Story taken from the Annals of Internal Medicine:
It was near the end of the E.R. resident’s second straight week of 14 hour night shifts. She was nauseated and cold from fatigue.
At 5 a.m. she was called to the examining room to see an 86 year old man. Looking at the triage report, she had him categorized immediately: He’s going to be demented. He won’t be able to give me any history. Taking a deep breath, she began.
“I’m sorry to wake you, sir,” she said mechanically.
He slowly awoke from his drowsiness. “Thanks for coming, Nurse. Could you get me some water?”
“Actually, I’m the doctor,” she said, trying not to overreact, reminding herself that this happens countless times. “Here’s some water,”offering him a glass.
As he sipped, she started firing questions at him about his symptoms and medical history. His speech was painfully slow, his answer inconclusive. She tossed the chart aside. On to the physical examination.
“My hands are cold,” she warned.
“Do what you have to do, doctor.”
The doctor placed her frigid palm on his chest as she listened through her stethoscope. He didn’t flinch.
When she had finished, he grasped her hand. Then the old man, who moved so slowly and painfully, began to rub her hand rapidly between his. The doctor stared at him with a combination of disbelief and annoyance.
“To warm you up, Doctor. My wife also gets cold when she’s tired. This helps her. You should be taking care of yourself, not old men like me.”
When he had finished rubbing one hand, he took her other one. It felt incredibly good; the doctor continues to watch, but now in amazement.
He was the sick one, not her. And yet this man, the object of her impatience, was concerned about her well-being.
The doctor’s haste dissipated. At that moment, it was the patient, not the doctor, who had the healing touch.
If we are to awaken hope for life, then we need the healing touch - authentic human contact.
Today it is no longer easy to explain what the term “human” means. We live in a technological age in an artificial environment, and we view the world through scientific eyes. To understand the human being, we need to recover a sense of our own humanity, our difference from the machine and even from the world of nature, which has become subject to scientific probing and technological manipulation.
In trying to determine what makes human beings different from animals, plants, and the dust of the earth and stars, we need not isolate or alienate human beings from the natural world of physics or biology. Rather, we must try to locate ourselves in the universe of things to which we are related in countless ways and yet in which we sometimes feel so alone, both as human beings and as an individual being who asks: “Who am I?”
Human beings have many of the same needs as plants and animals, but we experience these these needs in a distinctive way. Animals experience need when they hunger, thirst, grasp for air, or pursue a mate. Human beings not only feel such needs, but we also have at least understanding of why we have them. We also devise alternate ways of satisfying these needs, puzzle over what we need most, and even create needs never experienced by human beings in the past.
Human beings have the need and capacity to use symbols, invent tools, communicate by speech with its variety of invented languages, and create and modify social and political systems in a manner only faintly foreshadowed in the behaviour of other animals.
What defines us as human beings is precisely our limited but real transcendence of rigid biological determinism. We are indeed bodily, biological, animals beings with inherent needs for food, shelter, and reproduction, but we also have the types of brains and intelligence that make it possible and necessary to choose from a vast range of ways to satisfy these needs.
Culture is only the expression of our nature, which is to be intelligently free. This embodied intelligent freedom defines us as human and gives unity and continuity to the human family across time and space.
The dimming of hope
The age we are living in, with its own particular challenges, can seem to be a time of bewilderment. Many men and women seem disoriented, uncertain, without hope, and not a few Christians share these feelings. There are many troubling signs which at the beginning of the third millennium are clouding the horizon and despite great signs of faith and witness, we feel all the weariness which historical events – recent and past – have brought about deep within the hearts of its peoples, often causing disappointment.
Among the aspects of this situation, I would like to mention in a particular way the loss of Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history. It is no real surprise, then, that there are efforts to create a vision of Canada which ignore its religious heritage, and in particular, its profound Christian soul, asserting the rights of the peoples who make up our nation without grafting those rights on to the trunk which is enlivened by the sap of Christianity.
Certainly Canada is not lacking in prestigious symbols of the Christian presence, yet with the slow and steady advance of secularism, these symbols risk becoming a mere vestige of the past. Many people are no longer able to integrate the Gospel message into their daily experience; living one's faith in Jesus becomes increasingly difficult in a social and cultural setting in which that faith is constantly challenged and threatened.
