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Symposium encourages interreligion dialogue

Kristen Durbin | Sunday, February 5, 2012

As one of the nation’s most prominent Catholic universities, Notre Dame will uphold the Church’s commitment to peaceful interfaith dialogue by hosting a symposium featuring leading members of the world’s foremost religions.

“Stories of Practical Holiness: An Exercise in Interreligious Understanding,” which takes place Feb. 5 to 8 and is sponsored by the Institute for Church Life (ICL), brings together Buddhist, Sikh, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish perspectives on the common element of holiness to facilitate admiration across religious boundaries, ICL director John Cavadini said.

“The reason we chose this focus is because we wanted it to be something irreducibly religious, like holiness, but also practical, as in holiness that has an effect in social or cultural renewal,” he said. “We want to give people who think religion is only a source of violence or problems a way of seeing something irreducibly religious that has an obvious practical impact, not in spite of its being religious but because it is religious.”

Cavadini said the conference’s focus on stories of holiness stems from an idea outlined by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical letter, “Veritatis Splendor.”

“[John Paul] reminded us that Christians have moral heroism in common with the ‘great religious and sapiential traditions of East and West,’ so that made me think that we can admire people across cultural and religious boundaries as a kind of pedagogy,” he said. “If you can admire someone, it means you’re able to learn something from your admiration, so interreligious understanding comes from this pedagogy of admiration.”

Though interreligious understanding and dialogue may be commonly perceived as conversations over religious doctrine or pluralism, Cavadini said the symposium aims to dispel these misconceptions by promoting cross-cultural and religious admiration in spite of doctrinal differences between religions.

“It’s not about doctrine or collapsing all religions into one, but nevertheless it’s interesting that in spite of doctrines that are not reconcilable with each other, you can still admire the holiness of someone across cultural and religious boundaries,” he said.

The symposium opened Sunday with a screening of the critically acclaimed film “Of Gods and Men,” which tells the story of a group of Trappist monks who lived in peace with the largely Muslim community of Algeria until seven of them were assassinated during the Algerian Civil War in 1996. Fr. Armand Veilleux, a priest who knew the monks, will give a related presentation titled, “Of Gods and Monks: The Story of the Trappist Martyrs of Algiers,” on Monday night.

Sunday’s events also featured a Buddhist account of holiness from Dharma Master Hsin Tao, titled “Transforming Self and the World: A Tale of Buddhist Spirituality.” He will also lead conference participants in a Zen meditation session at 2 p.m. on Monday.

Monday’s programming will also include the story of Bhai Sahib (Dr.) Mohinder Singh Ahluwalia, a visionary Sikh faith leader who operates a charitable organization in Birmingham, United Kingdom.

Muslim perspectives on holiness will take center stage during Tuesday’s events, which include presentations by Islamic scholar Abdolrahim Gavahi and the co-founders of the Open House Peace Center in Ramle, Israel.

Based on the examples of holiness presented at the conference, Cavadini said he thinks interfaith dialogue should be generally encouraged, but Notre Dame plays a special role in this discourse as a religiously affiliated institution.

“I think we have an opportunity to get into [interfaith dialogue] in a unique way from secular universities where you simply study the religions,” he said. “But since we operate frm the core of Catholicism, we have an opportunity to be a dialogue partner and engage persons of faith, not just the religions they represent.”

Cavadini said the University’s opportunity to engage in interfaith dialogue follows the example of Pope Benedict XVI and his efforts to promote interreligious discourse.

“The reason we have the Pope on the conference poster is because he convened an interfaith group in Assisi to pray for peace, so we’re following his lead on this,” he said.

Though the overarching goal of the symposium and others like it is to promote widespread interreligious understanding, Cavadini said that can only occur if people take the first step of engaging in genuine admiration.

“I want people to contemplate sources and wellsprings of admiration and what that teaches us about people we may not agree with,” he said. “You’re guaranteed to learn something from genuine admiration.”

More information about the symposium and upcoming interfaith events is available at icl.nd.edu