Pope Reaching Out

Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s personal spokesman, talks about the Pope’s invitation to prominent Muslim scholars to meet with him at the Vatican.

Pope Benedict XVI has invited a group of prominent Muslim scholars to meet with him and other Vatican representatives.

Responding to a letter he received in early October from 138 Muslim scholars requesting dialogue, in late November the Pope replied by issuing his invitation to a representative group of the scholars. No date has yet been set for the meeting.

Benedict’s personal spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, spoke Nov. 30 with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about the Holy Father’s outreach to the Muslim leaders.

What are the overall aims of the Pope’s letter to the 138 Muslim scholars?

The Pope received the letter from these 138 leaders from the Muslim world — authoritative leaders — and therefore he had to reply; it’s right to respond when receiving an important, authoritative letter. He answered very positively, and the Vatican had already responded positively to the letter when it arrived and gave its first comments, its first impressions.

The important thing is that there is a consensus, not among all Muslims — that would be impossible — but a great number of authoritative figures have clearly shown the desire for dialogue, a desire for a positive meeting of minds, taking steps to help us know and understand each other better. And the Pope’s reply was evidently a sign of appreciation of this step by these Muslims, which has also become a step further along the path of understanding.

So the purpose is obvious — a dialogue has begun and we will continue it.

How hopeful are you that the Pope’s hopes for greater dialogue really will be realized?

We’re hopeful the letter shows a willingness, an interest, in understanding and knowing each other better, to discuss deepening those aspects in the different great monotheistic religions that we have in common. We have no reason to doubt this can continue.

The Pope in his letter made a concrete invitation to Prince Ghazi [bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan] to visit him, and some chosen members of the group who signed that great letter. And he spoke also of a meeting between qualified representatives of that group from the Muslim world and competent members of Catholic institutions involved in dialogue with the Muslims world — the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

There’s no reason to doubt that this will happen. The head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal [Jean-Louis] Tauran, is in charge of taking forward this initiative and certainly he will do all that he can, because it matters.

How much is this a consequence of the Pope’s Regensburg lecture in September 2006?

I don’t know how much the Pope foresaw that this would be the consequence of his Regensburg lecture. Often we say things and we don’t know exactly what effect our words have.

But certainly these initiatives — the first letter of 38 Muslim leaders and the second by these 138 sent a year apart — are connected to the Regensburg discourse, and so certainly the Pope believes his discourse has brought positive results. It has been an important stimulus. It has brought about an opportunity to show good will, brought forth positive results, and so it seems to me we are on a good path.

We must add to these letters from the Muslim leaders the recent visit of the King [Abdullah] of Saudi Arabia to the Pope. He is another fundamental and very important figure in the Muslim world, and although he wasn’t one of the signatories of the letter, his visit still showed the strength and awareness of this possibility of dialogue between Christianity, the Catholic Church and the Muslim world.

Regarding the letter we also appreciate that it was addressed not only to the Catholic Church and the Pope, but also to all the principal Christian denominations and therefore it helps to set in motion a much broader dialogue, or at least the intention of a prospect for such dialogue. This is certainly a positive thing.

How have Muslims reacted to the Pope’s reply?

It’s too early to judge, but obviously, seeing as they sent a letter and received a positive response, the signatories cannot fail to be content. Prince Ghazi of Jordan certainly received it with much appreciation, and the fact that the Pope has given it his attention and wants to welcome them, is a point of departure for a more profound dialogue — although differences need to be taken into account and one cannot say all the problems have been resolved.

But I always say that if you want to go down a path, you must first set out on it, otherwise you will never arrive. This is a sign that some have started on this road of dialogue, and so we hope that some of them will arrive or, more or less, be able to progress.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.