By Anthony Cirelli
In a November address to the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Pope Francis asserted provocatively that “evangelization and interreligious dialogue are not mutually exclusive, but rather they serve to nourish one another.” What does he mean by this? Doesn’t evangelization entail basically “bringing” Christ to, and hence making converts of, all peoples and nations? Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, yes. Christians are mandated to bring Christ to the world, that is to say, we are mandated to spread the Gospel message by teaching and bearing witness to our Christian faith, which is the good and saving news of Jesus Christ. Thus it is a moment of joy when the message, or better, the person of Christ is received and conversion takes place. On the other hand, no, evangelization cannot be reduced to “making converts.” Enter the pope.
By linking evangelization with interreligious dialogue, the pope suggests that we focus our evangelization on being joyful recipients of the Gospel message by the witness of our lives. And, the pope teaches, witnessing in a spirit of joy has a two-fold effect.
On the one hand, we present our faith in an attractive way, so that it invites rather than compels others to see and experience the joy and hope that have always been a central characteristic of authentic Christian discipleship.
On the other hand, part of our joy comes precisely in living a life that is without the fear of encountering others, of going out to meet people of different faiths and traditions, of leaving our comfort to forge ties of friendship with the non-Christians of the world. With this last point, the Pope makes a powerful statement that shows the logic of linking evangelization and interreligious dialogue in terms of fearlessness: we are called to rise above our fear of witnessing with joy to the Gospel by our lives (i.e., evangelization), and we are also called to bring this joy to others, especially to non-Christians, in a spirit of friendship (i.e., interreligious dialogue).
To the pope, this two-fold commitment to evangelization and interreligious dialogue does not entail “compromising one’s deepest convictions,” but rather being, and here’s the point, “clear and joyful in one’s own identity.” This enables one to encounter someone different from ourselves “in a spirit of fraternity, of enrichment, and of witness.” And, above all, we need not be afraid of this commitment, as the pope asserts:
Indeed, situations in the world where coexistence is difficult are not lacking: often political or economic motives overlap with cultural and religious differences, which also play upon misunderstandings and mistakes of the past: this is all likely to generate suspicion and fear. There is only one road for conquering this fear and it is dialogue and encounter marked by friendship and respect. When we take this path it is a human one. Dialogue does not mean renouncing one’s own identity when it goes against another’s, nor does it mean compromising Christian faith and morals. To the contrary, “true openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity” the pope said, and therefore open to understanding the religion of another.
Note: The text of Pope Francis’ address can be found at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/speeches/2013/november/documents/papa-francesco_20131128_pc-dialogo-interreligioso_en.html
Anthony Cirelli is USCCB Associate Director for Interreligious affairs Dr. Anthony Cirelli.