In many social settings it is easier to be identified as an agnostic than a believer. The impression is given that unbelief is self-explanatory, whereas belief needs a sort of social legitimization which is neither obvious nor taken for granted.
This loss of Christian memory is accompanied by a kind of fear of the future. Tomorrow is often presented as something bleak and uncertain. The future is viewed more with dread than with desire. Among the troubling indications of this are the inner emptiness that grips many people and the loss of meaning in life. The signs and fruits of this existential anguish include, in particular, the diminishing number of births, the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the difficulty, if not the outright refusal, to make lifelong commitments, including marriage.
We find ourselves before a widespread existential fragmentation. A feeling of loneliness is prevalent; divisions and conflicts are on the rise. Among other symptoms of this state of affairs, Canada is presently witnessing the grave phenomenon of family crises and the weakening of the very concept of the family, the surfacing of ethnic and racial prejudice and conflicts, interreligious tensions, a selfishness that closes individuals and groups in upon themselves, a growing overall lack of concern for ethics and an obsessive concern for personal interests and privileges. To many observers the current process of globalization, rather than leading towards the greater unity of the human race, risks being dominated by an approach that would marginalize the less powerful and increase the number of poor in the world.
In connection with the spread of individualism, we see an increased weakening of interpersonal solidarity: while charitable institutions continue to carry out praiseworthy work, one notes a decline in the sense of solidarity, with the result that many people, while not lacking material necessities, feel increasingly alone, left to themselves without structures of affection and support.
At the root of this loss of hope is an attempt to promote a vision of man apart from God and apart from Christ. This sort of thinking has led to man being considered as the absolute centre of reality, a view which makes him occupy – falsely – the place of God and which forgets that it is not man who creates God, but rather God who creates man. Forgetfulness of God led to the abandonment of man. It is therefore no wonder that in this context a vast field has opened for the unrestrained development of nihilism in philosophy, of relativism in values and morality, and of pragmatism – and even a cynical hedonism – in daily life. Canada culture can give the impression of “silent apostasy” on the part of people who have all that they need and who live as if God does not exist.
This is the context for those attempts, including the most recent ones, to present Canadian culture with no reference to the contribution of the Christian religion which marked its historical development and its universal diffusion. We are witnessing the emergence of a new culture, largely influenced by the mass media, whose content and character are often in conflict with the Gospel and the dignity of the human person. This culture is also marked by an widespread and growing religious agnosticism, connected to a more profound moral and legal relativism rooted in confusion regarding the truth about man as the basis of the inalienable rights of all human beings. At times the signs of a weakening of hope are evident in disturbing forms of what might be called a “culture of death.”
An irrepressible yearning for hope
Man cannot live without hope: life would become meaningless and unbearable. Often those in need of hope believe that they can find peace in fleeting and insubstantial things. In this way, hope, restricted to this world and closed to transcendence, is identified, for example, with the paradise promised by science or technology, with various forms of messianism, with a hedonistic natural felicity brought about by consumerism, or with the imaginary and artificial euphoria produced by drugs, with certain forms of millenarianism, with the attraction of oriental philosophies, with the quest for forms of esoteric spirituality and with the different currents of the New Age movement.
All these, however, show themselves profoundly illusory and incapable of satisfying that yearning for happiness which the human heart continues to harbour. The disturbing signs of growing hopelessness thus continue and intensify, occasionally manifesting themselves also in forms of aggression and violence.
Charity received and given
For every person, charity received and given is the primordial experience which gives rise to hope. Man cannot live without hope. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own. If he does not participate intimately in it.
The challenge for the Church in Canada today consists, therefore, in helping contemporary man to experience the love of God the Father and of Christ in the Holy Spirit, through the witness of charity, which possesses an intrinsic power of evangelization.
In the end this is the real meaning of the “Gospel”, the good news meant for every human being: God first loved us and Jesus has loved us to the end . Thanks to the gift of the Spirit, God's love is offered to believers, enabling them to become sharers in his own capacity to love: it becomes a powerful force in the heart of every disciple and in all the Church . Precisely because it is a gift of God, charity becomes a commandment for everyone.
