Interfaith Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict leaves a lasting legacy to Interfaith and Inter-religious Dialogue


Pope Benedict XVI is both a Head of State (Vatican City) and Worldwide Faith Leader – of the Catholic Church. The Vatican City is a landlocked sovereign city-state whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome. The Pope resides in the Papal Apartments of the Papal Palace overlooking off Saint Peter’s Square. It is here he carries out his business and meets foreign representatives. His official title with regard to Vatican City is Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City. This calls for a certain diplomatic care in relations with other religions.

Church and Religion in the World

In 1965, the Church laid the foundations for cordial relations with other religions in the Second Vatican Council, in a document called Nostra Aetate, (latin, “In our time“) which called for Catholics and Jews to engage in friendly dialogue and biblical and theological discussions to better understand each other’s faith. Nostra Aetate also calls for the church to dialogue with other world religions.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church’s relations with other religions has expanded considerably both on the international stage and at the grassroots level. Cardinal Tauran writes:

For thirteen years I had the privilege of serving Pope John Paul II as Secretary for the Relations of the Holy See with other States. At the end of their mission the ambassadors used to pay a visit to say farewell. I remember that one of them, who was a Muslim, made this private observation to me: ‘you know, the thing that has most struck me during the three years that I have spent with you is not your vision of the international situation, however valid it may be – it is to have seen the Pope at prayer during the ceremonies‘. This episode seems to me to be emblematic in addressing the subject that has been entrusted to me, namely ‘witness and inter-religious dialogue’. The sharing of spiritual experiences between people, witness to faith, is perhaps the most suitable way by which to nourish dialogue between believers. This ‘exchange of gifts’ between believers can also remind everyone that prayer is the shared language of all religions.

Pope Benedict at prayer

Thus, the most popular images of the Pope is frequently, the pope at prayer. This engages us with a certain security, that we may trust and follow the leadership of one who is contantly at prayer and in service of the Church – and to that extent, as the pope is servant of one religion, in interfaith dialogues, interfaith activities, inter-religious encounters, the Pope serves the cause of all religions: belief in the One, who is known by many names and has many forms.

Regnesberg and its Outcomes

In September 2006, the Pope returned to Regnesberg University where he had once served as a Professor of Theology. He made a reference to a medieval author, which stirred up a storm, as it was taken out of context in a paper addressing the state of the world. His intention was to encourage Christian-Muslim Relations.

On 13 October 2006, one month to the day after Pope Benedict XVI’s address, 38 Islamic authorities and scholars from around the world, representing all denominations and schools of thought, joined together to deliver an answer to the Pope in the spirit of open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding, speaking about the true teachings of Islam.

Exactly one year later, on 13 October 2007, 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals unanimously came together for the first time since the days of Muhammed to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam in their letter titled ‘In A Common Word Between Us and You‘. The letter was addressed to the leaders of all the world’s churches, and to Christians everywhere. You may visit the website for A Common Word

A Common Word has received numerous awards, has been the basis for many resolutions and peace initiatives, and gave birth to the World Interfaith Harmony Week

The fundamental principles of A Common Word , ‘Love of God and Love of the Neighbour’ form the leitmotif for the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, these being ‘Love of God and Love of the Neighbour’ or ‘Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour’.

In 2010, the World Interfaith Harmony Week was launched at the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly after considerable diplomatic efforts by Arab, Muslim, Central American countries and Russia.

World Interfaith Harmony Week Banner

World Interfaith Harmony Week Logo

Visit to Jordan

During May of 2009, Pope Benedict visited the Middle East and spent three days in Jordan. In a break with protocol, Jordan’s King Abdullah II drove out to the airport to personally welcome the pontiff.

During his visit, Pope Benedict visited the Hussein bin-Talal mosque in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, a cousin of King Abdullah II, welcomed Benedict to the mosque . Prince Ghazi is widely seen as a world-wide leader in inter-faith relations, and played a key role in organizing a positive response from Islamic clerics and scholars to Benedict’s controversial 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which be quoted a Byzantine emperor who asserted that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, “brought things only evil and inhuman.”

