Benedict XVI and Catholic-Muslim Relations

Interview With Interreligious Dialogue Consultor

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ROME, SEPT. 16, 2005 ( The new consultor for relations with Muslims of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue says that Benedict XVI is more interested in dialoguing with people than with systems.

Father Daniel Madigan, president of the Institute for Culture and Religions of the Gregorian University in Rome, was recently appointed to his post by the current Pope, and spoke with ZENIT on the Holy Father’s attitude toward the possibility of meeting with Muslims.

Q: Is Benedict XVI following Pope John Paul II’s approach with Muslims, or is he following a different approach?

Father Madigan: It is too soon to sum up the overall approach of the new Pontiff to Muslims, and to compare it with the long years of work in this field done by Pope John Paul II. For me some points of his talk to Muslim representatives in Cologne show something of his style.

The Holy Father several times calls his listeners «dear and esteemed Muslim friends,» and I understand that the repeated use of those words was not in his original text given to journalists, but that they reflect his spontaneous words on the occasion.

That to me is an important sign of the tone he wishes the Church to take. It is not new, but it needs to be underlined in these years when things have become so much more polarized between us.

Furthermore, he reaffirmed the Vatican Council II document «Nostra Aetate,» saying that it is the Magna Carta of dialogue. This is significant at a time when some people are trying to call into question the authority of the council’s positions expressed in that document.

The Holy Father never speaks in that address of «Islam," though he speaks twice of the Islamic faith. This is important because we are inclined to speak of Islam as though it is a single thing. We are overwhelmed by it, because it seems so big.

Yet Benedict XVI points the way by insisting repeatedly (as did the council) on speaking about people, not about systems, about Muslims, not about Islam.

People are sometimes skeptical about the possibility of dialogue; at least one reason for that is that they have lost sight of the actual believers, their neighbors and co-workers, their fellow citizens, and they imagine that dialogue is about dealing with ancient texts and historical doctrines. Only people can dialogue.

The meeting in Cologne showed another important facet of this dialogue — the Holy Father had no hesitation in speaking honestly about his serious concerns. He did not avoid the obvious truth about the deteriorating situation of our world, nor did he simply blame his «esteemed friends.»

Rather, he proposed to work together with them to find a way out. He took them seriously as believers — indeed, he underlined that «all of us, as Christians and Muslims, are believers» — and spoke to them honestly out of his own faith and appealing to theirs.

Q: The Pope never speaks of clash but of encounter and alliance of civilization.. Do the Muslims with whom you dialogue always think like this?

Father Madigan: It is noteworthy how absent from his talk is all the language of combat, fighting, struggling, war. He is not simply an easy optimist, but he seems to realize that all that talk of the clash of civilizations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

«Civilization» is another one of those large abstract ideas that tends to obscure the actual people with whom we deal. People talk about an Islamic civilization, but from the way they describe it, almost none of the Muslims I know belong to it. I deal a lot with Muslims from different countries and walks of life, and they are an extremely varied group of people.

I am fortunate in having daily contact over the last five years with a wonderful group of Muslim students who have come to Rome to study Christianity in order to promote dialogue and understanding. They certainly have not lost hope in dialogue.

An important part of their experience is to get beyond all the talk about «the West» and «Christianity,» and to live and work alongside actual Christians — again, it’s people that are the key, not systems.

Q: You are a specialist in Islam and know the texts very well but also so many people. Where do you see the greatest possibilities for dialogue and where are the most serious points of disagreement?

Father Madigan: I enjoy very much the theological dialogue that we have here in the university. However, I am not convinced that the differences between us are really about theology. With patience and hard work we can come to a clearer understanding of each other’s different ways of believing in the one God.

What is more difficult, though, is to get at the root of the anger, the resentment and the sense of alienation that so many Muslims (and not only Muslims) experience and that are increasingly exploited to fuel violent reactions from a few.

So many elements enter into the mix which makes our world what it currently is: politics, economics, nationalism, globalization, debt, tribalism, just to name a few. These elements have all to be understood if we hope to change our world.

I see the greatest possibility for dialogue at that level of human experience where we find a desire for a better world. That is where we really meet each other: at that point where our longing for a more just world and fuller life for all resonates with the spirit of God who seeks to «renew the face of the earth.»

That may sound very grand and perhaps utopian, but we know from Jesus’ parables that the kingdom of God is like a tiny seed or a tender shoot, not a world-shattering system.

It is in the small encounters that God’s way shows itself, in the smile, the welcome, the helping hand, the kind word, the small service. These are things common to all of us, and so all of us have a role in the dialogue.

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