The Service of Faith in a Religiously Pluralistic World (part 3)

Keynote address by the Very Reverend Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus | October 3, 2006

Part 3

Some of your students may identify themselves as members of a religious tradition without actually understanding or appreciating that tradition. How can you help them in a situation like that, especially if religious faith is sometimes seen as a uniquely private affair that has no place in public discourse or is seen at other times as something too important to be left unregulated by a culture’s controls? How can you responsibly serve the faith in order to help them?

First of all, most clearly and obviously you do this by doing the work you have come here to do, by being the best you can be at what you were hired to do, by accomplishing the vocation you have received through the unique combination of talents, training and experience that qualify you to work at a place like Xavier. You help students the most by being dedicated teachers, by contributing to the growing deposit of knowledge about the universe and its operations, by serving the broader community in which the university exists. Whether through direct contact with students as professors or through all the supporting services that made education possible, each person at Xavier can pass on what we know about human existence, contribute to understanding more about the universe in which we live, and serve the local community. You help students learn about their faith by faithfully expressing your own faith through the deeds of your lives.

On another level, you can help students learn about their faith by helping them understand as clearly and as profoundly as possible their own religious tradition and by assisting them to find ways to nurture their commitment to this tradition. As a Jesuit, Catholic university, Xavier has particular responsibility to focus on Christianity, with special attention on Roman Catholicism. However, as Xavier attracts students of other religious traditions, it must explore ways to help them too, not only in academic courses but also in support from student services and campus ministry. As even the most cursory examination of a newspaper reminds us, this topic is essential for the health and safety of our world.

The profound vision of human solidarity articulated at the Second Vatican Council is a good place for understanding both this instinct for helping others and for seeing how it can be done:

    One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the while human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. God’s providence, manifestations of goodness, and saving design extend to all people, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in God’s light.

The Council continues:

    [T]he Church therefore exhorts her sons and daughters, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as socio-cultural values found among these people.9

Following immediately in the inspiration of Vatican II, Xavier University embraced this teaching of the Council regarding other religions, Your Jesuit Father Edward Brueggeman collaborated with ministers of other Christian denominations and with Jewish leaders to found the popular TV series “Dialogue,” which for years led the people of Greater Cincinnati in mutual understanding. In the years since, that effort of Father Brueggeman has led to the establishment of a chair for inter-religious dialogue and now the establishment of the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. You have a great deal here for which to be proud.

You have come to understand, however, that dialogue has its own challenges, not immediately apparent to us at first. We can begin our journey of true dialogue by listening to one another in our various religious traditions. We can learn about one another’s traditions. But true dialogue must move beyond mere “learning about” other religions to the level of conversation among those who profess these differing religious traditions.

Grounded in our own faith tradition, rooted in our personal faith commitment, we are called to encounter other religious traditions. In this we imitate the example of the Lord that is presented in the Gospels: he shared his faith with the Samaritan woman while respecting her convictions; he praised the way the Samaritan cared for the dying man on the road; he responded to the Romans looking for answers to their needs.

True openness to the faith of others can lead us to questions that can cause considerable discomfort. At times, we may be tempted to retreat to the comfort of our own personal, private faiths as we have always known, permitting no further challenges; at other times we may be tempted to embrace a broad yet shallow tolerance that claims that truth is relative. Yet if we engage in serious conversation with people of other faith commitments, and engage in projects of social concern with them, we can often begin to experience our own faith more profoundly and more satisfyingly. What seemed to us as threatening challenges to our personal faith can become new windows of enlightenment to the possibilities of our faith and the faith of others in our world today.