The Franciscan Approach to Dialogue:
The Church and Order prepares for the 25th anniversary of the historic “Assisi Event” when Pope John Paul gathered the leaders of the world’s religions to pray for peace. A friar who leads “the service of dialogue” for the Order shares some reflections on the Franciscan approach.
Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means (cf. Declaration of the II Vatican Council “Dignitatis Humane”, 1, 3). This truth, the Declaration continues, must be sought through various means, including the exchange and dialogue between people of good will.
By offering the day of meeting and prayer in Assisi on 27 October, 1986, Blessed Pope John Paul II made a gesture that was both prophetic and courageous. The two go together. Prophetic, because it is fully in the spirit of Vatican II, and courageous, because in doing so, he exposed himself to the criticism of many. Indeed, there are many who will not hesitate to criticize this initiative by holding the spectra of syncretism, equality of religions, or, as Archbishop Lefebvre did, who publicly protested against the so called, “abominable Congress of Religions” or “the imposture of Assisi”.
Soon after, before the Diplomatic Corps, Pope John Paul II commented on the event as well, stating that “He who sincerely prays to God, as we tried to do in Assisi, contemplates the harmonious will of God the Creator, the love that is God, and the ideal of peace among men – this ideal which St. Francis embodied in an incomparable fashion.”
The Service of Dialogue
For us, Franciscans, this incentive is more than clear. As early as 1982, the Association organizes a conference on Islam in Assisi, from which the Commission for Dialogue with Islam will be born in 1983. From 1991 to 1997, with the encouragement of the-then Minister General, Br Hermann Schalück, OFM, various meetings were held with the Orthodox Churches. Gradually, the Service of Dialogue took shape under its three dimensions: ecumenical, interreligious, and intercultural. Thus, the OFM Service for Dialogue was officially established on May 13, 1996.
The General Chapter of 2009 requests that in all the Entities of the Order the Service for Dialogue work…to pro¬mote ecumenical, inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue as a fun¬damental aspect of our life and our evangelizing mission (cf. Mandate 28).
The choice of the city of Assisi by Bl. John Paul II 25 years ago is not by chance. It is the city of St Francis! It’s he, indeed, Francis, who invites us to dialogue with all men. Already, in his time, conflicts existed among the Christians (the Cathars and Albigenses) and, because of the Crusades, a violent relationship with Islam continued in the East.
His meeting with the Sultan of Egypt, Al-Malik al-Kamil, is well known (see “Major Life” by St. Bonaventure 9, 8). It is interesting that the first wish of Francis, as he embarked for the East, was to proclaim the Gospel to the Sultan while accepting the risk of martyrdom (cf. 9, 7). Faced with the unfolding of events, Francis was led to change his attitude. Because there was no way to convert the Sultan, he changed his opinion of him and saw in him another believer instead! This was not the official attitude of the Church of his day. Francis did not have a crusading spirit, but what he originally did have was the thirst for martyrdom. Yet, this desire was not realized! It should be noted with fairness, as Brother Gwénolé Jeusset said in his book, “Saint Francis and the Sultan”, that Francis wanted above all two things: to suffer and love like Jesus. If he didn’t manage to shed his blood for Christ, at least he wants to love the Muslims for them because Christ also shed his blood for them! That’s the difference between Francis and the first brothers who departed for Morocco. To suffer for Christ, yes, but not at the expense of contempt and insult!
For the brothers and sisters of St. Francis, the only possible attitude according to the Gospel is not rejection or condemnation – things that happened in the past – but dialogue. Dialogue is a dominant trait, in my opinion, of the Christian and Franciscan attitude. I would like very much to affirm that in order to “dialogue” with a different belief, it is important that I personally always deepen my own faith!
Brothers in Relationships
Following the example of Francis, Dialogue entails employing one’s whole being in this task, listening, and speaking kindly to accept the other, whoever he may be, and welcome him as he is in himself with his convictions and actions, and calling for reciprocity.
In short, we are called to become “brothers in relationship.” In the current global context, this means a lot (mixture of peoples, religions, welcoming the immigrant, those without papers, etc.). It also means overcoming tendencies to exclude the other – which still goes on – including within the Franciscan family among the clergy-laity, men and women, etc.).
Ecumenical, interreligious and intercultural dialogue is not necessarily easy. Let’s not be naive! Faced with religious persecution (it is said that Christians are the largest group being persecuted in the world) and fanatical intolerance, many of us do not want to believe in dialogue. Building a relationship is difficult. To agree to know better those who are different from me is a delicate process; it requires courage to acknowledge ones fear and prejudices. Dialogue requires conditions for each of us. For example, am I willing to listen to others, to accept and respect his position, ignoring everything I know or understand? Am I sincere in my approach? Do I really want to meet and know the other for who he is? Am I, also, willing to give of myself, to talk about my experience as a believer, to give reason and share the contents of my faith? Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and dialogue with other cultures are never done. It is a school of patience, humility, insight, faithfulness, and determination.
The upcoming 25th anniversary of the Assisi meeting on 27 October in the city of St. Francis in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI and religious leaders, reminds us that we are all invited to take part in this dialogue, either by personally coming together or by taking part more formally in gatherings according to the “Spirit of Assisi”, organized, hopefully, in our Provinces of the Order. An anniversary like this is important. There is still much work to do in this area – if it is open to sincere and lasting relationships among believers, so that, we, Christians, with all others continue together steadily on the path that leads towards all truth, peace and reconciliation.
We also know that “dialogue with religions and cultures draws its inner strength, its note, and its Franciscan dynamics from communal and personal encounter with the Gospel.” It also draws from “the Eucharist and from the ability to live a fraternal experience at the local and universal level.” It draws still from “the careful reading of the signs of the times in light of the Gospel and from the willingness to translate the life and gestures of our brother St. Francis into our attitude and actions. Only then will we become a people of dialogue.
Roger Marchal, OFM
President for the Service of Dialogue