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Roberto Catalano

Focolari Movement, Italy

It is always a great pleasure to be part of these meetings organized by the  friends of Sant’Egidio. They offer, in fact, the great opportunity of meeting each other and deepening our mutual acquaintance, shedding stereotypes which today media constantly build, magnifying the differences and creating tensions even where they never existed. It is part of a strategy of a clash of civilizations while here we can experience a meeting and an encounter of people belonging to different cultures and religions.
A second reason for expressing my gratitude is the invitation to be part of this panel. What I appreciated is the title proposed, which for once is not a statement but a question mark. Recently another ecclesial community invited me to offer some reflections on interreligious dialogue, during their summer holidays on the Dolomites. I thought of starting my consideration with the same question, probably worded in a slightly different way: dialogue: is that a possibility? I think that it is worth reflecting on this topic in order to find answers which can be satisfactory and sustainable especially in the present panorama. We cannot ignore that recent developments in the Middle East and in Africa and the growing waves of immigrants and displaced people pressing on the borders of several European countries cause major worries. All this asks for solutions based on decisions which, often, have to be taken quickly and among a mixture of sentiments which are usually provoked by different kinds of fear. But it is on the value of a question which I would like to insist, as a European and as a Catholic.
Allow me to share a personal experience which could be close to the one lived by others here in Europe in recent months. Last January Europe lived one of the most unexpected and challenging moments of its life after World War II. Two brothers turned terrorists attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo Magazine, known for its satirical comics which targeted also religious symbols and beliefs - Christianity, Islam and also Judaism were often in the focus of this publication. The assault resulted in the killing of twelve staff members of the satiric journal and of one policeman. Almost simultaneously a solitary terrorist attacked a Jewish kosher market killing four customers, after having gunned down a policeman a day earlier. The bloodshed created in France but also all over Western Europe a mounting tension and a wave of fear and a mass reaction against Islam and its followers. The violent death of comic artists, who have been in the target of some Islamists for having offended the religious feelings of Muslims by depicting the Prophet in a shameful manner, provoked a spontaneous mass rally which thronged the roads and squares of Paris, centred around Place de la République. The main purpose was the one of claiming the right to freedom of writing, of thinking and of satire. A forest of pens shown by thousands of people and thousand of banners carrying the script ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ were the main symbols of the French lay reaction to sectarian and violent religious fundamentalism.

The point of my reflection is not the one of discussing the events of Paris and not even the right for freedom of expression which people seemed to avenge against the terrorists attack. This violent act, in fact, was perceived as a threat to freedom, considered the highest value by Western society. The reason why I decided to start my presentation bringing those events back to memory is connected to the fact that they made me think and reflect on a simple and yet, according to me, crucial point: why for several days none in France and in the Western world questioned himself/herself on the real causes of the two cruel acts? The images of Place de la République, filled to capacity with political leaders of several opposite parties and authorities and statesmen from different countries, marching hand in hand, much to the strong feelings it created, could not erase a thought which kept coming up to my mind: are we still capable of questioning ourselves? I found myself deeply confused and puzzled by a Western world which had made freedom almost a religion without any taboo. Even more, I felt that millions of Europeans were reduced to a mass by the standard definition “I am Charlie Hebdo”. Personally, I never felt that I was Hebdo. Likewise felt many people whom I met in those days. But it seemed difficult, almost impossible, to react. The great fear which I started perceiving was the evidence of a Western world which had created an ideology. The Paris events have brought the evidence that laicité had become laicism, and, as such, as exclusivist as those religions it wished to limit or delimit.

All this seems to convey an alarming message. The Western-European world had lost its very roots. The capability of doubting, which represented the starting point from where one of his fathers, Socrates, had built his thought, had vanished. Socrates’ habit of asking questions to people, due to his awareness of knowing that he did not know, was missing. I felt in me the terror of belonging to a civilisation and a culture which claims to carry only answers, having no doubts. All this would surely prevent from the possibility of dialoguing. I realised how much we run the risk of being fundamentalists, we Europeans and Christians who demonise others whom we identify with this evil of fundamentalism. Still, if we could appreciate them, we have precious roots for knowing how to dialogue, at the cultural and religious level.

I found myself reflecting on Socrates. He never claimed of having something to teach to his interlocutor and, in fact, whoever is in front of him, at least apparently, does not learn anything. Socrates has only one conviction: to know that he does not know. Plato in the Apology put words on his mouth which are soul searching for every man or woman who hears them or reads about them: “I do not believe I know what I do not know” (Plato, Socrates’ Apology, 21d 5).  On this basis, Socrates invites those who are in front of him to search their conscience in a inner and profound exercise. It is a matter of truly ‘knowing yourself’. This means to know how much you do not know. Ultimately, one has to agree that he or she is far from being wise. The dialogue in Socrates’ life and in Plato’s works appears as an ascetic commitment, which made history and opened a new way for philosophy as a true spiritual exercise. Socratic dialogue implies to respect the right of the other person to express his or her views; to acknowledge the evidence of the interlocutor’s position and, finally, to recognise the presence of the logos, who is above the two or more who are engaged in dialoguing.  Socrates is a master of the art of dialoguing. The Socratic dialogue is a dialectic and spiritual exercises which lead the interlocutor to a inner conversion towards a faith in the Truth which is the real object of the research. All this explains why dialogue has been defined by a French philosopher as a ‘spiritual itinerary towards the Divine’.

