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Commission for Interreligious Dialogue


Giovanni Cereti

The year dedicated to reflection on the Holy Spirit within the context of preparation for the Great Jubilee also invites us to fix our attention on the presence and action of the Spirit in other religions and in the world. In fact, many Christians, and not only those in the Catholic Church, see God's hand at work in the religious life of followers of other religions and they believe that all humanity, and thus also the people who follow other religions, live under the action of the Spirit, which in these last days has been given to all humankind (cf. Gal 3,1-5; Acts 2,17-21). The Christian community lives in the firm belief that it is guided by the Spirit, but God's closeness to humankind, which is accomplished by the power of the Spirit, cannot be limited to the Christian community alone. The Spirit is free, and blows where it wills (Jn 3,8); wherever the Lord's Spirit is, there is freedom.

The Second Vatican Council had given some very clear guidelines also on this point, recognizing the presence and action of the Holy Spirit not only in the Church but also outside it, and above all in other religions. The Spirit has been at work in the world since the beginning of time:«Without doubt, the Holy Spirit was at work in the world before Christ was glorified» (AG 4). God's mysterious action in people's hearts, which we attribute to the Spirit, is mingled with human elements, which are not always positive. «It (the Church) purges of evil associations those elements of truth and grace which are found among peoples, and which are, as it were, a secret presence of God; and it restores them to Christ their source...» (AG 9). In any case, the salvation brought in Christ through the Spirit works beyond the Church's frontiers: «All this holds true not for Christians only but also for all men of good will in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. For since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery» (GS 22). All this takes place above all through other religions. Indeed Vatican II teaches that «whatever good or truth is found» in other religions is «given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life» (LG 16). Consequently, it seems that through interreligious dialogue we can discover this action of the Spirit better and become more docile to it: «Our thoughts go out to all who acknowledge God and who preserve precious religious and human elements in their traditions; it is our hope that frank dialogue will spur us all on to receive the impulses of the Spirit with fidelity and act upon them with alacrity» (GS 92). Celebrating the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the Secretariat for non-Christians, Paul VI recalled the decisive change that has taken place in the Church's attitude towards non-Christian religions since the Council. This led the conciliar Fathers to see in them «a very significant, though incomplete, expression of the religious genius of mankind, a testimony of the secret action carried out in the course of the centuries by the grace of the Holy Spirit - which fills the whole earth (cf. Wis 1,7; Is 6,3) - in order to bring forth in upright souls "the seeds of the Word which lie hidden in them" (AG 11), so that those religious manifestations, in spite of the differences, "often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men" (NA 2)».

Sincere and full recognition of the Spirit's action in the world and among non-Christians, fully consistent with biblical facts, has come about in the Catholic Church above all thanks to the courageous declarations made by John Paul II. With regard to the Church's reconciliation and dialogue with members of non-Christian religions, already in his first encyclical John Paul II recalls the firm belief that accompanies many of them, and that can be an example to Christians: this, too, is «an effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body». Later, speaking of the Church's mission, he recalls how she must approach with respect «the magnificent heritage of the human spirit that has been manifested in all religions». She must, therefore, carry out her mission «with the esteem, respect and discernment that since the time of the Apostles has marked the missionary attitude, the attitude of the missionary». Then he refers to the attitude of Paul in Athens regarding the piety of the Athenians (cf. Acts 17:22-31). «The missionary attitude always begins with a feeling of deep esteem for "what is in man" (Jn 2,25), for what man has himself worked out in the depths of his spirit concerning the most profound and important problems. It is a question of respecting everything that has been brought about in him by the Spirit, which "blows where it wills" (Jn 3,8)».

In his message addressed from Manila to the people of Asia in 1981, the Pope says he has come as a witness of the Spirit, who acts in the history of peoples and nations, and whose action thus seems not to be limited to calling non-Christians to the Church. «In the Holy Spirit every individual and all people have become, through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, children of God, partakers in the divine nature and heirs to eternal life. All are redeemed and called to share in glory in Jesus Christ, without any distinction of language, race, nation or culture».

