Views of CCJR Members

Let's Be Friends


Addressing a group of lay and religious leaders, the Pope avoided controversy and instead emphasised his openness to interfaith dialogue.

Around midday on Friday 17 September, Pope Benedict XVI addressed approximately 100 lay and religious leaders, representing Britain's non-Christian faith communities including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jain. It was a colourful affair, with Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals in full dress, sitting alongside white-robed Swamis and yellow-cloaked Zen Masters who mingled happily among the darker suits of rabbis and imams and turbaned Sikhs. Amongst this wonderful mosaic of religious dress there was not a secularist in sight.

And in the absence of secularists the Pope clearly felt among friends. Introduced by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Pope heard the Vatican commended for its contribution to interfaith dialogue and understanding. According to the Chief Rabbi, "today is a celebration of difference". The Pope listened carefully and nodded.

A Muslim leader, Dr Khalid Assam, followed and talked about how faith binds creation together. Again, the Pope looked pleased.

So far so good! It was his turn. He walked to the lectern, appearing tired, like an elderly shepherd, speaking in a low voice and we all strained to listen.

His words were familiar to people of faith. He was in his comfort zone. No need to condemn secularism here. Beginning with a discussion on the meaning of life, he depicted God in search of humanity, as much as humans are in search of God. Our duty, as men and women of faith, is to live peaceably together and jointly steward God's creation. In his only mention of Vatican II, he said that the Catholic Church placed high value on dialogue with other faiths. In turn, the Church expected reciprocity, notably freedom of worship and practice in all countries. The remark was pointed to Muslim countries who deny Christians the right of worship, the building of churches or the conversion to Christianity.

This was the only point of potential controversy, although in my conversation with Muslims present, it was not mentioned.

The Pope completed his short address calling for face-to-face dialogue, where different faiths face one another, creating a shared, but inward-looking bond. He also called for side-by-side dialogue, when faiths stand together, but face outwards, unified in a common task. In these words, he echoed the writings of the Chief Rabbi, focusing not on a condemnation of secularism but on respect and the need for all faiths to work together.

How he envisaged this, he left to another day and, I suspect, probably to another Pope.

Dr Edward Kessler is Executive Director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, where he studies the relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is contributing a series of posts on interfaith issues raised by the Papal visit.