Dilatato Corde 7:2
July – December, 2017
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GROWING BY ATTRACTION

Simon Peter answered Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
 
Don’t proselytize; respect others’ beliefs.  We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating.  But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes: “I am talking with you in order to persuade you.”  No.  Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity.  The Church grows by attraction, not proselytizing (Pope Francis, Viva, El Clarin, 26 July 2015).
 
Is Pope Francis saying we’re not supposed to preach the Gospel to nonbelievers?  Not at all. Pope Francis has often called on the Church to be a missionary Church.  He has also said, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (Evangelii Gaudium, 49).
 
So what is the pope saying?  I believe he is saying that it is a matter of how we share and proclaim the Gospel.  And that “how” is not about a one-sided, arrogant relationship: “I have the truth, and you have nothing to offer me, so listen up!”  Rather, it is about mutuality.  It is about being neighborly.  Giving and receiving.  Loving God.  Loving neighbor—a practical love of neighbor.  But how?
 
A few months ago someone confronted me: “You call yourself a priest, and you’re trying to have a conversation with these people about their beliefs in God.  They’re all going to hell.  They have only evil to offer you.  You call yourself a priest!”  This exchange took place before a community meeting of local Christians and Muslims.  A Muslim woman and I were at the front door of a school, welcoming people as they came in.  Three panelists had been invited to speak about what it means to be a Christian and three to address what it means to be a Muslim in Saint Cloud, Minnesota.   They were not to speak in abstract theological terms, but to share their personal faith and to talk about real life issues. 
 
At the end of the meeting, I was pleased.  I thought it had been a very healthy, very helpful exchange.  But I was still agitated by the who told me that all Muslims were going to hell, adding that “They only have evil to offer you.  You call yourself a priest!”  I did tell him that this very meeting was approved by our bishop and, in fact, the bishop asked our dialogue group to organize similar gatherings in the future.  
 
For me, preaching the Gospel is helping my neighbor.  These neighbors are refugees trying to find a safe place to raise and educate their families.  Our dialogue group has a vision statement that says as much:
 
This particular Christian--Muslim interfaith dialogue group is responding to the large and fast influx of our sisters and brothers fleeing from Somalia and finding a new home in the Saint Cloud area.  Understandably, this has been a huge social change not only for our Somali sisters and brothers, but especially for the Saint Cloud metro area, which is now 10% Somali Muslims.  We realize that there is a great need to understand one another so as to facilitate the process of integration and deal healthily with the various social and religious conflicts.  We hope that a strong, vibrant, and peaceful community can be created.
 
Pope Francis’ assertion that “the Church grows by attraction” is simply another way of emphasizing the importance of how we treat our neighbor.  To be a true witness to Christ excludes any kind of concealed motive, any selfish afterthought that some personal benefit might result from my example of generosity and witness.  When I witness to another, even when I pray for or with another, I also receive and pray for a person, an individual, with his or her own joys, struggles, or stories.  Honor that! Each of us must be true to our own identity and yet also take the necessary risk of encountering our neighbor, which may change the identity we try to protect.  It’s risky.  It takes courage.  There may be ambiguity here.  But that’s where human growth and conversion—and even delight—begin.
           
Can dialogue and proclamation go together?  Can encountering the other and religious certainty go together?  Unfortunately, for many believers, faith and mystery have been replaced by a personal conviction of certainty.  “I’m right; you’re wrong.  Shut up.”  In these cases, there is no discourse.  There is no conversation.  There is not even the very necessary and challenging questions we need to ask one another.  There is just blame. 
 
Dialogue and proclamation can go together when I witness to my beliefs and my experience of God to my neighbor, in whose face I already see the face of God!  Matthew 25:35 states it plainly: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”
 
Thank God for food that enables these lines to be crossed!  About half way through the dialogue meeting mentioned above, we took a break and shared a meal together.  The Somali cafe in town had provided a feast of wonderful, spicy food, and many brought bars and cookies. (I found it ironic that the angry person seemed to have piled his plate the highest!)  Tension turned to laughter and hearty conversation.  Phone numbers were exchanged.  People conversed with one another—real people, not impersonal concepts!  I was given a brief and real vision of the heavenly banquet where all God’s people are invited and welcomed.
 
 
 
 
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