Cardinal Fitzgerald on why interreligious dialogue is important now more than ever

By Antony Lawes, 16 May 2024


One of the Catholic Church’s foremost experts on interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald M.Afr, OBE, delivered a public lecture in Parramatta on Wednesday, 8 May, in which he urged the followers of different religions to engage with one another as a way of countering violence and discrimination in the world – but also as a means of drawing closer to God.

Cardinal Fitzgerald is the former head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, now called the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue. In his lecture – presented by the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations and the Diocese of Parramatta – he looked at the developments inspired by Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, a document now almost 60 years old that ushered in a new era in Christian relations with people of other religions.

He told the audience at St Patrick’s Cathedral Hall that since Nostra Aetate was published all popes had “faithfully followed” its teaching. Pope Francis, for example, had highlighted that interreligious dialogue “was a necessary condition for peace in the world and it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities”, Cardinal Fitzgerald said.

This striving for peace and understanding had only become more important since Nostra Aetate was published, he said. Greater travel and communication between people had allowed more opportunity for friendship, but also the opposite where “disrespect for a religious figure can provoke demonstrations on an almost universal scale”. He said all people should take up those opportunities for friendship whenever they arose.

Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald is one of the Catholic Church’s foremost experts on interreligious dialogue. Image: Diocese of Parramatta

Four types of religious dialogue

In his speech, Cardinal Fitzgerald outlined four types of religious dialogue that were developed and incorporated into Vatican documents in the quest for a more peaceful and harmonious world.

The first was a “dialogue of life”, in which people strive to live in a “neighbourly spirit” where they share their joys and sorrows, and not just live side by side without interaction.

The second, the “dialogue of action”, was where people cooperate in the service of others, such as combatting racism and discrimination, or working together to advance pro-life issues.

The third, “dialogue of discourse”, was where “specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritage and appreciate each other’s spiritual values”.

The last, the “dialogue of religious experience”, was an exchange where people “rooted in their own religious traditions share their spiritual riches”, such as with prayer and ways of searching for God.

Cardinal Fitzgerald and Fr Patrick McInerney in conversation after the lecture. Image: Diocese of Parramatta

Aims of interreligious dialogue

Cardinal Fitzgerald said the first aim of interreligious dialogue was “to help people of different religions to live together in peace and harmony. It implies breaking down prejudices and eliminating any discrimination based on religion.”

He said this was not easy and “should not be considered lightly”.

“For we must remember that peace on earth, between individuals and peoples and nations, is an anticipation of that peace which is in fact a mark of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The second aim, he said, was to “foster cooperation among people of different religions in the service of humanity”.

“There is a growing realisation that work for justice and peace, and efforts towards interreligious dialogue and encounter, must go hand in hand. So, if the Diocese of Parramatta [for example] not only has a commission for interreligious dialogue, but [also] a commission for social action, they should work together as far as possible.”

He said there was also a deeper element to this dialogue, that of the spirit, “where exchange and sharing consist in a mutual witness to one’s belief”.

Bernadette Lynch NDS, left, and Mary Reaburn NDS, with the Cardinal after his lecture. Image: Diocese of Parramatta

“It would be correct to say that this deeper aim of dialogue is conversion, not in the sense of a change of religious allegiance, but rather in the Biblical sense of the humble and penitent return of the heart to God, and a more complete submission to God’s will.”

He said it was not that dialogue would make “Buddhists be better Buddhists, or Christians be better Christians”, but that “the focus is on God, not on the religion to which one belongs”.

“We dialogue to be better human beings and we recognise that humanity in other people, even if they belong to different religions.”

‘You want to know more’

When he had finished the lecture, Cardinal Fitzgerald sat down with Fr Patrick McInerney, the director of the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, for a question-and-answer session, after which he answered questions from the audience.

One of those who stood up was Professor Mehmet Ozalp, the director of the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy. He told Catholic Outlook afterwards that he had met the Cardinal more than 20 years ago and had wanted to hear him speak again.

“It was really good to hear from him, to see that he’s still dedicated to interfaith dialogue, particularly the importance of dialogue between Muslims and Christians,” he said.

“I also liked the goals of dialogue that he mentioned…particularly that dialogue enriches us in our own traditions…it doesn’t make us good Muslims, or good Christians, but people who are good believers in God. I really appreciated that.”

Two other members of the audience, members of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, travelled from Melbourne to hear the Cardinal speak. One of them, Bernadette Lynch NDS, who lives in Jerusalem, knew Cardinal Fitzgerald when he retired to Jerusalem following his time in the Vatican, and after his spell as Nuncio (Representative of the Holy See) in Egypt.

She said he was a man of great generosity and talent who was loved by all who knew him.

“The way he delivers his message is acceptable, and yet biting,” she said. “So you want to know more and you want to go deeper and appreciate it.”

Go to YouTube to watch the full lecture.

View images from the Cardinal Fitzgerald lecture here or below



Read Daily
* indicates required