Using careful diplomatic language, Ghazi thanked Benedict for the “regret” the pope expressed after Regensburg.

Prince Ghazi also ‘received’ the Pope in four ways:

First, we receive Your Holiness as the Spiritual Leader, Supreme Pontiff and the successor of St. Peter for 1.1 billion Catholics, who are neighbours of Muslims everywhere in the world, and who we greet through receiving you.

Second, we receive Your Holiness, as Pope Benedict XVI in particular whose reign has been marked by the moral courage to do and speak his conscience, no matter what the vogue of the day; who is personally also a Master Christian Theologian responsible for historical Encyclical Letters on the beautiful cardinal virtues of Charity and Hope; who has re-facilitated the traditional Latin Mass for those who choose it, and who has simultaneously made intra-faith and inter-faith dialogue a top priority of his reign in order to spread goodwill and understanding throughout all peoples of the world.

Third, we receive Your Holiness as a Head of State who is also a world and global leader on the vital issues of morality, ethics, the environment, peace, human dignity, the alleviation of poverty and suffering and even the global financial crisis.

Fourth and finally, we receive Your Holiness as a simple pilgrim of peace who comes in humility and gentleness to pray where Jesus Christ, the Messiah—may be peace be upon him—prayed, was baptised and began his mission two thousand years ago.

During his speech at the Hussein bin-Talal mosque, Pope Benedict made clear reference to the violent agenda of those who oppose religion for their own ends, and the need for common witness to faith in God:

For this reason we cannot fail to be concerned that today, with increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better. Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied. However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society? In the face of this situation, where the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own, the need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly. Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.

Pope Benedict speaks at Amman Mosque, Jordan

Pope Benedict speaks at Amman Mosque, Jordan, 2009

In the Spirit of Assisi

On 1 January 2011, after the Angelus, Pope Benedict announced that he wished to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the historic meeting that took place in Assisi on 27 October 1986, at the wish of John Paul II. On the day of the anniversary, 27 October this year, Pope Benedict signalled a Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world, making a pilgrimage to the home of Saint Francis and inviting fellow Christians from different denominations, representatives of the world’s religious traditions and, in some sense, all men and women of good will, to join him once again on this journey.

The day took as its theme: Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace. Every human being is ultimately a pilgrim in search of truth and goodness. Believers too are constantly journeying towards God: hence the possibility, indeed the necessity, of speaking and entering into dialogue with everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, without sacrificing one’s own identity or indulging in forms of syncretism. Pope Benedict was insistent that non-believers and unbelievers be invited, on account that “when you observe non-believers and unbelievers, you sometimes encounter a kind of spirituality which causes you to pause and examine yourself“.

Twenty-five years ago at the closing of the Assisi World Day of Prayer, Pope John Paul II remarked:

“For the first time in history, we have come together from every where, Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities, and World Religions, in this sacred place dedicated to Saint Francis, to witness before the world, each according to his own conviction, about the transcendent quality of peace. The form and content of our prayers are very different, as we have seen, and there can be no question of reducing them to a kind of common denominator. Yes, in this very difference we have perhaps discovered anew that, regarding the problem of peace and its relation to religious commitment, there is something which binds us together.”

Two and a half decades later, Pope Benedict invited nearly three hundred representatives of the religions of the world as well as four non-believers to participate in the 25th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace: A Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Justice and Peace in the World, on the theme Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.

This historic gathering was held Oct. 27, 2011 at Assisi, Italy to commemorate the first such gathering held 25 years ago on the same day in 1986 by Pope John Paul II.

The representatives attending the gathering included about 60 Catholics, 60 Orthodox and Protestant Christians, 65 Muslims, 65 Buddhists, eight Jews, seven Hindus, six Shintos, five Sikhs, four non-believers, three Confucians, three Taoists, one Jain, one Baha’i and one Zoroastrian.