To live in charity thus becomes good news addressed to every person, and makes visible the love of God who abandons no one. In the last analysis, it means giving those who have lost their way real reasons for continuing to hope.
It is the vocation of the Church, as a “credible sign – even if imperfect – of an existential and experiential love, to lead men and women to an encounter with the love of God and Christ, who comes in search of them”. The Church bears witness that she is the “sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among men when individuals, families and communities live intensely the Gospel of charity. In a word, our ecclesial communities are called to be true training-grounds for communion.
Before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up.
- A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart's contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us.
- A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as ""those who are a part of me"". This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship.
- A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a ""gift for me"".
- A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to ""make room"" for our brothers and sisters, bearing ""each other's burdens"" (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy.
- Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ""masks"" of communion rather than its means of expression and growth. (NMI 43)
By its very nature the witness of charity must extend beyond the confines of ecclesial communities and reach out to every person, so that love for everyone can become a stimulus to authentic solidarity in every part of society. When the Church is at the service of love, she also facilitates the growth of a “culture of solidarity” and thus helps to restore life to the universal values of human coexistence.
Giving new hope to the poor
The whole Church is called to give new hope to the poor. In the Church, to welcome and serve the poor means to welcome and serve Christ (cf. Mt 25:40). Preferential love for the poor is a necessary dimension of Christian existence and service to the Gospel. To love the poor, and to testify that they are especially loved by God, means acknowledging that persons have value in themselves, apart from their economic, cultural, and social status, and helping them to make the most of their potential.
If we are to give anew hope to the poor, special importance must also be given to the pastoral care of the sick. Since sickness is a situation which raises fundamental questions about the meaning of life, in a prosperous and efficient society, in a culture characterized by idolatry of the body, dismissal of suffering and pain and by the myth of perennial youth, the care of the sick is to be considered a priority.
To this end, an appropriate pastoral presence needs to be ensured in the different places where the suffering are found, as for example through the committed work of hospital chaplains, members of volunteer associations and Church-associated health care institutions, while on the other hand support should be provided for the families of the sick.
There is also a need for a suitable pastoral presence among medical and paramedical personnel, in order to support them in their demanding vocation in the service of the sick. In their work, health care personnel daily render a noble service to life. They too are called to offer patients that special spiritual support which builds on the warmth of an authentic human contact.
It cannot be forgotten that at times improper use is made of the goods of the earth. By failing in his mission of cultivating and caring for the land with wisdom and love, man has in fact devastated woodlands and plains in many regions, polluted bodies of water, made the air unbreathable, upset hydro-geological and atmospheric systems and caused the desertification of vast areas.
In this case too, rendering service to the Gospel of hope means committing ourselves in new ways to a proper use of the goods of the earth, encouraging that sense of concern which, in addition to safeguarding natural habitats, defends the quality of the life of individuals and thus prepares for future generations an environment more in harmony with the Creator's plan.
At the service of the Gospel of life
The growing age and declining population in various provinces of Canada cannot fail to be a cause of concern; the falling birthrate is in fact symptomatic of a troubled relationship with our own future. It is a clear indication of a lack of hope and a sign of the “culture of death” present in contemporary society.
Together with the decline in the birthrate, mention should be made of other factors that have obscured the sense of the value of life, and led to a kind of conspiracy against life. Sadly, among these factors must be numbered, first of all, the spread of abortion, also through the use of chemical-pharmaceutical preparations which make abortion possible without the involvement of a physician and in a way detached from any form of social responsibility.
Mention must also be made of attacks involving forms of intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos or the incorrect use of prenatal diagnostic techniques, which are placed at the service not of early detection and possible treatment but of a eugenic intention which accepts selective abortion.
There is even a growing tendency in society to consider it permissible to make a conscious decision to end one's own life or that of another human being: the result is the spread of covert, or even openly practised euthanasia, the legalization of which continues to be sought.
Given this state of affairs, it is necessary to serve the Gospel of life through a general awakening or mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life. All together, we must build a new culture of life.
This is the great challenge which we must accept as our responsibility, in the certainty that the future of Canadian civilization greatly depends on the resolute defence and promotion of the life-giving values which are the core of its cultural patrimony. This means restoring to Canada her true dignity as a place where every person is affirmed in his or her incomparable dignity.
