Engaging in dialogue with non-Catholics: A task for the whole Church
Jun 3, 2019
An integral part of the mission articulated by Archbishop Vigneron in his pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, is to carry out dialogue with those who are not Catholic. This dialogue, especially in its ecumenical dimension, helps us all bear witness to Christ in our region. Together with Msgr. John Kasza, I help serve in an ambassadorial role, representing the Archdiocese of Detroit in her relations with non-Catholics.
Why do we need ambassadors?
The Archdiocese of Detroit works to maintain cordial relations with fellow Christians and those of non-Christian religions in southeast Michigan. Through communication with representatives of these various communities, we seek to build relationships of mutual understanding, respect and cooperation in areas of common cause. Similarities notwithstanding, there is an important distinction between our ecumenical dialogue with Christians and interfaith dialogue among non-Christians.
Ecumenical dialogue: Ecumenism, from the Greek word oikoumene, meaning “the whole inhabited world,” has in recent decades come to be associated with the promotion of cooperation and unity among Christians. The Catholic Church engages in ecumenical dialogue because of the belief that a divided Christianity is a scandal to the world and an impediment to the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. John 17:21; Ut Unum Sint 6).
Underlying the Catholic Church’s pursuit of ecumenism is its recognition that elements of sanctification and truth are found outside her visible structure (cf. Lumen Gentium 8 § 2). Thus we read in, Unleash the Gospel:
“We also recognize that Catholics are not the only ones who are seeking to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ in southeast Michigan. We honor and support the efforts of our brothers and sisters in other Christian communions to bear witness to Christ. God is at work in them, and there is much we can learn from their evangelistic fervor. Wherever possible we should work together with them to bring the light of Christ into our city and region, although without ceasing to proclaim the fullness of Catholic teaching” (3.2).
Interfaith dialogue: Interfaith dialogue is the promotion of mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of non-Christian religions. We engage in interfaith dialogue because one of the Catholic Church’s tasks is to foster closer bonds of love among people and nations (cf. Nostra Aetate 1).
Both types of dialogue have an impact on social thought, for they foster a neighborly spirit and collaboration in areas of true human development. This occurs through interchanges natural to us: everyday life experiences and the promotion of justice and peace.
In everyday life we should be forming relationships “where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations” (Dialogue and Proclamation 42). One might think this is just “living together” or merely spontaneous, yet communication through a greeting, a friendly inquiry, or just a smile does require effort. It requires perseverance to overcome barriers of reticence and suspicion. It does not necessitate any special training, but calls on qualities of the heart such as sympathy, respect and patience that each of us can employ.
Promoting justice and peace has an even wider social impact. From a Catholic perspective, their promotion has a profound theological value. To work for the integral development of human beings and to strive to liberate people from unjust structures is to share in the building up of the Kingdom of God (cf. Gaudium et Spes 39).
This is where you come into the picture. If in our role as ambassadors Msgr. Kasza and I foster communication and mutual understanding, you have the mission to preach, spread and advance the message of the good news of the Lord Jesus. Do you know, love, and live your faith, “ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15)? Together our faith calls us to shape an environment where collaboration in areas of common cause may occur.
It may appear that ecumenical and interfaith dialogue only occurs at a high level and is not immediately practicable. However, what filters down to the members of the various faith communities with whose leaders we discourse is a recognition of our common humanity. We are together on a common search for ultimate answers to the questions that concern all thoughtful people: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life (cf. Nostra Aetate 1)?
Christianity bears witness to the universal answer to these ultimate questions. The universal answer is a Person — Jesus Christ — and He has let loose His Spirit into the world. His Spirit simultaneously aids the Church in fulfilling her mission of bearing witness to Christ’s saving work, and aids the human family in adhering to what is true and holy in the other religious constructs to which they adhere, so that, when you introduce your friends, neighbors and coworkers to the proclamation of Christ, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), they will recognize in full that which they had previously only known in part (cf. Nostra Aetate 2).
Around 200 A.D., Tertullian was writing of Christians: “See how much they love each other!” More than 1,800 years later, we Christians need to learn and practice truly Christian attitudes and relationships, leading to the creation of a climate where those among us may echo Tertullian’s words when witnessing our manner of behavior. Then all will be fascinated, as the converts of old once were, to join Christ’s flock and enjoy a fellowship that leads to eternal salvation.
David J. Conrad is coordinator of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue for the Archdiocese of Detroit, pastoral associate and director of faith formation at St. Aidan Parish in Livonia, and part-time instructor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.