May 16, 2008

Archbishop Sambi’s reflections on the role of interfaith relations and dialogue in the life of the Church

(Transcript of an interview conducted by Sean Gallagher; read the rest of the interview here)

Q: In his meeting in Washington with representatives from various world religions, Pope Benedict praised how people of various faiths have built in the United States a tradition of living together in peace and trust.

Having served in nunciatures in places such as Indonesia, Israel and Palestine where the tension between people of different faiths sometimes spills over into violence, what do you think peoples in countries such as these can learn from the way people of different faiths co-exist peacefully in the United States?

A: I would like to start with ecumenical meetings … and dialogues between different Christian denominations.  I have still in my eyes the meeting in Jerusalem of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.  The pope [Pope John Paul II] kept in mind that, in Jerusalem, Jesus Christ established the Church.  And he wanted to keep in strongly one because the unity of the disciples of Jesus is like the credential letter for Jesus Christ to be accepted by the world as the Messiah, as the Son of the Father for the salvations of human beings.

‘Father, may they be one so the world will believe that you sent me.’  Unity among the disciples is a condition that the world will believe …

I would like to [recall] the splendid speech of John Paul II at the ecumenical meeting in Jerusalem, a few steps away from the upper room where the Church was born and received the Holy Spirit:

‘Unity is a necessity.  Diversity is legitimate.  Division is a scandal,’ among Christians.

Among the different religions, I was impressed by the idea of John Paul II that religion should acquire their independence from political instrumentalization and so be what they are: instruments of unity between the individual and God, between different peoples.

If religions don’t clarify their position of being an instrument of peace, they will be abandoned by future generations of youths.

To kill in the name of God is the greatest offense to God.

Q:  Even though there are lots of different religions existing side by side peacefully in the United States, there is still a bit of a tension here about the role of faith in public life and in the political sphere.  Some say it should have little or no role at all.  Others say it should directly influence how laws and public policies are crafted.  Is there anything you have gained in your experience in other countries where interreligious tensions have run high that gives you a valuable perspective on this tension in the United States?

A: Look, the pope expressed admiration of the separation between Church and state in the United States, but, at the same time, that religion, ethics and politics are equally accepted.  Separation does not mean opposition.  It does not even mean indifference.  It means respect for the values that religion and ethics can bring and must bring to politics.

Q: The pope also emphasized in his address at the interfaith meeting in Washington the importance of a search for truth and an open addressing of differences between peoples of different religions. It’s good to focus on commonalities, but we also need to address our differences at times.  Such things might sustain tensions in some people of faith.  So do you think that it would seem that tension, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing in dialogue?

A: Truth in the vision of Benedict XVI is fundamental.  The answer of the pope to Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?,’ would be that truth is God and truth reveals itself in the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

At the university, the pope praised academic freedom, but he said that academic freedom can become destructive if it is not submitted to truth and, finally, to God.

[If] the research of truth [is] a common aspiration for different religions, we would find each other having truths—not personal interests, but truths. We would find each other much more near to one another than we think.

Q: Speaking both on a basic theological level and from your experience in ministering a wide variety of countries, what would you say is an important thing for Catholics in the United States to remember about their faith that makes good interfaith and ecumenical relations and dialogue an important part of the life of the Church?

A: That faith is a gift of which we should be grateful.

When you think that you are the owner of faith, you can become arrogant and offensive toward the other.  But if you have the right vision, then faith is a gift and you’ll never be offensive to the other.  You will be grateful toward God.  And you will be delicately anxious to pass on this gift to the other and to never to offend the other.

Pope John Paul II, of whom I was the representative for more than 20 years—and I can assure you that to work with him was much, much more than work; it was to communicate a spirit.  He said this phrase, ‘Never impose. Always propose, [and] you’ll be convincing to the other.’

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