Pope Benedict's invitation to leaders of major world religions to join him for a day of prayer this fall in Assisi is yet another indication of his commitment to fostering interreligious dialogue and witness. This pope's efforts, as were those of Pope John Paul II before him, tell of a determined effort to ensure the much-touted "clash of civilizations" becomes less and less of a reality.
Interreligious cooperation is really the "Catholic" issue of our time. It may not seem a pressing issue at the local parish level. But how the Church and society will fare 50 or 100 years from now will depend in no small part on the fruitfulness of dialogue with other faiths.
In some quarters, there is a fear that any dialogue that does not aim at conversion is a betrayal of the Church's missionary mandate. There is fear that dialogue could lead to the Church compromising its fundamental belief that salvation is found only through Jesus Christ. This fear is unfounded.
The Second Vatican Council's taking up the issue of interfaith dialogue should be seen as providential. The council's contention that "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions" was not a mere sop tossed out to the "pagans."
Rather, interreligious dialogue has grown over the past 47 years, spurred on by both increased global immigration and the rise of aggressive secularism. Immigration has meant that Moslems, Sikhs and Hindus, for example, are not people living "over there." They are now, in many cases, our next-door neighbours.
Further, Pope Benedict spoke well when in 2005, he said, "The true contrariety which characterizes the world of today is not that among diverse religious cultures, but that between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on the one hand, and the great religious cultures on the other."
People of all faiths are now called upon to provide a counter-witness and counterforce to the radical secularism that denies not only the value, but also even the existence of the transcendent. Our dialogue is not an attempt to water down truth into a mushy pluralism. We seek, rather, a deeper understanding of truth. Our quest to someday speak some common truth to the wider world is a crucial step in showing that religious diversity means not war, but harmony.
The religions of the world must say with one voice that rationality is not limited to science and technology. It also includes poetry, philosophy, ethics and, above all, a belief in the transcendent.
Paradoxically, the day we can do that will be the day, not that we sell our Christian soul, but that we take a giant step forward in evangelizing a world that too often turns its back on religion. Interfaith dialogue is a path toward truth, peace and evangelization.