Transforming Dialogue

Fr Joseph Cassar SJ (right) with
(L to R) Prof Eduardo Fernandez SJ,
Sr Rosalia Meza VDMF, Rev. Barry English, and Fr Michael Kim HakHyeon KMS.

Fr Joseph Cassar, currently on sabbatical in the United States, reports on the Annual Conference of the US Catholic Mission Association, held in Los Angeles.


The path to interreligious dialogue is no leisurely stroll. On the contrary, it has a steep and tortuous gradient. But it’s worth every effort. This was the feeling conveyed by the Annual Conference of the US Catholic Mission Association held in Los Angeles recently. The Conference, entitled “Forging New Paths: Interreligious Dialogue” brought together some 250 participants—lay women and men, sisters, and diocesan as well as religious priests who are present or returned missionaries, staff of diocesan or congregational mission offices as well as mission theologians.

The first keynote speaker was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington. With his passionate, soft-spoken voice, the 82-year-old Cardinal said: 

The Church does not live its mission unless it is there for the poor, the newcomers and the marginalised. We have to transform dialogue but we ourselves have to be transformed by this dialogue. We should be missionaries of dialogue with each other. Conversation with God is the beginning of dialogue in mission. Then it will be, in a special way, transforming.” 

The elderly Cardinal is a frequent visitor to the Middle East, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries where Islam is the majority religion. Due to the undeniable importance of Islam, the religion of one of every five human beings, a lot of the interreligious dialogue of Catholics today will have to be with Islam. In the countries where it is predominant Islam has not gone through the political processes that western countries had experienced. 

Another consideration to be kept in mind is that Islam has no equivalent of the Catholic magisterium, no central teaching authority. It may help us to remember that while Catholics have a magisterium, there is no magisterium for all Christians either. We have to learn how to relate to Islam and to be open to many of its great teachings. “Catholics,” argued McCarrick, should be particularly aware of the “great confluence between Catholic Social Teaching and Islam. There is a lot we can do together.” So how do we transform ourselves? We have to see how to present our message of total reliance on God.

The second keynote speaker was Dr Scott Alexander, Associate Professor of Islam at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. Developing the theme “Living in God’s Mission of Dialogue: An end to Triumphalism in the Hope of Solidarity,” Dr Alexander acknowledged that a central challenge in the history of Christian-Muslim relations unfolds on two basis tracks: cooperation and convivencia on the one hand and clash and conflict on the other hand. 

Is the marriage of each faith to domination essential? Do we need to keep it?” he asked. Dr Alexander sees that the main obstacle to dialogue is triumphalism, on both sides. Rather than competing against each other for domination, Dr Alexander said that Christianity and Islam should join in a race to do good and to engage in “comparative interreligious complementarity.

What is the role of missionaries in this interreligious dialogue? For Dr Alexander their primary task is the “formation of youth for the deconstruction of religious tribalism.” Dialogue recognises both Muslims and Christians and will heed the often neglected imperative to empower religious faithful as peace builders rather than aggressive competitors. 

To do this, we must not only teach our youth but also learn from them. Young people are particularly adept at creating participatory cultures of online or other communication. If as missionary disciples of Jesus we can help youth to grow out of religious tribalism we can make a great contribution. Because God is calling us to live in the freedom of an authentic “we”, we should never use the “they” to install fears leading to disunity and lack of solidarity. If we’re committed to witness, the only way we’re going to relate to one another is through mutual relationship. The price of triumphalism is too great for humanity to pay.

Joseph Cassar, SJ 

facebook youtube twitter flickr