Interreligious dialogue is integral to Jesuit service of Christ's mission. GC 35's unambiguous reiteration of this core message of GC 34 should be written large in the hearts and minds of Jesuits and those privileged to serve as their collaborators.
On this matter, GC 34 had been eloquent: "no service of faith without promotion of justice, entry into cultures, openness to other religious experiences; no promotion of justice without communicating faith, transforming cultures, collaboration with other traditions; no inculturation without communicating faith with others, dialogue with other traditions, commitment to justice; no dialogue without sharing faith with others, evaluating cultures, concern for justice." (GC 34, d. 2)
Thirteen years later, GC 35 rejoices that "in a decisive manner Benedict XVI confirmed what our previous General Congregations have said of our specific mission of service to the Church." (Decree 1, 5) Expressly, Decree 1 recalls the papal address to the General Congregation on February 21, 2008, when he reaffirmed how the church counts on Jesuits "to reach the geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach or find it difficult to reach." The pope mentioned particularly the heroic examples of Matteo Ricci in China, Roberto de Nobili in India, and the "Reductions" in Latin America—individuals and communities truly on the far frontiers of interreligious and intercultural exchange for their times. Pope Benedict, then, strongly encouraged Jesuits and their collaborators to recognize the signs of the presence and work of God in every part of the world, even beyond the confines of the visible Church, to build bridges of understanding and dialogue with those who do not belong to the Church or who have difficulty in accepting its position and message, and to adhere to the word of God and teachings of the church while doing so.
With passion borne of prayer and discernment, Decree 2 on Jesuit identity and the Ignatian charism declares new frontiers beckoning us to "plunge ourselves more deeply into that dialogue with religions that may show us that the Holy Spirit is at work all over the world that God loves." (24) In our contemporary globalized world, where technology and environmental and other concerns challenge traditional boundaries, the Society's mission of faith and justice and of dialogue of religions and cultures gives new meaning to the frontiers of knowledge and human encounter. (20) "All men and women are our concern for dialogue and for proclamation . . . to discover Jesus Christ where we have not noticed him before and to reveal him where he has not been seen before." (24)
This all-embracing mission directs us to reach out "to persons who differ from us in culture and religion, aware that dialogue with them is integral also to our service of Christ's mission." (15) Scripture serves as our guide to enter dialogue in places where others did not look or even avoided, as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, a Syro-Phoenician woman, Roman centurions and repentant thieves and sinners. (12)
Even in collaboration itself, Decree 6 recognizes a frontier with new challenges: "We are enriched by members of our own faith, but also by people from other religious traditions, those women and men of good will from all nations and cultures, with whom we labor in seeking a more just world."(3) If the heart of an Ignatian work is the Spiritual Exercises, which many of us Catholic and other Christian collaborators have had the privilege to follow and live, how can the dialogue of religious experience be genuinely mutual, adapting the Exercises to other religious traditions and spiritualities and allowing these traditions and spiritualities to enrich our practice of the Exercises? (9) For many Christians and non-Christians, interreligious dialogue has become a spiritual practice. How can such spiritual companionship influence formation for Ignatian work? (15)
Decree 3 on the challenges to mission today reviews how the Jesuit history of interreligious encounters and dialogue predates Vatican II by 400 years. (15-17) Only with the documents of Vatican II did the Catholic Church formally adopt dialogue as a primary outreach to other Christians, to Jews, to followers of other religions, and to all people; yet, forty-three years after its close, dialogue, even ecumenical dialogue with other Christians, remains on the margins of ministry, theological study, and spiritual formation in the church. These margins are frontiers for Jesuits and their collaborators.
Decree 3 identifies fresh challenges on these borders: globalization, a wide-spread thirst for spiritual experience often sought outside institutional religion, "religious fundamentalism," the growing gap between rich and poor due to social, economic, and political forces, and transnational and other forms of exploitation fomenting conflict and violence. The wisdom of those in Jesuit ministries on these and other frontiers, for the last 40 years, even for the past 400 years, should be a resource for Jesuits and their collaborators and for the universal church.
Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, when asked to define "catholic" by the Board of Trustees of Georgetown University visiting Rome in May 2007, replied in this way: "I have always understood 'catholic' to mean bringing the experience of those at the frontiers of the church's mission back to renew the center."
Fr. Adolfo Nicholás, in his homily at the closure of GC 35, recalled how they have spoken and written about frontiers during their deliberations. "We have indeed gone," he said, "and we have encountered many problems and made many mistakes at the frontiers." He admitted he could tell of his mistakes. "Going," he said, means "entering into the culture." "Going," he continued, "means study, research, entering into the life of the people, solidarity, empathy, inculturation, respect for others. "Going to the whole world turns out to be more difficult than we had thought. We feel like children. Perhaps we have discovered the Kingdom of God."
Dr. John Borelli, National Coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue and Mission for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, is Special Assistant for Interreligious Initiative to President John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University. After receiving a Ph.D. in theology and history of religions (Fordham University, 1976) and teaching for 12 years, he served more than 16 years in ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of National Jesuit News (USA).