temple and serve others. It is all done by volunteers. It can be an example for us, too.

India has been known for its religious plurality and tolerance but the last few years have seen India making international headlines as a result of the actions of fundamentalist groups. Is this a major concern for the Church?

The concern of the Church is there. As you say rightly, this is the action and policy of a few people. I think the great mass of the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are quite happy to live together. Though there are communal conflicts that break out from time to time, I think this is because the people are misled.

So, the task of interreligious dialogue is to try to build up relations in such a way that these conflicts don't break out. We have to see that the communities are immunized to elements that come from outside. The process of education, learning and communication is very necessary for this.

Evangelization is a sensitive subject in India even for some theologians — there are theologians who say they are not interested in the conversion of X or Y but the conversion of the larger society, saying, “Let us forget about conversion and let us live in peace.” Is this relativism among theologians here a serious concern for the Church?

The Church has received a commandment from the Lord to go and preach the Gospel to all the nations and make them disciples in all nations. This is part of the mission of the Church and this is not to be sacrificed.

I don't think we can set aside the desire and attempt to bring people into the Church. This is not forcing people to come into the Church but telling them what the Church is, what the message of the Gospel is and what Jesus Christ has done for us as well as following the lead of the Holy Spirit, who will lead people in this direction.

Christians are a micro-minority compared with Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist majorities in most Asian countries. Some theologians say those in the Vatican do not know the ground reality here and that it is difficult to preach that salvation lies in Christ only. What is your advice to them?

We say that because we are Christians. We know that other people are not necessarily going to accept that. This is our faith. We are not asked to deny our faith.

If we are Christians, we have to declare that. If they want to cease to be Christian, then they are free. If they want to be faithful Christians, then they have to believe Jesus Christ is lord and savior.

There are different ways of stating this. I think there is a difference between dialogue and conversation with people and our own theological reflection on our faith. We have to be clear in our own mind.

Freedom of religion has become a political issue here. When the Holy Father expressed concern about anti-conversion laws earlier this year, Hindu groups said the Pope was “interfering in the internal affairs of India.” How do you react to this charge?

It [religious freedom] is an issue in many parts of the world — in China and different parts of the world where there is problem with human rights. Religious freedom is one of the basic human rights.

For the Pope, as the head of the Church, his role is to proclaim the faith and confirm his brothers in their faith. This is one aspect of our faith and we believe in human dignity and that also includes belief in religious freedom. The Holy Father has been consistent in his pronouncements on this.

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.