VOLUME IX, Number 2
July - December 2019
Harold Kasimow & Alan Race, eds.
Religious Thinkers Engage with Recent Papal Initiatives

Pope Francis practices dialogue. Through dialogue he follows up on his mercy-ing agenda. His motto, Miserando atque Eligendo, and his invented word, misericordiando, invite us to encounter the other with profound listening and a readiness to welcome and receive. Pope Francis has found his voice; it is fitting that scholars take him seriously.
This book is part of the series Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue edited by G. Mannion and M. D. Chapman. Gathering together a richly diverse array of voices in monographs and edited collections that speak to the challenges, aspirations and elements of ecumenical and interfaith conversation, the series explores new approaches, means, and methods of advancing the wider ecumenical cause with renewed energy for the twenty-first century.
A previous volume in this series dealt with Pope John Paul II and interreligious dialogue. Its editors, one of whom was Harold Kasimow, the co-editor of this volume, invited scholars from three traditions, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, to reflect on the dialogical theology of John Paul II. In this book devoted to Pope Francis and interreligious dialogue, the range of reflection has broadened to include scholars from Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and secular humanism.  
The opening foreword by Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Pope Francis’ friend and dialogue partner from his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires, provides a warmly personal introduction to a 76-page chapter of excerpts from Pope Francis’ 22 talks, exhortations, encyclicals, and published statements. Then follow the responses of scholars from the seven traditions listed above. The concluding chapter is an insightful “reflection and final assessment” by Leo Lefebure, a Roman Catholic priest and Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Lefebure writes masterfully about the contributors and raises up mercy and friendship as the essential characteristics of Pope Francis’ approach to interreligious dialogue. He takes extra care to introduce readers to the significance of this kind of dialogue or colloquy by highlighting the connection between Pope Francis and Shinran (1173-1263), the Japanese Buddhist monk who was the founder of what ultimately became the Jōdo Shinshū sect in Japan:
For both Shinran and Francis, we need to negate self-power, but we cannot do this through our own power.  We need an insight which we cannot produce on our own. . . .  Shinran directly challenges modern humanism's self-confidence in the insights and actions of an autonomous individual.  For Shinran as for Pope Francis, we can find no way out of our dilemma through our own efforts, but we can encounter the gracious compassion of a power coming from beyond our control.  Shinran speaks of shinjin, "entrustment-mindedness" coming as a gift from Amida Buddha illumining our blindness. . . . Shinran sees us as always already within the working of Amida's Vow; Pope Francis sees the mercy of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ as embracing all humans.  For Shinran and Pope Francis respectively, realization of shinjin or of the mercy of God in Christ overflow in compassionate action in the world (p.324).
Lefbure concludes his summarizing chapter and makes a fitting comment that gives due importance to the significance of Pope Francis and his words concerning Interreligious Dialogue:
Mercy sums up Pope Francis's understanding of Christian faith: "Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible.  Everything is revealed in mercy" (Misericordia et Misera #1).  While acutely aware of overwhelming misery in this world, Francis hopes: "Mercy gives rise to joy, because our hearts are opened to the hope of a new life.  The joy of forgiveness is inexpressible, yet it radiates all around us whenever we experience forgiveness" (Misericordia et Misera #3).  (p.325)
Taking the lead from Lefebure, I would like to focus on one chapter, “Let’s Get Off our Cell Phones and Hear a Sikh Maxim from Pope Francis” by Nickky-Guninder Kaur Singh.
The Sikh tradition is one I am not very familiar with and from which I have the most to learn.  Guninder Kaur Singh’s main point is that virtual connection has become an obsession. We need to put our cell phones away, she says, and engage directly with one another across religions and cultures. One way to bring about such engagement, she proposes, would be to bring Guru Nanak (1469–1539), the first Sikh guru, and Pope Francis into conversation with one another. It is true that these two figures are centuries apart, come from two totally different parts of the world, and belong to two different religious and cultural traditions. And yet, each illuminates the other. Singh notes that Guru Nanak’s poetic verses, on which she grew up, acquire enormous immediacy, meaning, and relevancy through the voice of Pope Francis in his addresses to audiences across the globe. Together, the Sikh guru and the Catholic pontiff open-up for us significant new ways of recognizing the past and of being in the present. In the scholarly parlance of comparative religionists, they provide us with a rich “reciprocal illumination.”