Pope Benedict with representatives of world religions, Assisi, 2011

Pope Benedict with representatives of world religions, Assisi, 2011

Pope Benedict stressed the importance of the occasion when he thanked all the participants for attending:

I thank you once more for your willingness to take part in the day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for justice and peace in the world held yesterday in Assisi, twenty-five years after that historic first meeting.

In a certain sense, this gathering is representative of the billions of men and women throughout our world who are actively engaged in promoting justice and peace. It is also a sign of the friendship and fraternity which has flourished as the fruit of the efforts of so many pioneers in this kind of dialogue. May this friendship continue to grow among all the followers of the world’s religions and with men and women of good will everywhere.

I thank my Christian brothers and sisters for their fraternal presence. I also thank the representatives of the Jewish people, who are particularly close to us, and all of you, the distinguished representatives of the world’s religions. I am aware that many of you have come from afar and have undertaken a demanding journey. I express my gratitude also to those who represent people of good will who follow no religious tradition but are committed to the search for truth. They have been willing to share this pilgrimage with us as a sign of their desire to work together to build a better world.

Looking back, we can appreciate the foresight of the late Pope John Paul II in convening the first Assisi meeting, and the continuing need for men and women of different religions to testify together that the journey of the spirit is always a journey of peace.

Meetings of this sort are necessarily exceptional and infrequent, yet they are a vivid expression of the fact that every day, throughout our world, people of different religious traditions live and work together in harmony. It is surely significant for the cause of peace that so many men and women, inspired by their deepest convictions, are committed to working for the good of the human family.

Pastoral Visit to the United Kingdom

In September 2010, Pope Benedict conducted a four-day state trip to the UK, visiting Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham. During his visit, he met with Representatives of Other Religions at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. In his address, the Pope spoke on the role of religious faith in society, and in particular, the interfaith agenda itself. Grassroots interfaith endeavour is an important activity. The presence of believers indicates that the spiritual dimension of life is a fundamental dimension of what it means to be human:

I would like to begin my remarks by expressing the Catholic Church’s appreciation for the important witness that all of you bear as spiritual men and women living at a time when religious convictions are not always understood or appreciated. The presence of committed believers in various fields of social and economic life speaks eloquently of the fact that the spiritual dimension of our lives is fundamental to our identity as human beings, that man, in other words, does not live by bread alone (cf. Deut 8:3). As followers of different religious traditions working together for the good of the community at large, we attach great importance to this “side by side” dimension of our cooperation, which complements the “face to face” aspect of our continuing dialogue.

The Pope went on to say that faith in God benefits the entire human society, promotes the practice of virtue and enables man to live and work and pursue his or her endeavours side-by-side in mutal love and respect for differences:

So it is that genuine religious belief points us beyond present utility towards the transcendent. It reminds us of the possibility and the imperative of moral conversion, of the duty to live peaceably with our neighbour, of the importance of living a life of integrity. Properly understood, it brings enlightenment, it purifies our hearts and it inspires noble and generous action, to the benefit of the entire human family. It motivates us to cultivate the practice of virtue and to reach out towards one another in love, with the greatest respect for religious traditions different from our own.

In his address to members of different faiths, the Pope went on to say that we must not only act side by side, but also come together face-to-face. He reminded his listeners of the different dimensions of this dialogue: a dialogue of life, a dialogue of actions, a dialogue of formal conversations, and the dialogue which is informed by prayer:

This kind of dialogue needs to take place on a number of different levels, and should not be limited to formal discussions. The dialogue of life involves simply living alongside one another and learning from one another in such a way as to grow in mutual knowledge and respect. The dialogue of action brings us together in concrete forms of collaboration, as we apply our religious insights to the task of promoting integral human development, working for peace, justice and the stewardship of creation. Such a dialogue may include exploring together how to defend human life at every stage and how to ensure the non-exclusion of the religious dimension of individuals and communities in the life of society. Then at the level of formal conversations, there is a need not only for theological exchange, but also sharing our spiritual riches, speaking of our experience of prayer and contemplation, and expressing to one another the joy of our encounter with divine love.

