Helpful Conversations

by Sr Isabel Smyth, SND

Ever since the Second Vatican Council Catholic Bishops have met regularly to discuss issues of common concern. These meetings are called Synods and next year there is to be one on the very notion of synodality, on how to make the Church more inclusive and responsive to the needs of the present world. It’s basically a listening exercise, focussing on three questions: what do you value, what causes you pain and difficulty and how might the Church respond to present needs and concerns? It’s part of Pope Francis’ genius that he doesn’t want to limit these discussions to practising Catholics but has encouraged parishes to listen to those outside the Church, have left it or feel isolated and alienated from it. I was privileged enough to be part of two conversations with interfaith friends and consider these questions together.

It was heartening to hear that there was much they valued about the Church, not least Pope Francis himself whom they saw as an inspiration and someone who showed a real love for the whole of humanity. They appreciated his witness to the importance of good interfaith relations which has built bridges between communities and allowed them to move forward in friendship. The signing of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together by the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in 2019 was seen as significant. The annual letters of greetings from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue which are accompanied here in Scotland by a letter from the Scottish Bishops had helped strengthen and deepen good relations. These Scottish letters showed respect for and knowledge of the other faith as well as relating the festival to catholic belief and practice. The work of the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, such as our annual reception for faith communities, was mentioned as was the involvement of the Bishops’ Secretary for Interreligious Dialogue who for over thirty years has supported the development of interfaith at local and national level. If there had not been this involvement and participation, it was suggested, interfaith relations would not have developed in Scotland.

When it came to hearing about concerns and issues it was obvious that we were all facing similar problems. One of these was the decline in numbers attending places of worship and the number of young people who no longer found religion relevant, though there was also the phenomenon of some young people becoming more traditional and right wing – something that could be a good topic for dialogue. There was a recognition that all our faiths are facing the same moral issues and in one of the conversations homosexuality was mentioned. Our religions should not be judgemental about people’s life stances, it was suggested, and it is because of this many are walking away from religion. So too interfaith marriages are still not accepted. In the past Jewish parents considered children who married outside the faith as dead and catholic parents often refused to go to the weddings of their children who married outside the Church. The control clergy have over certain elements of religion – eg. admitting people to the sacraments, refusing blessings or whatever is a common concern as is the role of women though, interestingly, women tend to predominate in interfaith relations and in this case the concern is how to get men involved.

These attitudes needed to change as does ignorance of the faith of others. Older views of one another’s faith and the legacy of the past are a barrier to understanding and have led to it being taboo for some Jews to visit a church or even mention Jesus or a suspicion of visiting places of worship. and engaging in dialogue for fear of conversion. While interfaith friendships are expanding and have grown over the years there is still a lot of mistrust of the other and a fear of being converted or encouraged to do so. What is needed is more dialogue and friendship, particularly at a local and neighbourhood level. A Christmas card from the local church would be appreciated as would carol singing at Christmas and perhaps a card to recognize the festivals of the faiths in the neighbourhood and a visit to a local place of worship.  Even when a church is situated, for example, in an area with a large Jewish population, no mention is ever made of that in sermons or the life of the Church.

Many found it difficult to get local parish priests involved in interfaith events or respond to invitations. Clergy in all faiths need to be encouraged and told about the importance of interfaith relations and dialogue as these are important and necessary if communities are to be healthy. At present it tends to be the same faces at interfaith meetings, and this is a sign of weakness. How are we to encourage others – by having young people shadow experienced dialoguers, by good interreligious education? A grounding in world faiths should be given in faith education and clergy training. Too often the leaders and clergy in our faiths are inclined to be inward looking with no comments or statement on issues facing society and the community. This too should change.

There was a real sense of unity in the conversations and many of the concerns, as is obvious from this account, were shared by the different faiths. It was a valuable experience for all of us. We recognized one another, not just as friends but as citizens of the world and of Scotland. It was felt therefore that it is important that we are seen to be acting together for the common good, that we witness to friendships that extend beyond the boundaries of race and religion and hopefully contribute to peaceful co-existence among nations.

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