A First for World Youth Day: Interreligious Dialogue a Focal Point in Lisbon

NEWS ANALYSIS: Behind Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar’s controversial comments on conversion and WYD is a new emphasis on interreligious dialogue at the global Catholic event — including visits to a mosque, synagogue and Hindu temple.

Official logo of World Youth Day 2023
Official logo of World Youth Day 2023 (photo: Promotional Art / WYD 2023)

A few days after headlines announced that Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar had said that World Youth Day (WYD) does not aim “to convert young people to Christ or the Catholic Church or anything like that at all,” the Portuguese prelate and chief organizer of the upcoming Lisbon gathering sought to quell the controversy that had ensued.

In July 11 comments to ACI Digital, Cardinal-elect Aguiar made clear that World Youth Day (WYD) is “an invitation to all the young people of the world to experience God,” adding that his comment about not converting young people, which was made in a July 6 interview with Portuguese news agency RTP, was in response to a specific question about the participation of adherents of other religions in WYD proceedings. 

As Cardinal-elect Aguiar had noted in his original RTP interview, the invitation to WYD has always been extended to all the young people of the world, not exclusively to Catholics. He said the Church “does not impose; it proposes” the Catholic faith to others through witness.

“WYD has never been, is not, nor should it ever be an event for proselytism; on the contrary, it is and should always be an opportunity for us to get to know each other and respect each other as brothers,” he told ACI Digital, adding that “[w]hat never changes is what Jesus asks of us: to welcome the other as brother.”

But beyond the cardinal-elect’s comments are a set of facts, that, as of yet, have not been widely circulated in non-Portuguese media: Non-Catholics and non-Christians are not only to be welcomed at WYD Lisbon; in an apparent WYD first, and apparently closely tied to the teaching of Pope Francis, interreligious dialogue is a focal point of the entire event, even including visits to places of non-Christian worship as part of the organizers’ plan.



Interreligious Harmony on ‘a Giant Scale’ 

Interreligious dialogue does not appear to be a secondary or inessential consideration at WYD Lisbon. According to an October 2022 article by Rome Reports, it is one of the themes for this year’s iteration of the international Catholic gathering, which has typically taken place every three years in a location of the Pope’s choosing, going back to the first international WYD in Rome in 1986.

According to remarks made in May by Father Peter Stilwell, the point person for interreligious dialogue efforts at WYD Lisbon, this year’s event aims to “create harmony among all peoples of different tones and sensitivities,” including religious differences, on a “giant scale.”

Preparatory materials for WYD pilgrims do not mention interreligious dialogue, instead including “integral ecology,” “God’s love” and “social friendship” as areas of focus. 

Nonetheless, elements of interreligious dialogue have been present throughout WYD preparations and are included in the official plans for WYD Lisbon, which will take place Aug. 1-6.

A “Working Group for Interreligious Dialogue” has been actively inviting young people from other religious communities — including Lisbon’s Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu communities, as well as many local Protestant churches — to take part in WYD Lisbon. And at least one interreligious prayer and cultural event has already taken place amid planning for the event.

During the actual proceedings of WYD, participants will be able to visit non-Christian places of worship, such as a mosque, synagogue and Hindu temple, opportunities Father Stilwell described to Portuguese media as aimed at promoting dialogue between religious believers.

Additionally, Christian communities with an ecumenical focus, such as the Taizé community and Chemin Neuf, will be managing prayer and activities at two prominent Catholic churches in Lisbon. A major ecumenical celebration is planned to occur on Aug. 3, after Pope Francis has arrived in Lisbon, though it is not currently listed on his WYD Lisbon schedule.



A New Focus?

The Register sought clarification that interreligious dialogue is a new theme at WYD from the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, which ultimately oversees WYD, but was directed to the organizers of WYD Lisbon. WYD Lisbon organizers did not respond to the Register’s questions prior to publication.

Non-Catholic involvement in World Youth Day is not unprecedented. The Archdiocese of Panama office that organized the 2019 WYD, for instance, directed the Register to an article that described WYD Panama as having “the hue of collaboration between religions,” given support provided by local Jewish and Muslim communities, which housed visiting pilgrims. Archbishop Ulloa Mendieta, who leads the Panama Archdiocese, also described the event as a project of young people without distinction of ideologies or creeds, perhaps underscoring that it is always open to everyone. 

