The Word of God: Ecumenical, Inter-religious, and Cultural Dialogue
by Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min.
At the opening of our adult Bible study session, I usually ask individuals in the group to share their earliest memories of the Bible.
At the opening of our adult Bible study session, I usually ask individuals in the group to share their earliest memories of the Bible. Nine out of ten times, participants recall their family Bible as a sacred book containing the names and dates of sacramental moments in the family. Seldom do people comment that the family Bible was opened for reading, reflection, and prayer. As a matter of fact, it was perceived that reading the Bible was a Protestant—not Catholic—activity. Yes, we listened to the Scriptures being read during the liturgy but it stopped there. Does this sound familiar?
In 1943, Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Divine Spirit”) paved the way for biblical renewal within the Church. Primarily Catholic biblical scholars embraced the new biblical renewal period. The Second Vatican Council created a new threshold for the Scriptures; however, adult faith formation had not taken hold within our parishes to implement the recommendations found in Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation).
The most significant change emerged in catechetical materials that wove Scripture into elementary and secondary textbooks reflected in lesson plans. Each lesson was to reflect a dimension of doctrine, Scripture, liturgy, and witness. Identifying a biblical passage that could connect with the doctrinal theme was the primary focus for incorporating the Scriptures.
The emergence of vacation Bible school programs animated more biblical enthusiasm as creative activities, exercises, and skits breathed life into the biblical stories. While some VBS may have established a more solid biblical curriculum that transcended a superficial collage of biblical understanding and appreciation, the VBS was a fun program to keep children entertained during the summer months.
This being said, there may have been exceptions to the rule. I loved my VBS! I taught for years in the VBS. Yet, I am not sure to what extent I matured in depth with my biblical knowledge that would enable me to engage in dialogue with other religious traditions from a Catholic biblical context.
The Struggle with Biblical Illiteracy
The Catholic market place gradually incorporated Scripture study programs with a plethora of self-study materials, popular approaches to the Bible, and the vast assortment of Catholic biblical scholarly publications. We seemed well on our way.
In spite of it all, however, surveys show that Catholics still struggle with biblical illiteracy—and this reality has not gone unnoticed by Pope Benedict XVI. He called for the 2008 Synod of Bishops General Assembly to animate Catholic biblical consciousness, study, and integration into the life of the Church. The synod bishops focused their attention on a prepared working document called an Instrumentum Laboris entitled “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” (vatican.va). We frequently reference this document in this current series.
“The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” outlines the expectations and desired outcomes of the synod. Four of the eleven expectations connect with this series, and the last point particularly has influenced this article:
* The Word of God needs to be given greater priority in the life and mission of the Church.
* The Bible needs to be seen as the Word of God who continues to reveal.
* The laity urgently need to be aware that they are not passive subjects in relation to the Word or God.
* The Word seeks a dialogue within the Church, with Christian communities, with other religions, and even with culture—always mindful of the many seeds of truth that God’s providence has placed in them.
The Importance of Dialogue
Dialogue is a way of encountering and understanding oneself and the world at the deepest level, opening up possibilities of grasping the fundamental meaning of life (individually and collectively) and its various dimensions. This in turn transforms the way we deal with ourselves, others, and the world. Indeed, the word dialogue, in theory, most appropriately describes the nature of a meeting of minds. Dialogue is not the only way that individuals or groups interact—but dialogue is indispensible for inner peace and peace in the world.
Over the years the Church has produced copious documents that call for authentic inter-religious dialogue. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (Paths of the Church, 1964) articulated the characteristics of dialogue: 1) clarity: what is explained must be intelligible; 2) we must lead dialogue in the spirit of Christ, which is meekness; 3) trust is necessary in both partners of dialogue; 4) prudence takes into account the moral and psychological circumstances of the conversation partner.
The Nature of Dialogue
Dialogue draws life from friendly relations and service. Genuine dialogue aims at listening and learning from each of the conversation partners. Obviously, we need not adopt an uncritical attitude in relation to other religions. But we can open ourselves to their spiritual and moral values and join them in defending religious liberty, social welfare, and peace. Therefore, when the synod bishops call us to cultivate the principles of dialogue, they believe that a thorough, well-grounded, and lifelong program of biblical studies can enable us to enter into genuine dialogue with women and men of other traditions.