We need to encourage Christian communities to become evangelizers of life; to encourage Christian couples and families to support one another in fidelity to their mission as cooperators with God in the generation and education of new creatures; to value every generous effort to react to a selfishness in the area of transmitting life encouraged by false models of security and happiness.
This commitment also entails asking our governments to enact far-sighted policies aimed at fostering concrete conditions of housing, employment and social services suitable for favouring the establishment of families and enabling them to respond to the call to parenthood, and also to assure today's Canada of its most precious resource: the Canadians of tomorrow.
Building a city worthy of man
A charity which bears fruit in works makes us committed to hastening the coming of the future Kingdom. It therefore cooperates in promoting the authentic values which are the basis of a civilization worthy of man. As the Second Vatican Council recalled: “Christians, on pilgrimage towards the heavenly city, should seek and savour the things which are above. This duty in no way decreases, but rather increases, the weight of their obligation to work with all people in building a more human world.
Our expectation of new heavens and a new earth, far from withdrawing us from history, intensifies our concern for the present life, which even now contains that newness which is the seed and the sign of the world yet to come.
Inspired by these certainties of faith, let us strive to build a city worthy of man. Though it is impossible to create within history a perfect social order, we know that God blesses every sincere effort to build a better world, and that every seed of justice and love planted in the present will bear fruit for eternity.
In building a city worthy of man, a guiding role should be played by the Church's social teaching. Through this teaching the Church challenges Canadian society about the moral quality of its civilization. This social doctrine arises from the encounter of the biblical message and human reason on the one hand, and on the other with the problems and situations involving individual and social life.
By the body of principles which it sets forth, the Church's social doctrine helps lay solid foundations for a humane coexistence in justice, peace, freedom and solidarity. Because it is aimed at defending and promoting the dignity of the human person, which is the basis not only of economic and political life, but also of social justice and peace, this doctrine proves capable of upholding the supporting structures of Canada's future.
It contains points of reference which make it possible to defend the moral structure of freedom, so as to protect Canadian culture and society both from the totalitarian utopia of “justice without freedom” and from the utopia of “freedom without truth” which goes hand in hand with a false concept of “tolerance”
Because of its intrinsic connection with the dignity of the human person, the Church's social doctrine is also capable of being appreciated by those who are not members of the community of believers. It is urgent, then, that this doctrine be better known and studied, and that more and more Christians become familiar with it. The new Canada now being built demands this, since it requires individuals formed in these values and disposed to working for the attainment of the common good. This will require the presence of Christian lay faithful who, by their various responsibilities in civic life, the economy, culture, health care, education and politics, are able by their activities to imbue these spheres with the values of the Kingdom.
Let us commit ourselves to charity!
“Stake everything on charity.
Now is the time for a new “creativity” in charity, not only by ensuring that help is effective but also by "getting close” to those who suffer, so that the hand that helps is seen not as a humiliating handout but as a haring between brothers and sisters.”(NMI 50).
The appeal to exercise an active charity represents the happy synthesis of an authentic service of the Gospel of hope. In conclusion I would propose that the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of contemporary Canadians, especially the poor and the suffering, must also be our joys and our hopes, our sorrows and our anxieties. May nothing which is genuinely human lack an echo in your heart. Look upon Canada and upon its future with the sympathy of one who appreciates every positive element, yet do not close your eyes to all that is inconsistent with the Gospel and denounce it forcefully.
My Grandfather’s Blessings
by Rachel Naomi Remen
A highly-skilled physician who treats patients with AIDS keeps a picture of her grandmother in her home. Every morning, before leaving for the hospital, she sits quietly before the picture. Her grandmother was an Italian-born woman who held her family close. Her wisdom was of the earth.
Once when Louisa was small, her kitten was killed in an accident. It was her first experience of death and she was devastated. Her mom and dad assured her not to be sad, taht her kitten was now in heaven with God. But little Louisa found little comfort in that. She prayed, asking God to give her kitten back. But God did not answer.