Similarly, the WYD Lisbon website underscores that, “despite having a clearly Catholic identity,” the event is “open to all” and aims to provide “meaningful, existential moments” to each participant.

“All young people can participate, regardless of their culture, race, gender, religion or socio-economic status,” the description continues.

However, what does seem to be a novelty is an explicit focus on interreligious dialogue in the midst of WYD proceedings. An analysis of all of the Pope’s messages to pilgrims at WYD Panama, for instance, found no mention of the topic. And a source involved in the organization of WYD Krakow in 2016 told the Register that, although ecumenical prayer services took place with other Christians, there were no separate interreligious dialogue events. 



The Right Context?

Details regarding this new and concrete focus at WYD Lisbon are likely to deepen debates that have already begun over whether an explicitly evangelistic event like WYD is the appropriate venue for interreligious-dialogue efforts.

The Catholic Church underscores the importance of interreligious dialogue, which brings together adherents of different religions to find common ground, build mutual respect and collaborate toward non-ultimate but important goals, like civic peace and social justice. The Second Vatican Council taught on the subject in the declaration Nostra Aetate. In addition, there is a dedicated Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue in the Roman Curia, and the current pontiff and his immediate predecessors have both taught on and engaged in interreligious dialogue, although arguably with different emphases.

Interreligious dialogue is typically conducted in ways and contexts that are not exclusive to one confession. For instance, prayers used for interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians make reference to one God, an acceptable description in both religions, but do not explicitly speak of God as Trinitarian nor name the Divine Persons, because these understandings are not shared by Muslims.

Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI proposed the “court of the gentiles” as a motif for Catholic engagement with non-Christians, particularly the nonreligious, on common cultural and philosophical grounds. The New York Encounter, an initiative of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation that describes itself as a public “cultural event … offering opportunities for education, dialogue, and friendship” is perhaps one such model of this approach.

World Youth Day, however, is generally more overtly evangelistic — it more explicitly proposes Christ as the Savior and encourages attendees to enter into relationship with him, while lacking the confessionary-inclusive style typical of interreligious dialogue. For instance, the logo for WYD Lisbon is a cross and incorporates the rosary and an image of Mary. The website for this year’s WYD describes the gathering as “a universal Church experience, fostering a personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” “a pilgrimage,” and “an intense moment of evangelization of the youth of the world.” Highlighted events include the Way of the Cross, Eucharistic adoration and the closing Mass with Pope Francis — decidedly Catholic acts of worship and devotion. And in his WYD message this year, the Pope described the event as an opportunity for “missionary fraternity,” drawing inspiration from the Portuguese missionaries who sailed to the New World more than 500 years ago, “not least to share their experience of Jesus with other peoples and nations.”

Cardinal-elect Aguiar has underscored that Muslims, Jews and other non-Catholics who participate must feel “at ease and not out of place” at WYD Lisbon because they hold different religious beliefs (or none at all). But some have wondered whether this might be something of a false promise in the midst of such an explicitly Catholic and evangelistic event — during which Bishop Robert Barron, for instance, will give five presentations that he said are “designed to evangelize.”

“If I were a Muslim or a Jew and I showed up based on what [Cardinal-elect Aguiar] said, I would feel lied to,” tweeted Mark Brumley, the president of Ignatius Press, adding that it was misleading to present WYD as “some general youth meeting uninterested in fostering faith in Christ.”

Others have argued that a Catholic event like WYD is exactly the place where young Catholics can be formed to practice interreligious dialogue from and with the mind of the Church. Pedro Gabriel, a Portuguese Catholic writer, made this point in a recent essay, suggesting that even though there may be tensions between evangelization and interreligious dialogue, “there’s no reason why both … can’t happen simultaneously at WYD.”

“The Church can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time,” Gabriel quipped, also citing Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, during which he said that Christians should not fear interreligious dialogue because “being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe.”

One might argue, however, that making interreligious dialogue a focal point at an evangelization-orientated event like WYD is more akin to eating food while chewing gum. Additionally, while Gabriel and Claire Domingues, his wife, have also argued that Cardinal-elect Aguiar’s language about non-conversion is consistent with Pope Benedict XVI’s own teaching on interreligious dialogue, most concerns over Cardinal-elect Aguiar’s comments are instead on whether a focus on interreligious dialogue is consistent with the original purpose of WYD.

