Fr Pierre-François de Béthune osb
A report on the commissions for monastic interreligious dialogue should give information concerning the principal accomplishments, with names and numbers. This I will do.
But first I would like to speak to you in a more general way on the present situation in this area.
General situation of monastic interreligious dialogue
Some of you are already heavily engaged. A number of abbeys, in every continent, among both the Benedictines and the Cistercians, have responded to this new challenge of the Church and have opened themselves to a new dimension. But many others do not yet seem to be concerned. Be assured: I do not want to take advantage of the time given to me to try and convince at any price with authoritative arguments those who do not attach any importance to this question or who feel reticent about such an opening. I want to take up the first requirement of the practice of dialogue which consists in a real respect for the different opinions and convictions of others. My intention is not to convince and make you change your minds in any way. But a report on the situation of interreligious dialogue must, it seems to me, begin by mentioning the limits of the enterprise. In contrast to other works of the Church, such as foreign missions, interreligious dialogue is too recent a preoccupation for it to be considered as something which concerns all the faithful.
The first commissions for interreligious dialogue were only created in 1978, just 22 years ago, in the North American monasteries and in Europe. So it is not surprising that many monks, and even abbots do not even know of the existence of the DIM or MID commissions. One knows that monasteries have many other tasks and other problems and it is not easy to add yet another preoccupation. At present we can see that a certain number of monasteries have difficulty in taking to heart this new situation in the Church which gives rise to an encounter with the great religions. These are monasteries which already have an important and onerous task in the Church, such as parishes, an abbey school or a demanding involvement in liturgy or ecumenism. there are also monasteries situated in less affluent regions which must keep all their energy for the service of their neighbour and the very poor. Again there are very small monasteries which have a struggle to live. In fact the preoccupation with interreligious dialogue only concerns a limited number of monks at present.
But in the last few years the "movement for dialogue" as it could be called, like the "liturgy movement" or the "ecumenical movement", has developed considerably in the Church and more particularly among the monasteries. It is going forward slowly and it is always better when taken up into our benedictine tradition of listening and hospitality.
Specific tasks of DIM/MID
Our commissions try to help monks and nuns to understand this new situation in the Church and to find an adequate response to the challenge it presents.
There are in fact two motivations for interreligious dialogue. Both of them demand the close attention of the members of our commissions. The first concerns the whole world: dialogue is the only remedy for the interreligious and interracial conflicts which have multiplied in the last few years. In fact we can say that the present interreligious situation is above all one of exclusion and violence. Only an attitude of understanding, esteem and welcome, in short an exercise of dialogue, can remedy this deterioration of the situation. We all have to collaborate in the evolution of mental habits, wherever we are. The local commissions try to help monasteries to do this.
But among monks and nuns, among all those engaged in a more intense spiritual life, interreligious dialogue can reach another dimension and indeed attain its real depth when it is found at the heart of a religious search. It can then become a kind of renewed conversion to the Gospel. To enter into dialogue with other people or other spiritual traditions through texts or through practice is not just an academic exercise. The discovery of spiritual; experience among believers of other religions challenges us in our own life of faith. This meeting is certainly not easy nor without danger. One of the principal occupations of our commissions is precisely to help in this indispensable discernment. And to do this we all have a tradition of benedictine discretio. This is the main reason why the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has explicitly requested the collaboration of monks. This work of discernment is not only at the service of monks and nuns. Many people are spiritually searching, as we say, and looking towards the many spiritualities of the East. Christian monks and nuns, well grounded in their own tradition, can help them on their way, particularly if they have knowledge of these oriental paths. This is an important pastoral service which monks and nuns ought to give to guests and all those who expect such assistance from monasteries.
On a wider scale I believe that the Benedictine Order should not deprive the Church of this service in developing really serious academic research in the area of dialogue. I know that some monasteries have already set up a series of studies touching on these subjects. I am thinking in particular of the Abbey of St John at Collegeville in the United States. Here too in Rome, at the Monastic Institute, there are already some courses on Hindu and Buddhist monasticism, but it seems to me that one could do much more.
