Interreligious dialogue needs to understand the cultural interweaving of religions in different contexts, says Ambrogio Bongiovanni, the director of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Interreligious Studies.
For example, the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Europe is different from the relationship between Christianity and Islam in South Asia, or Iran, says Professor Bongiovanni, who also teaches Missiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Prof Bongiovanni lived some 25 years in South Asia, much of that in India, doing research and working for the United Nations. He has pursued his social and ecclesial commitment in the Indian and South Asian contexts.
He also chairs the MAGIS Foundation, a missionary work of the Euro-Mediterranean Province of the Society of Jesus where he oversees projects in areas ranging from human rights to education, and justice in various parts of the world. He has been a member of the Italian Bishops’ Committee for Charitable Action for 12 years.
What is the state of health of interreligious dialogue?
Even when it seemed that dialogue was heading for a standstill, or that certain factors were hindering the process, such as fundamentalism — be it political, religious, or secular — the culture of dialogue continued to grow and develop.
And Church Magisterium documents that have given renewed impetus to dialogue were made possible because Pope Francis recognized the fertile grounds that had been preserved and the seeds of dialogue scattered in various contexts, which needed to be nurtured, strengthened, and allowed to germinate.
Indeed, many processes were revived at the institutional level. At the same time, however, there is a feeling that something is missing….
That is because the culture of dialogue should be promoted also at grassroots level. This does not mean downgrading the content or quality of the dialogue, but rather ensuring that it is individually experienced at all levels.
Educational opportunities and meaningful encounters are needed to ensure that this diﬀerent approach to the complexity of human reality becomes part and parcel of culture and living in our globalized world.
I would have some doubts if the dialogue were carried out only at the institutional level, because institutions may occasionally have multiple goals, which ultimately amount to putting up a facade restricted to the diplomacy of reciprocity.
But I am optimistic because I see so much goodwill, commitment, and sacriﬁce in the pursuit of dialogue, despite threats and setbacks.
There are martyrs of dialogue. St. Charles de Foucauld or the monks of Tibhirine followed the law of love right to the very end.
Indeed, the law of love overturns calculations and the principle of reciprocity, for it opens us up to a different perspective. For this reason, the golden rule of dialogue can be nothing other than the primacy of love.
Where does the Center for Interreligious Studies stand in this context?
I believe that the Center for Interreligious Studies can be compared to a transmitter that receives and sends out messages.
Our reality is still small when compared to other consolidated academic centers yet it has great potential.
Admittedly, the structure, as well as student numbers, are important data for an academic unit, but our dynamism, ﬂexibility, along with the possibility of oﬀering non-structured areas of learning are equally important.
The fact that personalities from the diplomatic world, perhaps operating in non-Christian contexts, turn to us is a signiﬁcant sign.
The Center oﬀers its expertise not only to the outside world but also to other academic units of the Gregoriana. How does this type of academic unit interplay with other disciplines, interact with them, challenge them, and enrich them?
Interreligious studies are not only about studying from an exclusively theological perspective, but they also require greater inter and cross-disciplinary approaches.
In fact, there is a tendency to adopt the historical approach alone when studying the development of religious traditions, failing to reﬂect on inter-religiousness and interreligious dialogue, which encompass all the categories of the human sciences.
Interreligious studies are cradles of dialogue, whose concrete implementation requires the acquisition of tools, skills, and knowledge. Dialogue cannot be only intellectual, for it is a living process, and it cannot be separated from life.
So, what is the speciﬁc feature of the Center, which qualiﬁes precisely as a ‘Center for Interreligious Studies’?
I will give an example.
The Pontiﬁcal Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI), with which we collaborate, already oﬀers courses in Islamic studies or Arabic language; what we are oﬀering is the study of Christian-Muslim relations and their contemporary perspective.
These areas of knowledge are complementary, implying shared competencies, yet with diﬀerent roles and perspectives. I ﬁrmly believe in this line of work, precisely because my area of expertise has been dialogue formation, the pedagogy of dialogue, and studying the categories involved in the dialogue process.
The Center operates in close cooperation with the Faculty of Missiology, enhancing the “contextual perspective.” Can you tell us more about this?
Every religious experience develops within a speciﬁc context and interacts with its inherent cultural aspects, which possess a transformative power.
Therefore, religious traditions, including Christian traditions, must be contextualized.
In the Indian context, in which I have lived, Catholic communities follow three diﬀerent Rites — the Latin, the Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara rites — with as many distinct religious sensitivities.
We may assume that we can understand a single religion by categorization, considering only its generic aspects, but if we delve into the diﬀerent contexts then it becomes more diﬃcult.
It is necessary to study not only the relations between diﬀerent religious traditions, but also the ways in which they are manifested in diﬀerent contexts — whether historical, geographical, or cultural.
The relationship between Christianity and Islam in Europe is diﬀerent from the relationship between Christianity and Islam in South Asia, or Iran.
Therefore, it is important to understand and operate within this interweaving of the cultural — in the broadest sense of the term — and the religious dimensions.
Our eﬀort is to examine contexts from the perspective of communion and universality, to develop an understanding of contexts as forms of richness that form part of the Church’s inculturation process, while simultaneously connecting each context to Church tradition and universality.
In addition to the diploma, over the years the Center developed other areas of study, which form an integral part of the academic path. These include two in particular: the interfaith forums and the intensive study sessions. Will the weekly forums be given a new format in the 2022- 2023 academic year?
The weekly forums are open to the public.
These encounters are of a more cultural and in-depth character, frequently with speakers from outside the Gregorian. They reﬂect the two lines of study of the Center: Christianity-Islam and Christianity-Religions and Cultures of Asia.
They have been quite successful and much appreciated; hence we decided that the time was ripe to promote them further.
Starting next year , while remaining open to the public, the forums will be incorporated into the Center’s Program of Studies with a timetable adjustment to ensure the participation of enrolled students.
This will facilitate students’ engagement with external perspectives and contexts. It will also provide them with an opportunity for open dialogue and ensuing systematic reﬂections.
And as regards the intensive sessions…?
The sessions are seminars focused on speciﬁc topics, in collaboration with other internal and external academic institutions, likewise open to both external participants and students of the Gregoriana.
Two sessions were held this year, in accordance with the Center’s two areas of study.
The session on “The Qur’an in Rome” was co-organized with the University of Naples “L’Orientale”, with “The European Qu’ran” (EuQu) research project, in conjunction with PISAI and several young researchers.
The second session has been taking place at the Camaldoli Monastery, in the days closest to Pentecost, focusing on dialogue with Hinduism and Hindu spirituality.
“Towards Oneness. The Spirituality of Dialogue in Hinduism” was the theme of this year’s event.
This is an edited version of an interview that first appeared in La Gregoriana a publication of the Gregorian University