Columbans in Australia are Pioneers in Interreligious Dialogue

Photo: Western Sydney Women's Interfaith Initiative

Photo: Western Sydney Women's IntHERfaith Initiative

The Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations was a pioneer in interfaith relations when it was established in 1997, and it continues to give prophetic leadership in this missionary apostolate.

The original founders of the Centre were women and naturally engaged with women of other faiths. One of the initiatives from that time, the Women's Interfaith Network (WIN), has been meeting monthly for the past 20 years, promoting friendship and mutual understanding among women. More recently, we started the Western Sydney Women's IntHERfaith Initiative to bring women in that part of Sydney together for support and friendship.

We observed that many of the Catholic participants in interfaith activities were senior citizens during those early years. Concerned that interfaith had to be passed on to the next generation, we employed a young person to promote interfaith among her peers. After some experimenting, the first Youth PoWR (Parliament of the World's Religions) was held in 2015. It has since become a leading platform for young adults from different religions to have a voice and vote in shaping our multicultural, multi-religious society. 

In 2021, after two years of consultations and drafting coordinated by the staff of the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, Youth PoWR launched The Sydney Statement, an interfaith charter for building bridges between believers from different religions. This is a world-class document that promotes positive relations among people of different faiths. 

Returning the hospitality we have so often received as guests at iftar dinners during Ramadan, together with Bishop Vincent of the Diocese of Parramatta, we have co-hosted interfaith iftar dinners, bringing people of different faiths together for conversation and table fellowship. Such face-to-face encounters are the best way to break down stereotypes and prejudices. 

We are currently working with Bishop Vincent in getting the Interfaith Commission of the Diocese of Parramatta up and running and look forward to working with the members of the Commission in promoting interfaith relations in parishes and schools across western Sydney.

Columban staff of the Centre have contributed to academic courses at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and talks at conferences, schools, parishes, adult formation, and seminaries. We co-host the Abraham Conference, which brings together Jews, Christians and Muslims. We publish the quarterly newsletter Bridges, occasional interfaith resources, and have a strong presence on social media. During the COVID pandemic, our interfaith activities migrated online, presenting at the national Mission One Heart Many Voices conference, the Alive in the Spirit pastoral conference, and the international Parliament of the World's Religions. We also attend and participate in Muslim, interfaith and community events and celebrations. Through the Columbans, the Church is present among the various communities that make up our multicultural, multi-religious society. 

Various people and organisations call on our expertise in interfaith. Columban staff of the Centre are part of local and national interfaith bodies such as Religions for Peace, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Association (JCMA) of Australia, the NSW Council of Christians and Jews and the Australian Catholic Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which advises the Bishops Commission of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

As an activist in interreligious dialogue, I have contributed to the consultations, writing and drafting groups for the Plenary Council, advocating for the inclusion of interreligious dialogue as one of the challenges the Church in Australia must take up. I am also one of the 20 advisors who were asked to assist and support the members of the Plenary in their deliberations.

In 2021 Pope Francis called for a three-year process for the Synod of Bishops, inviting Catholics around the world to contribute to the consultation process. Responding to that invitation and realising that "synodality" means walking, not just with Catholics, but with people of all faiths, in February 2022, the Centre hosted a consultation on interreligious dialogue. We invited a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim woman scholar to share what they expected from Catholics in terms of their attitudes and actions towards Jews and Muslims. This interfaith consultation was a truly ground-breaking experience that merits to be repeated in dioceses across Australia and the world. Not surprisingly, it was the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations who conceived the idea and brought it off. Following in the footsteps of our founders, the staff of the Centre continue to be pioneers in interreligious dialogue.      

Rev Dr Patrick McInerney, Director, Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations.

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