In her anguish she turned to her grandmother. “Why?” she asked. Her grandmother lifted her up and held her close. She did not tell her that her kitten was with God. Instead she reminded her of the time when Grandpa died. She didn’t know why either. She prayed, but God didn’t give Grandpa back. Louisa turned into the soft warmth of her grandmother’s shoulder and sobbed. At one point, she turned to see her grandmother, crying too.
Although her grandmother could not answer her question, a great loneliness was lifted and Louisa felt able to move on.
“My grandmother was a lap ... a place of refuge,” Louisa remembers. “I know a great deal about AIDS but what I really want to be for my patients is a lap, a place from which they can face what they have to face and not be alone.”
We need to be a “lap” for one another - this is what authentic human contact and charity are all about.
☩ Frederick Henry
In 1960, the conventional wisdom was that Protestants wouldn’t elect a Catholic president out of fears that he would take his orders from the Pope rather than the Constitution. John F. Kennedy, reiterating his belief in the separation of church and state, attempted to neutralize the effects of anti-catholic prejudice and assured his fellow Americans that his religion would not interfere with his presidential duties.
By way of contrast, John F. Kerry, who is favoured by many of the electorate, finds himself challenged by a number of Catholic bishops and members of the flock to prove his Catholic faith.
Kerry, who has consistently voted pro-choice through his political career, was an outspoken critic of the Partial Birth Abortion Act signed last year by President George Bush. He voted against the Defence of Marriage Act in 1996 and has opposed calls for a constitutional amendment to protect the status of marriage between a man and a woman.
Despite repeated admonition from bishops, first private, then public, he adamantly insists that he will continue to receive communion when he attends Mass no matter what.
To grasp the nature of the controversy, one must understand the distinctive nature of Catholic doctrine regarding the Eucharist. Catholics believe that in receiving communion, we receive the greatest of gifts: the body of Jesus Christ. St. Paul reminds us: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1Cor.11:27).
By sharing in communion, Catholics testify that they are in fundamental union of heart and mind. On fundamental life issues, Kerry is clearly off-side.
Although Kerry may garner a few votes by exploiting anti-bishop and anti-Catholic sentiments, by reason of his defiant dissent from fundamental Catholic teaching, he should voluntarily abstain from communion.
John Kerry is not the only Catholic politician in North America who is off-side, but he is the only one running for the presidency of the United States, and his situation is something of a test case. The same dilemma and principles would apply to the Clark’s, Chrietien’s and Martin’s in Canada.
Another related question is: If a dissident Catholic leader obstinately persists in opposing fundamental Church teaching, should he or she be turned away if the present themselves for communion?
Civil leaders have a duty, says Pope John Paul II, “to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures ... No one can ever renounce this responsibility, especially when he or she has a legislative or decision-making mandate which calls that person to answer to God, to his or her own conscience and to the whole of society for choices which may be contrary to the common good.” (EV 90).
It is not so much a question of proposing a Catholic agenda. The goal is to help shape public policy that is in conformity with the law rooted in our nature that governs us all no matter what our religious belief. Thus, politicians are called to try an ensure that the laws that govern us protect human life, respect the human person, preserve the unique nature of marriage, support family, ensure the safety of children, guarantee religious freedom and make it possible for all citizens to share in the conditions that are necessary for humane living.
Obviously, there can be different strategies for realizing these fundamental values. When it comes, for example, to ensuring the rights of the poor, there will inevitably be conflicting strategies.
However, there are some issues that admit of no exceptions: abortion, physician-assisted suicide, homicide, the destruction of human embryos in artificial fertilization, stem cell research and cloning. In each of these, the issues are clear-cut. We cannot do what is wrong even for good purposes.
Sometimes politicians have to make a prudential judgment that at a given time in history, only imperfect legislation is possible. If the intent is to limit the evil as much as possible, no other options are feasible, and the door to a better decision in the future is not being permanently closed, then it is legitimate for public officials to support such legislation.
Nevertheless, there are a whole host of other life issues that also call for the exercise of prudential judgments, e.g. capital punishment and the application of the principles regarding a just war.
What is unacceptable is political duplicity or schizophrenia. All too many politicians try to hide behind, statements such as: “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I will not impose my belief or morality on others” or “Because abortion is so controversial, I must remain neutral and let each person decide on their own.”