The Scourge of Fundamentalism and Violence

During Pope Benedict’s visit to Lebanon in September 2012, in addressing faith communities in the Middle East, the Pope reflected on the scourge of religious fundamentalism and indicated that fundamentalism is not only the prerogative of Muslims:

Religious fundamentalism that uses “economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion” is not the prerogative only of Muslims. It “afflicts all religious communities, and denies their long-standing tradition of coexistence”. It wants to gain power” continues the Pope, “at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons.” And once again – as he has done in recent years – he launched an appeal to “to all Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the region to seek, by their example and by their teaching, to do everything in their power to eliminate this menace which indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions”.

The Pope went on to define Religious Freedom:

“It includes on the individual and collective levels the freedom to follow one’s conscience in religious matters and, at the same time, freedom of worship. It includes the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public”. And again: “It must be possible to profess and freely manifest one’s religion and its symbols without endangering one’s life and personal freedom.”

Pope Benedict also brought another danger to light: that of identifying rationality with faith, and this is dangerous because faith without rational control, may resort to violence. This risk lies everywhere.

In last year’s Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, the Pope warns against this very danger: religious extremism, fundamentalism, which “touches all religions.” In fact, it can be found in Judaism, in some groups in Israel, in Christianity, in some evangelical groups; in Islam, from which the Islamic world itself primarily suffers: we see Muslim populations protesting against the fundamentalism of the new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, etc. .. Thus, well ahead of the Arab Spring, the Pope denounced such violence.

Speaking to the Curia Cardinals for Christmas greetings (December 21, 2012), Pope Benedict addressed the need for dialogue between the religions of the world and told that it was necessary dialogue for our shared future together as humanity. Such a dialogue becomes a quest for the right way to be a human being, and is part of taking steps towards the truth, one truth we have in common:

In the dialogue between religions, then, ” is a necessary condition for peace in the world and it is therefore a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities”. It “it is simply a dialogue of life, a dialogue of being together“, which does not address the major issues of faith. ” It is about the concrete problems of coexistence and shared responsibility for society, for the state, for humanity. In the process, it is necessary to learn to accept the other in his otherness and the otherness of his thinking. To this end, the shared responsibility for justice and peace must become the guiding principle of the conversation. A dialogue about peace and justice is bound to pass beyond the purely pragmatic to an ethical quest for the values that come before everything. In this way what began as a purely practical dialogue becomes a quest for the right way to live as a human being. Even if the fundamental choices themselves are not under discussion, the search for an answer to a specific question becomes a process in which, through listening to the other, both sides can obtain purification and enrichment. Thus this search can also mean taking common steps towards the one truth, even if the fundamental choices remain unaltered

One of the medieval titles of the Pope is “servant of the servants of God“. All who seek understanding of the religious endeavour of the other, in hospitality are servants of those who seek and strive to serve the Divine with all their heart, all their mind, all their soul. Pope Bendict was one such seeker, mild and humble of heart, who fulfilled the goals of his Papal tenure: new evangelisation and inter-religious dialogue. He authored an Encyclical, Charity in Truth, and his tenure as Head of State and World-wide Religious leader was one of proclaiming the truth, modestly and without pride, quietly and with respect.

Pope Benedict’s resignation as Bishop of Rome is replete with humility and truth: the modern world changes daily, the Church must take steps, side by side with other religions to deal with threats to faith and its practice in the public square from violence, fundamentalism and secularism which is anti-religion. His endeavours in the fields of interfaith and inter-religious dialogue show the world’s religions the way forward for co-existence as a common humanity: a co-existence in spirit, in peace, in truth.

Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict at the conclusion of his final General Audience, 27 February 2013