«God is love (1 Jn 4,8-16). This saving love of God has been revealed and communicated to mankind in Christ and is present and active throughout the world by means of the Holy Spirit», affirms the 1984 document of the Secretariat for non-Christians on Dialogue and Mission. Later, it continues by acknowledging that «in God, the Holy Spirit, our faith allows us to perceive the force of life and movement and continuous regeneration (cf. LG 4) who acts in the depth of people's consciences and accompanies them on the secret path of hearts towards the truth (cf. GS 22). The Spirit also works "outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body" (RH 6; cf. LG 16; GS 22; AG 15). The Spirit both anticipates and accompanies the path of the Church which, nevertheless, feels itself impelled to discern the signs of Her presence, to follow Her wherever She leads and to serve Her as a humble and discrete collaborator». In the encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem the theme is taken up again with the affirmation regarding the universal action of the Holy Spirit in the world not only in the course of these two thousand years of Christianity but going even further back, to before Christ «from the beginning, throughout the world, and especially in the economy of the Old Covenant». Today, therefore, we need to «look further and go further afield, knowing that the wind blows where it wills, according to the image used by Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus (Jn 3,8). The Second Vatican Council... reminds us of the Holy Spirit's activity also outside the visible body of the Church».

A few months after the publication of the Encyclical the Day of Prayer for Peace was held in Assisi. Answering those who asked him about its theological foundation, John Paul II felt he had to defend it in an address to the Roman Curia, at Christmas 1986, in which he declared forcefully that, «every authentic prayer is under the influence of the Spirit... We can indeed maintain that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person».

This intervention was mentioned in the Document of 1991, Dialogue and Proclamation. After recalling that the positive values acknowledged by the Second Vatican Council, «not only in the religious life of individual believers of other religious traditions, but also in the religious traditions to which they belong», are attributed by this same Council «to the active presence of God through his Word, pointing also to the universal action of the Spirit», the same document continues: «In his address to the Roman Curia after the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, Pope John Paul II stressed once more the universal presence of the Holy Spirit, stating that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person, Christian or otherwise. But again, in the same discourse, the Pope, going beyond an individual perspective, articulated the main elements which together can be seen as constituting the theological basis for a positive approach to other religious traditions and the practice of interreligious dialogue». Among these, «there needs to be mentioned the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the religious life of the members of the other religious traditions».

This brings consequences that fill us with great hope regarding the possibility of salvation for all humanity, even for those who still do not know Christ. «From this mystery of unity it follows that all men and women who are saved share, though differently, in the same mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ through his Spirit. Christians know this through their faith, while others remain unaware that Jesus Christ is the source of their salvation. The mystery of salvation reaches out to them, in a way known to God, through the invisible action of the Spirit of Christ».

Immediately afterwards the same document also affirms that «the fruits of the Spirit of God in the personal life of individuals, whether Christian or otherwise, are easily discernible (cf. Gal 5,22-23). To identify in other religious traditions elements of grace capable of sustaining the positive response of their members to God's invitation is much more difficult. It requires a discernment for which criteria have to be established. Sincere individuals marked by the Spirit of God have certainly put their imprint on the elaboration and the development of their respective religious traditions».

These teachings are reflected and, as it were, taken up again in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, which, after recalling that «the Spirit's presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions», reaffirms that the same Spirit «who blows where he wills (Jn 3,8), who was already at work in the world before Christ was glorified (AG 4), and who has filled the world, ... holds all things together (and) knows what is said (Wis 1,7), leads us to broaden our vision in order to ponder his activity in every time and place».

Apart from acknowledging the Spirit's action in other religious traditions, the reflection on the Holy Spirit proposed for next year could consider two other views which are closely connected. The first involves recognizing that it is the Spirit's action in the Church that has brought an awareness and a change in the way the Church considers the reality of other religions. The Church is led by the Spirit and it is under the guidance of the Spirit that she has changed her attitude to other religions and has devoted herself to the advancement of interreligious dialogue. Inviting all to be fully docile to this action of the Spirit, the document Dialogue and Proclamation asks Christians and others to «collaborate with the Spirit of the Risen Lord who is universally present and active. Interreligious dialogue does not merely aim at mutual understanding and friendly relations. It reaches a much deeper level, that of the spirit, where exchange and sharing consist in a mutual witness to one's beliefs and a common exploration of one's respective religious convictions».

The second concerns the Spirit's action in bringing to completion - and fullness - knowledge of Christian revelation, according to the Lord's promise, by which «the Holy Spirit will lead you to the whole truth...» (Jn 16,13). In fact this fullness is reached also through the contributions, purifications, provocations and enrichments that can come to the Christian community from the great world religions. The document Dialogue and Proclamation also insists on this point. «In dialogue Christians and others are invited to deepen their religious commitment, to respond with increasing sincerity to God's personal call and gracious self-gift which, as our faith tells us, always passes through the mediation of Jesus Christ and the work of his Spirit». Through confrontation, dialogue and peaceful competition with the great world religious traditions, by the power of the Spirit, Christians increase their understanding of their own faith and are impelled to live it ever more fully with fidelity and love.