Enlarge the space of your tent

Cover of the Working Document for the Continental Stage, titled "Enlarge the space of your tent".

Cover of the Working Document for the Continental Stage, titled "Enlarge the space of your tent".

There is an old joke about St Peter welcoming new arrivals to heaven. He introduces them to everyone there, from every tribe and tongue and people and religion. They ask about a high-walled enclosure. St Peter replies, "Oh! That's for the Catholics! They think they're the only ones here!!"

Yes, we can be very "tribal", thinking and engaging only with our own group!

The title of the Working Document for the Continental Stage of the Synod of Bishops is "Enlarge the space of your tent", from Isaiah 54:2. For the ancient Israelites, it was a message of hope, of expectation, of new possibilities. They had been deported and were living in exile in Babylon. They felt abandoned by God. They were without temple, ritual, and sacrifice, so they had no recourse to God. They were bereft, grieving, and tempted to despair. The Prophet Isaiah encourages them to widen their horizons, to see the new things that God was about to do - to bring them back to Jerusalem, to restore their fortunes, to re-build the Temple, to make it a place for all nations - a promise which Christians confess has been fulfilled in Christ, our mediator in heaven (see Hebrews 8-9).

For the Synod, this title shows that God is bigger than our petty "tribal" concerns, that God is bigger than our small worlds, that God is bigger than our narrow visions, and that God reaches out to people of all nations and all religions.

For those of us working in interreligious dialogue, the minimal references to interfaith relations in the Synod of Bishops synthesis documents is disappointing.

  • The Australian Synthesis gives one sentence: "There was a need for more openness to, and better formation for, strengthened interfaith relations." (#62)
  • The New Zealand Synthesis also gives one sentence, "There was awareness that working for Christian unity and dialogue with other faiths are an essential part of the Church's mission", and references the trauma of the Christchurch mosque attacks as having deepened collaboration. (# 49)
  • The Pacific Synthesis gives one qualified bullet point: "Dialogue with members of other denominations and religions but maintaining the Biblical Catholic truths to make the Catholic church more palatable to people of other religions." (p.15)
  • The Working Document for the Continental Stage references interfaith families, and then makes the following strong assertion:

Revitalizing the commitment to dialogue and accompaniment as a witness in a fragmented world requires targeted formation that increases confidence, capacity and motivation for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue among bishops, priests, consecrated women and men, lay men and women. (# 49)

It concludes with a quote from the Church in India that ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is "minimal" and attracts "only a handful of elites" who remain at a "cerebral level" rather than a mass movement of people working together on common causes.

Apart from the clarion call for education and formation in interreligious dialogue for all Catholics, there's no specific direction, guidance, or leadership in any of the above four documents. While the texts of these documents lack encouragement, I take great heart from the title of the Working Document for the Intercontinental Stage, "Enlarge the space of your tent".

My experience in interreligious dialogue over many years has enlarged my world. It has expanded my understanding of God. It has stretched my boundaries, and it has widened my horizons. I have seen God's goodness and grace in Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and people of goodwill who are not affiliated with any religion.

I hope and pray that the Synod process will "enlarge the space of the Church's tent", that it will break down the walls that separate us from others, that it will purge us of our tribalism, that it will make us more inclusive, that it will widen our horizons, that it will expand our missionary outreach to people of all religions and none, in encounter, dialogue and cooperation.  

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

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