Indeed, this is no small task. It is far too simple for Catholics to fall into the trap of biblical fundamentalism which the synod bishops saw as dangerous today: “This kind of interpretation is winning more and more adherents…even among Catholics” (“The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” n. 29). The bishops encourage us to become more mature in authentic biblical comprehension, grounding ourselves in the breadth and depth of biblical studies. Only then are we prepared for serious conversations that set the stage for quality inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue.
Paul: A Role Model of Dialogue
I believe that Paul is a good example of the importance of inter-religious dialogue. The first Christian communities flowed from his ability to dialogue with diverse peoples and religious traditions. Paul articulated his biblical and theological knowledge as he talked and wrote to both the Jewish and Gentile communities. As he conversed in community and with his adversaries, he could find the focal points of thought. He positioned himself in major gathering spaces—the market place of a city or town, synagogues, or temple thresholds—to capture the attention and imagination of the local culture.
Paul was familiar with a community’s primary texts, and he used them as the bases for dialogue. His ability to move freely between the Jewish and Hellenistic cultures ideally equipped him to take a gospel that was fundamentally Jewish and translate it into understandable language for the Gentiles.
Paul’s letters demonstrated the wisdom of a great communicator. They were the means for keeping in touch with communities he held with deep affection, as well as the foundation for inter-religious dialogue. An excellent biblical exercise is to read and reflect on Paul’s letters, capturing the sense and spirit of the inter-religious dialogic operating within the passages.
The Religious Contexts for Dialogue
The dialogue between Christians and people of other living faiths is, in certain respects, the most challenging and most important frontier in the Church’s dialogue. It is most challenging because the differences between religious traditions are so basic and they influence personal and social identity and behavior in untold ways. It is most important because inter-religious relationships have been marked by hostility (see Practices of Dialogue in the Roman Catholic Church: Aims and Obstacles, Lessons and Laments, Bradford Hinze, Continuum International Publishing Group).
The opportunity to cultivate inter-religious dialogue rooted in the Scriptures is not only for ideological and biblical comparison; it also enables a true encounter between those spiritual insights and experiences that are found only at the deepest levels of human life. Of all the documents from the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) is held as the keystone for confirming movement toward meaningful dialogue.
The synod bishops affirmed that the faith that unites us and the differences in interpreting the same Word are an invitation to rediscover together the reasons responsible for divisions. At the same time, progress made in ecumenical dialogue with the Word of God can undoubtedly lead to other benefits. According to the Second Vatican Council, “this change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christens, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement” (Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree on Ecumenism, n. 8). According to the Pope Benedict XVI: “Listening to the Word of God is a priority for our ecumenical commitment. Indeed, it is not we who act or who organize the unity of the Church. The Church does not make herself or live of herself, but from the creative Word that comes from the mouth of God” (“The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” n. 27).
The Impact for Catechesis
Every media outlet carries religious stories that have an impact on our awareness of the shrinking global village. We are coming face to face with Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and other forms of religious expressions woven into our political, social, and economic realities. Whether we are conscious of them or not, they have an impact on our religious perspective with regard to how we define the religious tradition in question and our interpretation and response to them. All too often our ignorance can substitute “caricatures and stereotypes for inaccurate information” (National Directory for Catechesis, n. 51D). We cannot escape the encounter, the challenges, and the opportunities these events open to us. However, we need to be well prepared to engage in the dialogue without falling prey to syncretism, superficial approaches, or distortion of the truth.
The National Directory for Catechesis (NDC) states that catechesis “should aim to form a genuine ecumenical attitude in those being catechized, to foster ecumenism” (51B). The NDC refers to the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism, identifying some key elements in ecumenical formation of catechists: 1) careful study of Sacred Scripture and the Church’s living Tradition; 2) familiarity with the biblical foundations of ecumenism; 3) familiarity with Catholic principles of ecumenism; 4) knowledge of the history of ecumenism; 5) training in ecumenical collaboration and dialogue; 6) participation in visits to other churches, informal exchanges, joint study days, and common payer; 7) experience in ecumenical collaboration and dialogue; and 8) familiarity with fundamental ecumenical issues (NDC, n. 51C).
