In his whirlwind visit to Egypt over the weekend, Pope Francis gave several talks in many different settings, from his meeting with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and other religious leaders at a conference dedicated to peace to a heartfelt engagement with the Coptic pope. All of what the Holy Father said warrants reading, but I should like to call attention to three items that are especially deserving of reflection.
In his remarks at Al-Azhar, the pope commented on the attributes necessary to a fruitful interreligious dialogue, and he highlighted three, saying:
The duty to respect one's own identity and that of others, because true dialogue cannot be built on ambiguity or a willingness to sacrifice some good for the sake of pleasing others. The courage to accept differences, because those who are different, either culturally or religiously, should not be seen or treated as enemies, but rather welcomed as fellow-travellers, in the genuine conviction that the good of each resides in the good of all. Sincerity of intentions, because dialogue, as an authentic expression of our humanity, is not a strategy for achieving specific goals, but rather a path to truth, one that deserves to be undertaken patiently, in order to transform competition into cooperation.
Pope Francis noted that these three characteristics must intertwine and not be left to stand alone, but I should like to call attention to the last item and, specifically, his assertion that dialogue is "not a strategy for achieving specific goals." Too often, those who really pine for the days before Francis, but who want to mimic his words, betray their inability to grasp the depth of what he is calling for by way of renewal precisely at this point. For them, dialogue is a strategy to "bring people to the truth" as if the bringing were a one-way street. I have heard some practitioners of the "New Evangelization" on EWTN say similar things, suggesting that we should not approach non-Catholics with a truth, but with beauty, and then hit them over the head later with the truth, an assertion that both misunderstands von Balthasar and his theology of aesthetics and what the pope is saying. It is manipulative and the pope in Egypt was making the vital point that dialogue can either be real and authentic or it can be manipulative, making an agenda, but it can't be both.
Pope Francis spoke to civil and diplomatic authorities at the Hotel Al-Masah. There he said:
All of us have the duty to teach coming generations that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, does not need to be protected by men; indeed, it is he who protects them. He never desires the death of his children, but rather their life and happiness. He can neither demand nor justify violence; indeed, he detests and rejects violence ("God ... hates the lover of violence": Ps 11:5).
The true God calls to unconditional love, gratuitous pardon, mercy, absolute respect for every life, and fraternity among his children, believers and nonbelievers alike.
Of course, in saying that "God, the Creator of heaven and earth, does not need to be protected by men," the pope was speaking about those who invoke a religious obligation to perpetrate violence against those who do not believe as they do. But, he might want to file that line away for his next Christmas address to the Roman Curia. Those who have spoken out against Amoris Laetitia certainly need to hear these words as well.
Finally, on Saturday, he said Mass for the Catholic community. Preaching on the Gospel text about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Pope Francis said:
The Risen Lord vanished from the sight of the disciples in order to teach us that we cannot hold on to Jesus as he appeared in history: "Blessed are those who believe and yet have not seen" (Jn 21:29; cf. 20:17). The Church needs to know and believe that Jesus lives within her and gives her life in the Eucharist, the scriptures and the sacraments. The disciples on the way to Emmaus realized this, and returned to Jerusalem in order to share their experience with the others: "We have seen the Risen One … Yes, he is truly risen!" (cf. Lk 24:32).
The experience of the disciples on the way to Emmaus teaches us that it is of no use to fill our places of worship if our hearts are empty of the fear of God and of his presence. It is of no use to pray if our prayer to God does not turn into love for our brothers and sisters. All our religiosity means nothing unless it is inspired by deep faith and charity. It is of no use to be concerned about our image, since God looks at the soul and the heart (cf. 1 Sam 16:7) and he detests hypocrisy (cf. Lk 11:37-54; Acts 5:3, 4). For God, it is better not to believe than to be a false believer, a hypocrite!
True faith is one that makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane.
There is a lot to unpack there. Jesus' vanishing from the sight of the disciples is an astounding moment. As in the accounts of the Ascension, you would think the disciples would be very sad: The one they love has left them. But, in both instances, this is not the case. The disciples become missionaries. They bring Jesus to others. Because he has broken the chains of death, he has, as it were, to constantly remind us that he is everywhere, and so he is in no one place, at least not for very long.
The line about God preferring a nonbeliever to a hypocrite is a challenge to us all, for we all have our moments when we fall short of the life to which we are called. We all have moments when we wish the Lord was not looking. Returning to the theme of dialogue in the first talk cited above, this admonition, so true and so humbling, is a reminder to us all that dialogue really is a mutually enriching, not a manipulative endeavor to convince others to agree with us.
And, the claim that true faith makes us "more humane" brings us into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation. True, the paschal mystery invites us into the divine life, it places an open door in the wall that is death and sin. But, and here I am recalling what Hans Kung wrote in On Being a Christian: Jesus relativizes God to the human precisely because he has relativized the human to God. We are called to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, and the sign of that perfection is becoming more humane, more true to the image in which we were created.
This short trip was filled with significance and symbolism, especially the pope's expressions of solidarity with our Coptic brothers and sisters and his outreach to our Muslim brothers and sisters. His defense of Islam at a time when some in the West evidence nothing but bigotry toward it was notable and necessary. In these short talks, the pope gave us all food for thought, not just those in attendance at the talks, and an inspiration to be a better Christian. As always, his style of speech is accessible but also fresh, the result of a deep and sustained life of prayer and reflection. Many of us prayed for the safety of the Holy Father on this trip as well as should, but we should also offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God for sending us such a wonderful pope.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]