St. John Paul II, for instance, said the principle objective of WYD is “to make the person of Jesus the center of the faith and life of every young person so that he may be their constant point of reference and also the inspiration of every initiative and commitment of the education of the new generations.” 

In a possible contrast, Cardinal-elect Aguiar told the Register in a Q & A conducted in June that his hope for the “aftermath” of WYD Lisbon is that attendees will “return to their countries with the desire and will to be better, better people, regardless of their religion, regardless of everything else … because in Lisbon they will find white and Black people, large and small, from the South and the North, rich and poor, Muslims, Jews and others,” and will “discover that difference is wealth. And that all this diversity of brothers and sisters is always an opportunity.” 

Others have expressed concerns that an aversion to “conversion” may actually dilute the evangelistic impact at WYD. Chris Stefanick, an American Catholic evangelist, suggested in a recent social-media post that this kind of talk at WYD Lisbon is part of a broader move to “redefine evangelization itself while using the same old words but changing all their meanings,” ultimately reducing it to something inconsistent with the Gospel. 

In comments to the Register, Stefanick said that a “fixation” on denouncing “proselytizing” without sufficiently distinguishing it from “making disciples” is “really very out of touch with the people of God and their current struggles,” especially those of young people.

“We need a clarion call to proclaim the Gospel with joy again,” he said, pointing to paragraph 164 of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation.

Stefanick’s most controversial claim in his social-media post — that bishops invited to give catechetical talks “were asked by the organizers, for the first time at a World Youth Day, not to teach, but to simply listen” — was not substantiated before this story was published. But when reached on the topic, Bishop Barron said that “we were not told simply to listen, but to foster a dialogue. There will certainly be an opportunity for the bishops to teach during these sessions.”



A Fratelli Tutti WYD?

What might be behind the apparent shift to make interreligious dialogue a central feature at WYD Lisbon?

The answer clearly seems to be the organizers’ drawing significantly from Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical on fraternity and social friendship, Fratelli Tutti. One WYD Lisbon document describes the event as based on the pillar of Fratelli Tutti, as well as Pope Francis’s encyclical on care for our common home, Laudato Si, and Christus Vivit, the apostolic exhortation promulgated following the 2018 Synod on Young People.

As Cardinal-elect Aguiar told RTP when explaining the interreligious character of the event, “The world will be objectively better if we are able to instill in the hearts of all young people this certainty from Fratelli Tutti, that we are all brothers.” 

However, Fratelli Tutti in particular may be a somewhat challenging text to serve as the basis for an evangelistic event like WYD — the encyclical, after all, is decidedly not written in an evangelistic key. As Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, “although I have written this from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will.” Fratelli Tutti concludes with, in addition to an ecumenical Christian prayer, an interreligious “Prayer to the Creator,” and it was described by Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, as “an extension of the ‘Document on Human Fraternity’” that he had signed with the Pope the year before.

Shifting WYD to be more interreligious in nature may be consistent with what Cardinal Marc Ouellet described as Pope Francis’ desire to be a spiritual father not merely for Catholics, but to the whole world. It may also be consistent with Francis’ pattern of putting his stamp upon — or, as critics would contend, fundamentally altering —initiatives founded by his predecessors, such as the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome, which the Pope “refounded” and then shifted its focus away from moral theology.

Perhaps the Holy Father has something similar in mind for World Youth Day, refocusing the event from one grounded on friendship in Christ to social friendship more broadly. 

A clue that the Pope may see WYD Lisbon, and whatever is distinct about it, as a unique expression of his pontificate may be the fact that he is elevating the prelate organizing it.

A recent profile on the surprising ascendancy in the Church hierarchy of Cardinal-elect Aguiar, who is only 49 years old and is only an auxiliary bishop, described the prelate as “a man who gets things done” and as someone who has gained the Pope’s confidence and approval. Perhaps part of Pope Francis’ decision to give a red hat to the young bishop, with whom he met multiple times at the Vatican in preparation for WYD Lisbon, is based upon Cardinal-elect Aguiar’s willingness to “get done” what seems to be a new, and potentially controversial, focus at World Youth Day.