“…[M]any Christians do not have a fundamental understanding of the history and traditions of Judaism” (NDC, n. 51D). Therefore our catechesis must prepare our students for objectivity as well as understanding and dialogue. In referencing God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching, the NDC encourages catechists to: 1) affirm the value of the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and recognize the special meaning of the Old Testament for the Jewish people, its original audience; 2) show both the independence and the interconnectedness of the Old and the New Testament; 3) emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and his teachings; and 4) respect the continuing existence of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and their faithful response, despite centuries of suffering, to God’s call (n. 51D).
Preparing for the Encounter
The objective of this article is simply to set the stage for awakening catechists to the importance of a solid biblical foundation for effectively entering into a meaningful inter-religious or ecumenical dialogue, or for designing catechetical experiences to prepare their students for the encounter. Just as Jesus Christ touches the human heart through dialogue, so too, Christian disciples, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, should pursue sincere and patient dialogue with people of differing religious beliefs or traditions.
Our Holy Father has frequently pointed out the need to educate the people in reading and mediating on the Word of God as spiritual food, “so that, through their own experience, the faithful will see that the words of Jesus are spirit and life” (see John 6:63). Practices of genuine dialogue in families, with friends, and in religious communities, states Hinze, play a crucial role in the lifelong process of discerning and making decisions about one’s identity and mission. One comes to know and become oneself in and through dialogue.
By establishing a solid biblical foundation within in the lives of students, catechists set the stage for empowering them to love the Scriptures and discover within them the seeds for worthwhile ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. Catechists are called to cultivate their catechetical commitment and the whole of their lives rooted in the Scriptures; thus, they are prepared to dialogue, effectively and compassionately, with other religious traditions in the search for nurturing a culture of peace, justice, and love.
Cardinal Walter Kasper is one of the most significant ecumenical leaders in the Catholic Church. His writings have been the benchmark for those seriously interested in advancing dialogue with diverse religious traditions and cultures. We close with his prophetic insight:
“I am convinced that one day the gift of unity will take us by surprise just like an event we witnessed on a day already more than ten years ago now. If you had asked passers-by in West Berlin on the morning of 9 November 1989, ‘How much longer do you think the wall will remain standing?’, the majority would surely have replied, ‘We would be happy if our grandchildren pass through the Brandenburg Gate one day.’ On the evening of that memorable day the world witnessed something totally unexpected in Berlin. It is my firm conviction that one day too we will rub our eyes in amazement that God’s Spirit has broken through the seemingly insurmountable walls that divide us and given us new ways through to each other and to a new full communion” (“Reflections by Card. Walter Kasper: Nature and Purpose of Ecumenical Dialogue”).
Sr. Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min., is the Director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives and professor in the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Dayton, Dayton, OH (a Catholic/Marianist University). She is also a member of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart (Towson, MD).
Over the years the Church has produced copious documents that call for authentic inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue. Dialogue is not chatting with one another. Authentic dialogue, states Sr. Zukowski, calls for depth listening—paying attention to the language, expression, and context of the conversation in order to avoid prejudice and stereotyping of the individual or group. Catechists are called to cultivate their catechetical commitment and the whole of their lives rooted in the Scriptures. Thus they are prepared to dialogue effectively and compassionately with other religious traditions and model for their students the appropriate dialogic skills.
1. What experience have I had with vacation Bible schools? What impact did it have for depth biblical understanding?
2. How would I evaluate the four of eleven expectations of the synod of bishops regarding the importance of Scripture in my life?
3. How would I describe dialogue? Is there a difference between dialogue, discussion, and debate? What has been my experience of all three?
4. How could I apply to my life the characteristics of dialogue described by Pope Paul VI?
5. How can St. Paul be a model for dialogue in the Church?
6. What impact does contemporary media have on my understanding or appreciation of other religious traditions?
7. How can the objectives listed in the NDC (nos. 50 and 51) influence my catechetical ministry?
8. What impact do the words of Cardinal Kasper have on me?
1. Contact local parishes that conduct vacation Bible schools. Discuss with them their methodology and desired outcomes for deepening children’s knowledge of the Scriptures.
2. Explore the internet to identify Catholic biblical study programs. What appear to be their strengths and weaknesses?
3. Design a simple survey to determine the biblical literacy of your students.
4. Engage in an inter-religious or ecumenical dialogue event. What do you need to do to be prepared for the experience?
5. Contact your diocesan ecumenical inter-religious office and see what services are available to you or your catechetical program.
6. Read one of the Church documents referenced in this article. What new insights can have an impact on your catechetical lesson planning?
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