Dialogue does not take place between institutions, but individuals
Rebecca Cohen, CBB Intern
November 19 marked an exciting day for me. I was blessed to be part of “Generations of Faith – An Interreligious Encounter” co-sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, the Sacred Military Order of Constantine, and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Foundation. For one day, young adults and world-renowned experts in the field of interreligious dialogue from six diverse religious traditions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism – met to “pass the torch.”
The day began with a keynote address from Archbishop Felix Machado of Visai, India who had also served as Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. His speech highlighted the role of the individual in interreligious dialogue, claiming that the “real” dialogue did not take place between religious institutions but individuals from different backgrounds. I was not speaking for Catholicism, but I was speaking as Rebecca Cohen, a woman who comes from a Catholic background. This theme ran throughout the day as it became more apparent that my individual background did indeed present a unique perspective.
The young adults learned these pearls of wisdom sitting at the table with these experts, but our dialogue really took place during the breaks. It was then that we truly got to know one another and the tradition they were coming from. During one short break, five of the Catholic participants were describing the sacrament of marriage to a Hindu participant which he contrasted with his own.
I certainly learned about Hindu marriage practices, but Archbishop Machado’s point was emphasized as different Catholic individuals presented their opinions. Catholicism can be viewed as a monolithic religion since there is a “party line” that is established by the Holy See. However, it was obvious during that day that we all had brought our own understanding to the table. My specific background as a child of a mixed marriage between a Catholic and a Jew gave me a different perspective from the others. In fact, the conversation that stretched my theological muscles the most took place between me and a Dominican (a Catholic order of priests) brother during lunch.
For Archbishop Machado, this distinction between the institution and the individual was necessary when approaching the table and life in general. The day truly taught me that dialogue is not just about the religious institution you are facing across the table, but also about building a relationship with the individual who is present, getting to know them, their tradition and the background from which they present it. In this way, the dialogue does not stop at the table, but continues throughout life.