If someone were to assert: “I’m personally opposed to child abuse and rape, but I will not impose that belief on potential child abusers and rapists.” We wouldn’t let them hide behind such nonsense. Nor should we let politicians hide behind similar nonsense in the case of abortion.
The American bishops have set up a committee to discuss possible disciplinary sanctions for defiant Catholic politicians. I am anxiously awaiting the outcome of their discussions. In the meantime, I believe that the question, “If a dissident Catholic leader obstinately persists in opposing fundamental Church teaching, should he or she be turned away if they present themselves for communion,” has to answered in the affirmative.
☩ Frederick Henry
I must be extremely naïve. Little did I realize that our Diocesan Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs initiative, in offering an Introduction to Islam class, would provoke re-actions like the following:
I am a very active Catholic and devout in my faith and to my church. I am in shock to say the least at the idea of Islam being taught in our church... Islam is NOT peaceful! Islam is in the West, trying to put a western spin on Islam. Do Not Be Deceived!... I protest strongly an imam coming into the Church... Will you allow Middle Eastern Christians to come in and tell the truth about living under Islam? Will you speak of the girls having acid thrown on their faces for not covering their heads or for simply wearing a cross? My next letter will be to the Vatican, I am shocked and ashamed.
The author is certainly out of step with the teaching of Pope John Paul II and mainstream Catholicism which continues to urge all the children of Abraham, the biblical patriarch considered the father of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, to rediscover the brotherhood that they share and that prompts in them designs of cooperation and peace.
Such inter-religious dialogue seems to be the only sure basis for peace and warding off the dread spectre of those religious wars which have so often bloodied human history.
Regrettably, Christians and Muslims often judge one another by the extremists and make the mistake of judging the other’s worst by their own best. In the western world we also tend to believe that Islamic fundamentalism is the result of alienation, social exclusion, or globalization. In short, we tend to believe that if economic development takes place, then people in the Islamic world will become “like us,” and then there will be no more threats to global security.
Furthermore, such an economic analysis used to explain terrorists attacks does not easily fit the profile of the Osama bin Ladens of this world who reject a Western modernity which many of them experienced as students.
Islamic fundamentalism is better understood as a cultural and religious response to secular materialism.
Only the foolhardy expect Muslims to exchange the beliefs, practices, and traditions which are constitutive of Islamic communities for those of Western liberalism.
Thirty-five years ago the Catholic Church took a dramatic stand to promote constructive, peaceful and religious relations with Muslims by promulgating these words from the Second Vatican Council in 1965: “The church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to people. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin mother they also honour and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms deeds and fasting” [Nostra Aetate, 3]. Taking religion and culture seriously entails a commitment to form dialogues, and this can take place in many ways – living room dialogues in neighbourhoods and communities; dialogues that lead to cooperative efforts on particular projects to assist those in need; the dialogues of specialists where our religious beliefs are examined and the dialogue of religious experience, where we share more deeply of ourselves and our prayers and understanding of living a life devoted to God.
There are some who think interreligious dialogues are like other dialogues – for example, negotiations between countries, bargaining between labour and management, or any attempts to find middle ground between disputing parties. This is not the case. Dialogue in society involves compromise, that’s how we get things done, and that is good.
But when people of faith talk to one another, they are not attempting any compromise. Our goal in interreligious dialogue is not to construct one religion for the whole world, but to share and learn from one another.
Interreligious dialogue is both a process of spiritual growth and a set of experiences that can have a transforming effect on those engaged in it. Interreligious dialogue is the art of spiritual communication. The participants maintain their religious practice, they invite their partners to be present with them when they pray and they seek to understand how each of them understands what one must do to be holy. We seek to understand one another, to challenge one another to understand each of our beliefs most deeply and to grow in our understanding of the greatness, abundance and mercy of God. Interreligious dialogue has certain characteristics: clarity, an outpouring of thought, meekness, humility, kindness, patience, generosity, prudence and trust. In interreligious dialogue we are compelled to make our language understandable, acceptable and well-chosen, so that we can be both truthful and charitable to one another.
The experience of the moral life rooted in the virtues, social practices, and the traditions of our respective religious communities, however imperfectly we may live them, is where genuine dialogue between civilizations can begin.
☩ Frederick Henry