Consultation Participants. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society
An extraordinary event took place on 24 February 2022. It was truly ground-breaking! The Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations hosted a consultation for the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. We invited representatives from the dioceses of Broken Bay, Parramatta and Sydney, and the Melkite, Maronite and Chaldean Churches. About 20 people participated, including laity, religious, priests and a bishop. They represented families, parishes, youth, education, chancery and diocesan agencies. We followed the directions on the Synod page of the ACBC website. However, instead of Communion, Participation and Mission, with encouragement from the Mission Engagement Team of the Diocese of Parramatta, we focussed exclusively on Interreligious Dialogue. Instead of written reflection questions, we had three speakers. So far, nothing particularly unusual!
Here is the break-through! Instead of Catholics talking among themselves about how to relate to other faiths, we invited a male Jewish rabbi and a female Muslim scholar to share their hopes and expectations of Catholic attitudes and behaviours towards Jews and Muslims respectively.
A bishop, priests, and lay faithful listening to what others hope for and expect from Catholics! Unprecedented! Unheard of! Even the Rabbi found it so unusual that he consulted Rabbi David Rosen in Jerusalem, an international figure in the interfaith scene, who, recognising the significance of the occasion, had a long phone conversation sharing insights with his Australian colleague.
We began the interfaith consultation with Prayer for the Synod: Adsumus Sancte Spiritus, asking the Holy Spirit to guide our reflections, sharing and discernment.
Rev Dr Patrick McInerney set the scene by quoting Pope Francis: "It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium."  He explained that "synodality" comes from the Greek preposition συν (with) and the noun όδός (path). It denotes following a path together. He noted that more than 95% of writing on synodality is about laity, priests and bishops walking together, listening to each other in mutuality and equality. While such synodality is indeed needed and welcome, it is within the church, it is "intra-ecclesial". However, if the church is truly "synodal", he said, it also walks with people of other faiths and worldviews, who comprise more than 80% of the world's population. He noted that this "bi-focal" approach, walking together with Catholics and with believers in other religions and worldviews, is mentioned in Pope Francis' talks on synodality, and in the Preparatory Document and Vademecum of the Synod, but is mostly overlooked.
Rabbi Zalman Kastel acknowledged the dramatic change in recent decades in the Catholic Church's attitudes towards the Jewish people, including Jews not to be blamed for the killing of Jesus, the call for mutual understanding and friendship with Jews, the repudiation of anti-Semitism, the affirmation of the enduring covenant with the Jewish people, the rejection of supersessionism, and respect for Jewish interpretations of the Torah. He highlighted that acknowledging the legitimacy of Jewish faith enables genuine respect as fellow believers. He noted that while Jews being saved without confessing Jesus as the Christ and Messiah seems contrary to core Christian doctrine, Catholic teaching affirms it as "an unfathomable divine mystery". However, he asked how well these changes have been implemented, have they filtered through to the Catholics in the pews? He noted that these teachings need to be made accessible in simple language; that these radically new approaches be required in the training of seminarians and the ongoing formation of priests; that Catholic schools invest resources in promoting these attitudes among teachers and students. He assured us of his prayers for peace for Ukraine, the Holy Land, Israel/Palestine, and for all who lack this blessing . Rabbi Zalman Kastel's talk is available on his blog, Social Issues & Torah (TFH): What do Jews Wish from Catholics?
Dr Mahsheed Ansari also acknowledged the significance of this event, that opening the door of consultation—shura / istishara in Arabic—to other faiths was an exemplary, mature and noble step in interfaith relations. She also acknowledged that the watershed 1965 Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, had inspired great progress in Catholic-Muslim relations in Sydney in the past two decades, including Muslim guest speakers at churches, mosque open days, studies of religion, and home encounters. However, despite all these interfaith efforts, there is much residual mistrust on both sides. Islamophobia looms over the peace and security of Muslims. Identity politics threatens to de-rail genuine encounter. While symbolic meetings by the Pope and Muslim leaders at the top are important, interreligious dialogue must spread at the grassroots. We need friendship campaigns at local level to get to know our Muslim neighbour. Interfaith needs to be promoted in churches and in schools. Muslims too must play a role. One important way of growing interfaith relations is tackling pressing social issues together, such as environmental projects, domestic violence, poverty, child abuse, climate change and advocating on shared values. She concluded that the Abrahamic religions together can be a very positive force for fashioning a civilisation of cooperation and dialogue, based on diversity, not exclusivity.
Discussion and Recommendations
After the three talks, the participants gathered in groups and followed the three-round process outlined in the Listening and Discernment Guide:
- Sharing: In my reflection today I ...
- Listening: In the group I heard … and it left me feeling ...
- Moving Forward: where is this leading us?
Afterwards, a brief verbal report of the "spiritual conversation" in each group was shared with all present. Written reports were later submitted, collated and edited. The following themes and actions emerged as points of consensus:
- Promote grassroots interfaith engagement: encouraging Catholics to reach out beyond their church circle; witnessing that interfaith enriches us; visiting others' places of worship; hosting speakers from other faiths; being intentional about people of other faiths in our social and work settings.
- Promote shared interfaith action: identifying and working on areas of common concern such as environment, asylum seekers, service to the poor and needy.
- Education: making the church's teachings on interreligious dialogue more accessible; facilitating exchanges between schools; formation in interreligious dialogue for seminarians, priests and others in pastoral leadership.
- Consolidation: establish structures at parish and diocesan levels that will consolidate gains and develop new strategies for interfaith engagement.
The draft report was later circulated to the participants for further comment. After further edits, the Final Report was submitted to the Synod of Bishops.
This interfaith consultation for the Synod was truly ground-breaking. The fact of a representative group of Catholics listening to a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim scholar sharing their hopes and expectations of Catholic attitudes and behaviour towards them was "extraordinary". However, as one participant noted, this experience of encounter, listening and dialogue should not be "extraordinary". It should be "ordinary". It should be a normal part of relations between the faithful of our respective religions. The challenge and promise of a truly synodal Church is genuine interfaith fraternity. We recommend that similar ecumenical and interfaith consultations take place in other dioceses around Australia and the world where Catholics listen to the hopes and expectations of other Christians and of believers from other religions.
Rev Dr Patrick McInerney, Director, Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations.
 Francis, "50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops," (2015),