LISBON, August 5, 2023 — Pope Francis met yesterday with 17 other religious leaders at Portugal’s Apostolic Nunciature.

“We know this is a goal of Pope Francis’ pontificate, this interreligious dialogue,” said Timóteo Cabral, President of the Evangelical Alliance of Portugal, “We all came out of that meeting with the feeling that we had an encounter, not an audience or a reception. It was an encounter. An encounter among friends, a fraternal encounter, grounded on common values.”

Victor Forghani from the Bahá’í community, explained:

“It was an honor to be here, with our brothers of other religious confessions. It was a very moving and simple moment… The Holy Father transmitted a very brief but deep message, thanking us for all the work the religious confessions in Portugal are doing for interreligious dialogue.”

Sheik Munir spoke favorably of the pope:

“His Holiness is a spiritual man… When we speak with him, we can see he is a man of God, who wants peace in the world… He is a man who exudes peace. He doesn’t merely speak of peace but he exudes peace, he exudes love.”

Suryakala Chhanganlal, representing the Hindu Community, agreed with the sheik’s assessment, saying, “It was very moving. It was my first time meeting these important representatives. I was nervous, but in the end everything turned out alright. He exudes peace.”

On August 2, there had already been a ceremony at the Tropical Botanical Garden of the University of Lisbon, where six trees were planted, representing the six major families: Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Fraternity, a common refrain

When asked about the meeting, both outside the nunciature and at the press conference that followed, all religious leaders seemed to agree on the most important element during Pope Francis’s intervention: fraternity.

“He speaks of fraternity, that we are all brothers, that we are all equal,” said Sheik Munir. “We must help each other, no matter what belief we hold… The most important thing is to respect the human person, be fraternal, and relay the love we all have.”

Joaquim Moreira, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, added, “He spoke of brotherhood among peoples, and that we should help the youth rip open the veil for the knowledge of transcendence… I felt that when I was with him, the ripping open of the veil towards transcendence. He said we must all do this work, in fraternity and love between each other.”

Fr. Peter Stilwell, Director of the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Interreligious Dialogue for World Youth Day (WYD) reported how the pope made a gesture of putting the hand in the pocket and said: “It is preferable to have an extended hand — to greet — than a hand in the pocket, which signifies not only a matter of money, but how things are always negotiable. There are things that are non-negotiable, such as the openness to God, the dignity of the human person, the appeal to fraternity.”

Suryakala Chhanganlal also saw fraternity as this meeting’s key message, saying that Pope Francis “had a message of fraternity… He emphasized the need for fraternity, and the importance of each religious confession for that end. That’s what he emphasized the most.”

This fraternity, however, is not restricted to the ecumenical or interreligious setting, but must overflow towards the rest of society. “The Pope is here to encounter all the youth from all worlds, relaying a message of hope, a message that God is open to all, but he doesn’t forget all units that need to make an effort to change the world and to change ourselves, so that we can create a peaceful society,” said Chhanganlal.

Jorge Pina Cabral, bishop of the Lusitanian Church (of the Anglican communion), agreed. “This was the appeal of the pope,” he said. “To have fraternity as a path, as a work, that religions must have not only among themselves, but also for the society in which they are inserted.”

“Now this work of fraternity assumes that we can see each other as essential, that we respect the differences with others and that we can, together, build and help build what we perceive as fundamental in our context, particularly in Portugal, through the inclusivity of minorities, the openness to the problems that those minorities experience,” Bishop Cabral added.

On July 6, there was a controversy around an interview of Bishop Américo Aguiar, President of the WYD Lisbon 2023 Foundation, when he tried to apply the principles of Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’s encyclical on human fraternity, to answer a question on interreligious dialogue.

Portugal as an example

The religious leaders were also in agreement that Portugal is an exemplary country in terms of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, a situation that certainly positioned WYD Lisbon to be particularly successful in this area.

David Botelho, from the Lisbon Israelite Community, explained: “I think we [Portugal] are an example. We were always an example in terms of peace and dialogue. We must continue with our good work in these areas.”

Joaquim Moreira, from the Church Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, offered a challenge rooted in the words of the pope “that Lisbon may become an ambassador of interreligious dialogue and of peace in the world. I don’t know how that would be possible, but the work that Portugal has developed in this area has been fantastic.”

Portugal has long been seen as enjoying a very good environment of communication between religions. For example, Sheik Munir defended Pope Benedict XVI when his words were taken out of context in the Regensburg controversy.

WYD Lisbon: a trailblazer?

Fr. Stilwell explained how he was asked to step in at an early stage of the WYD planning, because he already had experience with interreligious dialogue: “So that means that at some higher level they were interested, as you have seen in the homily by Manuel Clemente.”

This was not the first time that interreligious dialogue was integrated into a WYD gathering. In Sydney in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI also met with leaders of other religions. At the WYD Farewell Ceremony that year, Benedict said, “The meeting with ecumenical and interreligious leaders was marked by a spirit of genuine fraternity and a deep desire for greater collaboration in building a more just and peaceful world.”

Fr. Stilwell recalls the less well-publicized dialogue during the 2019 WYD gathering: “In Panama there had already been a meeting in the nunciature between Pope Francis and leaders of other traditions. But that hadn’t been noticed.” When he was called to organize the interreligious dialogue dimension of WYD Lisbon, Fr. Stilwell took that to mean that “there had been circumstantial meetings with other leaders, but that this time there was an intention somewhere that the interreligious dimension and Christian unity dimension should be highlighted.”

WYD as a space for interreligious dialogue

“These WYD have been an ecumenical and interreligious space,” explained Bishop Cabral of the Lusitanian Church. “There are movements from within the Catholic Church whose purpose has been to draw Christians nearer… What I have felt in this WYD has been a great concern that everyone will feel at home, that no one feels excluded.”

Cabral recounted another ceremony that happened on August 3 at the Church of S. Domingos in Lisbon, saying, “There were so many churches united there, praying the Our Father, but also recognizing the things that have divided us like, for example, in the case of Christians, the impossibility to have communion together. So, an empty chalice and paten were placed on top of the altar of the Church of S. Domingos, symbolizing the path that we must undertake as Christians, the path towards unity, and also the path that we may all, one day, have communion under the same table.”

The Lusitanian bishop also expressed his hopes that these WYDs will help “establish a greater commitment to ecumenism and a greater unity of Christians in Portugal. And I am sure that young people today are living this experience. It is with great joy that I share that young people from the Lusitanian Church, of which I am a bishop, are also participating in this WYD, and are involved with other young people in experiencing the spaces of prayer, the spaces of reflection, and also the spaces of joy.”

In response to the spirit of the World Youth Day gathering as a whole, Sheik Munir enthusiastically declared, “The Catholic youth are to be congratulated.”

An earlier version of this article was published at The City and the World. Click here to subscribe for news, interviews, and other exclusive content.

Image: Claire DominguesPedro Gabriel

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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