World Youth Day Interreligious Dialogue Initiatives Give Pilgrims New Perspective on Their Catholic Faith

In Portugal, where religious freedom is strongly supported, some pilgrims visited other places of worship, eager to better understand and define their own beliefs.

L to R: the WYD crowd and the Central Mosque of Lisbon, which many pilgrims visited over the course of WYD
L to R: the WYD crowd and the Central Mosque of Lisbon, which many pilgrims visited over the course of WYD (photo: Solène Tadié/National Catholic Register photos)

LISBON, Portugal — The World Youth Day (WYD) held in Lisbon until Aug. 6 gave an unprecedented priority to interreligious dialogue through various events and meetings promoted by the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Interreligious Dialogue of the Patriarchate of Lisbon.

In particular, visits to places of non-Christian worship have in some cases attracted unexpected numbers of WYD pilgrims, willing to deepen the knowledge of their own faith through the discovery of other religions.

This was particularly the case for the Central Mosque of Lisbon, which attracted an average of 200 young pilgrims daily between Aug. 1 and 5. Some of them believe that the demands and discipline inherent in Muslim practice, in a largely de-Christianized West subject to relativist ideologies, help them to return to the foundations of their own Christian tradition.

The fact that these visits are taking place in the context of a major Catholic gathering dedicated to the evangelization of young people has raised questions, not least because no initiative on this scale has taken place at previous WYDs. The Pope himself engaged in a series of interreligious meetings during his visit to the Portuguese capital, Aug. 2-6.

While the organizers stated in a preparatory document for WYD that they wanted to make Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti (Fraternity and Social Friendship) the focal point of the celebrations, together with Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), these interreligious initiatives also respond to a reality in the Portuguese landscape, where religious freedom has been strongly encouraged in recent years.

A Way to Integrate

In this country, where Catholicism remains the spiritual, moral and cultural point of reference for an overwhelming majority of Portuguese people, interreligious dialogue is undertaken more with the hope of integrating minorities and newcomers into society.

The adoption in 2019 by the Portuguese Parliament of a day devoted to religious freedom and interreligious dialogue every June 22 exemplifies this approach, which the Patriarchate of Lisbon itself wanted to echo in the context of WYD.

“In Portugal, religions have been very important for integrating communities which came from abroad,” Father Peter Stilwell, director of the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Interreligious Dialogue of the Patriarchate of Lisbon, told the Register. “They quickly feel part of the society because their religious community is accepted and becomes a part of it.”

In the case of Islam, which is still very marginal in Portugal, at barely 1% of the population, but constantly expanding throughout Europe, this dialogue between religious communities has been seen as a fruitful tool in crisis situations.

The most recent example invoked by the promoters of these initiatives is the violent riots that shook the whole of France last month after the death of a Muslim teenage boy, shot dead by the police for refusing to obey orders in a Paris suburb. The appeal for calm launched by the local bishop, and signed by other religious authorities including Muslims, is considered to have played a significant role in stopping the violence.

For Naim Ahmed — coordinator of pilgrims’ visits to the mosque during WYD Lisbon — to speak the same language, both linguistically and culturally, is fundamental for communities to live in harmony in any region. “In our community, we are very much in favor of integration, because it’s one thing to be Muslim and another to be Portuguese; we have a religion, but we also have a tradition that unifies us all,” he said in an interview with the Register Aug. 3, before attending Pope Francis’ welcoming ceremony in the city center.

“These opportunities for exchanges between religions in the joy of celebrations make deep mutual understanding possible, but also come to remind us that the encounter is above all human and individual before it is communitarian.”

Deepening One’s Own Faith

For his part, Father Stilwell points out that if he has accepted this interreligious mission entrusted to him by the metropolitan patriarch of Lisbon, Cardinal Manuel Clemente, within the framework of this year’s WYD, it is from an authentically and openly Catholic perspective, which has little to do with the “New Age approach” that has become widespread in recent years and consists in claiming that people of various faiths are basically “all the same.”

In his view, while it is fundamental to identify our commonalities as Catholics with other religions in order to create the conditions for a fruitful and lasting friendship, this does not involve all areas of religious life, especially worship. “We can gather together, meditate, but we cannot pray together,” Father Stilwell said. “Catholics cannot pray to Shiva, Rama or Vishnu — it’s impossible; nor can Jews or Muslims, since our very definitions of God differ.” At the same time, his long experience in the field of interreligious dialogue, first during his eight years as rector of the Catholic University of Macau then as head of the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Interreligious Dialogue of the Patriarchate of Lisbon, have convinced him of the fruitfulness of this approach — as long as it takes place on the basis of a solid knowledge and rooting in one’s own faith.

“Just because interreligious dialogue is difficult doesn’t mean that it can’t happen,” he concluded, adding that his personal experience made him “more aware of what is his particular Christian tradition.”

This was also the feeling of Maria, a 19-year-old Portuguese woman, after visiting Lisbon’s Central Mosque on Aug. 2 with a group of WYD participants. In an interview with the Register, she said she had listened with interest to the guide’s explanations of the main principles of Islam and the religious practices of the Muslim faithful.

“As part of this week of celebrations, I wanted to find out more about this religion, which is growing in importance in Europe, and I was touched by the warm welcome we received,” she said. “At the same time, this discovery made me aware of the concrete differences that exist between this religion and my Catholic faith, particularly concerning the relationship between men and women, and I have to say that this encourages me to appreciate my religious tradition even more and to deepen it.”

Thirst for Discipline

By contrast, it was the strong values of Islam that attracted Pawel, a 25-year-old Czech pilgrim. This practicing Catholic was particularly stimulated by his Aug. 3 visit to the Lisbon mosque.

This quest for discipline and radical faith on the part of some young Europeans is particularly prevalent in the most de-Christianized countries, of which the Czech Republic is an example, and those marked by a high degree of societal progressivism.

While Islam has attracted a significant number of them in recent years, another segment of these young people, notably in France and Sweden, have found in the traditionalist movements of the Catholic Church the answer to their existential thirst for moral and spiritual landmarks.

Highlighting the strong points of convergence he identified between Islam and his religion, Pawel praised the ability of Muslims to maintain a high degree of discipline in their daily lives in societies that favor hedonistic attitudes.

“I would love to be as disciplined as them: They pray five times a day, always at the same time,” he told the Register. “I think we Catholic Westerners have a lot to learn from them.”

Speaking with the Register during World Youth Day, Bishop Matthieu Rougé of Nanterre, where last month’s violence in France initially erupted, highlighted another good fruit of interreligious dialogue — peacemaking. But like Father Stilwell, he also emphasized the importance of remaining true to the content of Christian belief.

“It is possible — and desirable — to conduct a genuine interreligious dialogue without renouncing one’s faith,” he said. “I was very pleased that, at the start of the recent urban violence in Nanterre, thanks to our regular dialogue, we were able to publish an interfaith appeal for peace within a few hours, first locally and then nationally. These appeals have undoubtedly contributed in their own way to the return of peace.”

Added Bishop Rougé, “That said, we must listen to the appeal expressed by these events. In particular, they express the thirst for hope and recognition of young people in poor suburbs, whatever their religion.”