During the meeting of the European Commissions held in Rome in June this year, we spoke about this to the Abbot Primate. I would like to tell you of the somewhat utopian suggestion which has been put forward: should Sant'Anselmo seize the opportunity of this specific moment in the history of the Church, as happened just before the Council in creating the Liturgical Institute: can we set up here, as soon as possible, an Institute of Dialogue? Monks have a particular vocation in this area, they have a tradition, and some of them already have a specific competence. An Institute of Dialogue which could benefit from contributions of the other Faculties and Institutes of Sant'Anselmo would surely find a place in Rome, as at present nothing of the kind exists among all the Faculties and Institutes of the city. The hospitality which monks can offer to visitors of other religions would add an important dimension to this project.
Whatever happens to this project of our imagination, the need to provide a more serious and specific formation for some monks and nuns remains great. This area of interreligious dialogue is new and requires a particular effort. our commissions want to do all they can to encourage progress in this area.
Organisation of DIM/MID
Since 1994 the DIM/MID Commissions are no longer a sub-commission of AIM. Abbot Primate Jerome Theisen recognised that interreligious dialogue was a specific and autonomous task which needed its own organisation, but still connected to AIM.
The juridical structure of the DIM/MID Commissions was set up at the request of the Abbot Primate and can now be integrated in the jus proprium of the Confederation under the same title as the statutes of AIM.
The DIM/MID Commissions, like AIM, receive their mandate from the Abbot Primate and with the agreement of the Cistercian Abbots General. Thus they are at the service of all the monks of the benedictine tradition.
The General Secretary coordinates the initiatives of the continental commissions. At present there are four: North America, Europe, India with Sri Lanka and Australia (although this last has been somewhat dormant during the past year). I have personal contact with a number of monks and nuns in other regions, such as Eastern Asia, Latin America and Africa, but so far no commission has been set up.
As General Secretary I ensure the commissions' ties with the Abbot Primate and the Abbots General of the Cistercians, and also with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In this capacity I am for the moment a Consultor of this Council.
The most important work of the General Secretary is however the editorship of the International Bulletin of DIM/MID. At present it appears in French and English; arrangements are being made to translate it into German, Spanish and Italian. I believe that to encourage the interest of monks in this subject, information is essential. It allows all those engaged in different ways in interreligious dialogue to know what is happening in the other regions and also to know about the official or significant documents which are published in the Bulletin.
The way the different commissions function obviously depends on each continent. In Europe, for example, there are seven regional sub-commissions, according to language. However there is a common strand in all the commissions: the concern to reach all the monasteries, particularly by "contact persons", those in each monastery charged with drawing attention to this problem. In some countries 70-80% of the monasteries are concerned in this way; in others barely 10%.
Many regional commissions which distribute the International Bulletin also publish their own Bulletin to their commissions, such as the MID Bulletin of the North-American Commission which has already reached no. 65. In Europe and India there are such Liaison Bulletins as well.
As you know, during the last twenty years the commissions of the different continents have also started a series of regular Spiritual Exchanges, during which Christian monks have gone to meet their Buddhist or Hindu opposite numbers in their monasteries in Asia and then invited them in their turn. At the moment I am organising a visit of Japanese monks and nuns to the monasteries of Holland and Belgium. They will stay for the month of September to get to know our spiritual traditions.
Initiatives are diverse and changing. These commissions for monastic interreligious dialogue are all relatively new and they are looking for the best way to respond to the new challenge addressed to the Church and the Monastic Order. They are evolving, sometimes with difficulty, and they are discovering new perspectives for our monastic practice. They need your encouragement and your advice, so that gradually this concern for dialogue may develop and that a movement of dialogue may take shape in the Church.
Fr Pierre François de Béthune was born in 1936 and professed in 1937; he was elected Prior of St-André de Clerlande (Belgium) in 1989. He has been Secretary General of DIM since its inception in 1994.