This makes me reflect as a Christian too. For more than thousand years we Christians, especially we Catholics, lived with the certainty of having the monopoly of the Truth to the points that we thought there was no way for the others to be saved. It was the extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which was considered as a dogma, though it was never proclaimed as one. This was another obstacle to dialogue, a sort of violence and of force imposed on others who were considered to be out of reach of the Truth. Benedict XVI, especially towards the end of his pontificate, on several occasions went back to points which in the past have been rather controversial because of the attitude and the role of Christians. 

In Assisi in 2011 he acknowledged

… force used by the defenders of one religion against others … is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction. … As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. 

A few weeks before resigning from the papacy he authoritatively admitted
To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. True, dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at better mutual understanding … drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth.

As a Christian and as an European, I found proposals to the challenges I spoke earlier in the recent teaching of Pope Francis.

First of all, Bergoglio often speaks of the incomplete thinking.  The awareness that no thought and no culture can be complete in itself and self-sufficient helps us to remain open and ready to commit to empathy. He, further, explains this with the word empathy which he used in Asia, while addressing the bishops of the continent in Seoul in August 2014.

... authentic dialogue also demands a capacity for empathy. For dialogue to take place, there has to be this empathy. We are challenged to listen not only to the words which others speak, but to the unspoken communication of their experiences, their hopes and aspirations, their struggles and their deepest concerns. ... In this sense, dialogue demands of us a truly contemplative spirit of openness and receptivity to the other. I cannot engage in dialogue if I am closed to others. Openness? Even more: acceptance! Come to my house, enter my heart. My heart welcomes you. It wants to hear you. This capacity for empathy enables a true human dialogue in which words, ideas and questions arise from an experience of fraternity and shared humanity.

This openness toward the other rooted on the awareness that I cannot be complete as an individual and not even with my own community, leads to the conviction that dialogue is possible if we walk together.

Dialogue is a pilgrimage. This is an image which was probably coined by John Paul II, during his trip to India in 1986, but effectively applied a few months later to the Assisi prayer for peace, which represented an icon of the experience of interfaith dialogue. Benedict XVI used it again in 2011, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the event promoted by his predecessor. Pope Francis often speaks of walking together.

Life is a journey, a long journey, but a journey which we cannot make by ourselves. We need to walk together with our brothers and sisters in the presence of God. So I thank you for this gesture of walking together in the presence of God: that is what God asked of Abraham. We are brothers and sisters. Let us acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters, and walk together. (Pope Francis, 2014)

The commitment of walking together greatly favours a culture of meeting each other, an expression which is often repeated by the present pope. Addressing a message to an international conference of religious leaders organised by Sant’Egidio Community in 2013, Pope Francis wrote: “Let us dialogue and meet each other in order to establish a culture of dialogue in the world, a culture of encounter”. (Pope Francis, 2013) Already, a few days after his election, on the occasion of his first meeting with brothers and sisters of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities and of other religions, Pope Francis underlined the centrality of a dialogue of friendship.

the Catholic Church is conscious of the importance of promoting friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions – I want to repeat this: promoting friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions. … We must go out to meet them, and with our faith we must create a “culture of encounter”, a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters... 
All this requires what Pope Francis defines as a “a persistent, patient, strong, intelligent dialogue by which nothing is lost”. This commitment to dialogue pursued by members and groups of these movements, in the span of years, helped to form closely knitted relationship, which gave life to a contagious friendship, creating a platform on which solutions can be sought together.
In the end, again in the words of Pope Francis and of Benedict XVI, dialogue is a duty. In his apostolic letter, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis, affirmed that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities”.  (EG 250)

In conclusion, I find crucial the necessity of questioning ourselves – personally and as groups and communities – on dialogue as a sustainable possibility. Pope Francis, and Benedict XVI before him, are inequivocable about it: dialogue is not a possibility but a duty which engages us as persons and as communities. But dialogue has its own pre-requisites in order to be lived and to be implemented. Here the other, the others play a decisive role. I – we need them to walk together on the same path and in order to realize fully that we are all searching for the fullness of the Truth.

And I would like to conclude with the word of one of the pioneers and prophets of dialogue of last century and beginning of this millennium: Chiara Lubich. She was asked once what to answer to people who claim that dialogue is not possible. She was clear about the condition. “Dialogue is possible only if we love. For those who do not know love dialogue is impossible”.