Singh refers to T.S. Eliot, who, in his Four Quartets, spoke of being “distracted from distraction by distraction.” In this digitally ripe but empathetically arid climate, distraction has become epidemic. Pope Francis urgently appeals for the kind of interreligious dialogue in which we actually hear and make eye contact with one another. The underlying disconnect between people in this hyper-connected world of ours is leading us toward “a piecemeal World War III.” In fact, as Pope Francis warns, it may have already begun.
For me, Guru Nanak’s triple formula—sunia (hear), mania (welcome), and mani kita bhau (evoke love in the mind/heart)—is the bedrock of his message. Interestingly, this Sikh teaching becomes even more meaningful when we hear it from the lips of our twenty-first-century pontiff. In Pope Francis’s direct, powerful addresses to audiences across the globe, Guru Nanak’s universal poetic ideal acquires immediacy and relevancy. Hearing the Sikh guru and the Catholic pope side by side becomes an exciting interfaith exercise.
I find especially helpful the following three insights in Singh’s essay:
First, in their own and in different ways, both Guru Nanak and the pope underscore a culture of encounter, an encounter with religious persons rather than a focus on the doctrines, institutions, and practices that have been systematized into books sitting on library shelves. Dialogue does not take place between religions; religious persons engage in dialogue. With persons we start out on common ground. When we affirm our fundamental human commonality, we begin to forge strong relationships of mutuality and support with people who may have different belief systems and ritual practices.
Second, humility is vital. Guru Nanak was born into a modest family. He cherished humility as the highest virtue, and through his person and message he tried to shake the complacent hierarchies of caste, class, and religion. For him, haumai (literally, I myself) is the root cause of human problems because it so easily clothes itself with pride and arrogance. By constantly centering on “I,” “me,” and “mine,” the self is circumscribed as a particular person, wrenched from his/her universal matrix.
Pope Francis is the perfect embodiment of the Sikh guru’s ideal of humility. After his election on March 13, 2013, he appeared on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica to give his first papal blessing, Before doing so, however, he bowed his head and asked for those gathered in the piazza to pray for him and bless him. When he takes a seat in the back row with those who have assembled for prayer, he manifests his impulse to be with them and not tower over them. How can we engage with anyone if we approach them with pride and arrogance? The Sikh sacred text comes alive in the life and gestures of this extraordinary twenty-first-century Catholic leader.
Third, we need to listen to each other with welcoming hospitality. Difference need not divide; it can be an opportunity to think through our conflicts together. We can even learn to enjoy diversity. One way to practice this kind of dialogue is to read each other’s scriptures.
To nurture love is the ultimate goal of Guru Nanak and Pope Francis. Yet, all across the globe humans are trapped in hate and conflict. In order to resolve our conflicts and live harmoniously on our planet, we desperately need to be motivated by love. As a Sikh scriptural verse puts it, “Without love we are but dust and ash.” Akin to this, Pope Francis has said, “Love gives impetus and fruitfulness to life and to the journey of faith: without love, both life and faith remain sterile” (The Pope’s words at the Angelus prayer, 29.10.2017).
If we were to parse out Pope Francis’s advice, we would encounter the followers of other religious traditions with a deep desire to learn from them and to see ourselves from their perspective. We would approach their religious texts, practices, myths, and rituals as they would regard them.
Pope Francis wants us to go even further, to see through the eyes of the one we are speaking to. Again, he is not trying to assert our sameness or deny differences. Seeing the world through the eyes of our religiously diverse fellow human beings leads to a sincere appreciation for them, with all their differences and uniqueness. Simultaneously, we acquire a more self-critical view of our own values. Overall, we acquire an enhanced understanding of others and of ourselves, which in turn points the way to a genuine global pluralism that has the potential for becoming a great resource for cultural, social, economic, and spiritual development.
I live in Beech Grove, Indiana, a city of 14,000 inside the beltway of Indianapolis (I-465). My monastery is within walking distance of a sandwich shop, a gas station, and a liquor store, all of which are owned by turban-wearing Sikhs.  
The Sikh tradition, dating back to the fourteenth century, is younger than most religions I’ve met in the dialogue. How did Northern Indian Guru Nanak reveal his teachings in the midst of Hindu and Muslim adherents? It appears he started with dialogue that continues as colloquy. This essay by a Sikh prompted me to download the author’s recently published book Sikhism and challenged me to get off my cell phone and welcome my new neighbors—perhaps even to invite them to join us for Vespers and a meal.


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