Looking back to move forward
A brief history of interreligious relationships in the Church
By Roberto Catalano and Rita Moussallem
During my 28 years in India, I have had a very enriching interfaith experience, which unfolded on different levels through time. The most important and basic one was in daily life, where relationships were simply built through encounters with neighbors, office colleagues and co-travelers during the long commuting hours in a megalopolis like Mumbai where I lived.
A second aspect of interfaith dialogue I experienced was within academic circles. I participated in conferences where participants were people of different faiths: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians and Catholic Christians. India is the cradle to many religions, and for the most part, people of all faiths are accepted and respected.
The Catholic Church where I attended services is next to a Hindu area and near a Muslim mosque. Christmas midnight Mass was celebrated among deafening sounds of the celebrations of the three religious festivals taking place at the same time. But I never noticed a sign of discomfort or uneasiness among my fellow Catholics.
Religious fundamentalism in the world is on the rise, and in many areas there have been tensions, even clashes and riots, caused by groups of different faiths. Yet, in India, people of different traditions do live together, inspired by a key Hindu tenet: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakan, the “world is one family.”
While faced with the dangerous rise of religious syncretism, much depends on our personal attitude. I have learned that we encounter a person, before recognizing him or her as a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian. In this way the idea of universal brotherhood that clearly appears in Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council document on interreligious dialogue, can become a reference point that sets a paradigm for dialogue.
Once, I was invited to Madurai, an important city in South India, to share my experience of interfaith dialogue with a group of some 50 people. The conference was held in a very significant place: the Gandhi Museum, located at the center Madurai, known also for one of the most beautiful sacred places in India, the Meenakshi Temple. At the conference were Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, along with the Catholic priest in charge of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue in the local archdiocese.
At the end of my presentation, a gentleman stood up and accused me and all Christians of proselytizing through their many schools and educational institutions, despite the fact that throughout Asia they are appreciated for the values they instill in students and for the quality of their education. He said that his daughter, who studies in a Catholic school, was confused by having to learn Christian prayers, rather than being free to practice her own traditions.
Somewhat embarrassed, I didn’t know how to respond initially. Then, in a split second, I remembered that a few months earlier St. John Paul II, during a visit to Jerusalem, apologized to the Jewish people for all the evil that Christians have done to them throughout the centuries. He had even placed a small sheet of paper among the stones of the Western Wall, to repent in the name of Christians of all times.
I felt that I could do the same and, even though I had nothing to do with the issue which had been raised, I apologized for any wrongs that people of my own faith have done. As the tension cooled, my two hosts, both Hindus, tried to offer some balance to the conversation, speaking about all the good things that Christians have done for Indians of all religions.
A year later, I was in a university near Madurai for another conference, and while entering the lecture hall for the opening ceremony, I saw the same gentleman coming toward me. I addressed him by name, since I could not forget him, and greeted him very warmly. He reciprocated as if we were longtime friends. I told him how useful it was what he had shared with me the previous year for my work in interfaith dialogue, and in return he confided that he too often spoke to his Hindu friends about me.
After the event, one of my colleagues from the city that hosted the conference of the previous year told me that this gentleman was a leader in the local chapter of the Visha Hindu Parishad, one of the most fundamentalist Hindu organizations. If he wished, he could have had me deported from India within 24 hours. Through this encounter I learned a very important lesson: humility is the main and essential element of a fruitful interfaith dialogue.