Interreligious dialogue in Asia
... a way of being Church
An Interview with Scarboro missioner Fr. Ray O'Toole
Submitted by the Scarboro Missions Interfaith Desk
Scarboro missioner Fr. Ray O'Toole (inset) is Assistant Secretary-General for the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences in Hong Kong. Fr. O'Toole first went to Hong Kong in 1988. He has also served in Canada, most recently as a member of the leadership Council of Scarboro Missions and as coordinator of Scarboro's Interfaith Desk. He has also worked at the Toronto School of Theology. His first mission placement was to Brazil in 1964.
Scarboro Missions: What is the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC)?
Fr. Ray O'Toole: In some Asian countries, the Catholic bishops have formed a national organization known as a "conference." There are 16 such conferences. The Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference aims to support and coordinate the work of these many conferences by developing a common pastoral approach. And, of course, we want to give an Asian face to these conferences. Keep in mind that there are many different cultures in Asia.
Scarboro Missions: Could you tell us more about the work of the FABC?
Fr. O'Toole: The work of the FABC is carried out by nine offices or departments: Human Development, Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Social Communications, Laity and Family, Education and Student Chaplaincy, Clergy, Consecrated Life, Evangelization, and Theological Concerns.
Each office has its own mandate and set of objectives. For example, as the Asian Church's response to a growing number of interfaith marriages, the FABC Office of Theological Concerns is currently developing general pastoral guidelines for Catholics involved in mixed faith marriages. The guidelines will serve as an aid to countries in Asia in developing their own specific guidelines because the cultural situations are so different from country to country. Last year the Office of Theological Concerns also sponsored a seminar on interfaith marriage.
"The Asian Bishops have developed their own way of doing theology, their own way of being Church a way of being Church that is very Asian in character and reflects the circumstances in which the Church finds itself."
Another example is the FABC Office for Education and Student Chaplaincy, which recognizes the importance for university students to understand interfaith dialogue and the Catholic perspective on dialogue. Last year the Office sponsored a student conference focused on the Catholic encounter with Confucianism, Taoism and folk religions.
Scarboro Missions: Does the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference have an overall pastoral approach?
Fr. O'Toole: Yes, it does. Over the years, FABC has developed its own way of doing theology, its own way of being Church a way of being Church that is very Asian in character and reflects the circumstances in which the Church finds itself.
Accordingly, the FABC has developed a pastoral approach that involves a triple dialogue:
dialogue with religions, dialogue with cultures, and dialogue with the poor. This three-point thrust characterizes all of the FABC's work. It is our way of being Church in Asia. And I think that the larger international Church has something to learn from this triple dialogue in the Asian Church.
Scarboro Missions: Could you comment on the interreligious reality of Asia from a Catholic perspective?
Fr. O'Toole: In most parts of Asia, interfaith is the way of life because you cannot help but brush up against other religions on a daily basis.
And these religions make themselves felt. Travel to Thailand and you will experience a profound encounter with Buddhism. Travel to India and you will be impacted by Hindu culture.
Of course, Catholicism is very much a minority within Asia. It is encouraging to see more and more Catholics engaging in interreligious dialogue throughout the various countries of Asia. And in many of these countries, there are numerous Catholic theologians and scholars who are experts in world religions and interfaith dialogue.
Scarboro Missions: Last October, the FABC sponsored the Asian Mission Congress in the city of Chiang Mai in Thailand. It was an historic event that brought together representatives of the Roman Catholic Church from all the countries of Asia. Can you tell us about the congress?
Fr. O'Toole: Yes, it was historic. It was the first Asia-wide Church gathering in history. The conference attracted more than 1,000 people from 28 countries. This extraordinary event focused on the story of Jesus in four realms in the religions of Asia, in the peoples of Asia, in the cultures of Asia and in the life of the Asian Church.
Allow me to quote from a statement released by the FABC at the end of the conference:
"The multiplicity of cultures and languages added light and color to the celebration of our one common faith. We listened to narratives about the elderly, families, youth, children and women, Basic Ecclesial Communities. We heard perspectives from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Tribal Peoples. Contemporary contexts were highlighted: Consumerism, Media, Migrants, and Interfaith Dialogue. How significant these are to the mission of the Church in the present context of ethnic conflicts and religious tensions!
"The Story of Jesus was the unique thread, weaving all these life experiences into one grand narrative. All the colors, peoples, languages, cultures, values, religions, and arts of Asia's peoples formed one grand tapestry. Lord, how marvelous are your ways! How deep your designs!"
Scarboro Missions: How has your Asian experience affected you personally and as a Catholic?
Fr. O'Toole: What strikes me most deeply is the depth of spirituality in these ancient Asian religions. Asian culture is imbued with spirituality and one cannot but be influenced by this. And I believe that this depth of spirituality is Asia's gift to the world.
The contemplative stream that flows from these religions is having a deepening influence on the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Asian Church is a beneficiary of the depth of spirituality that surrounds it and will be able to share this inheritance with the larger global Church.
At the same time, our rich Catholic tradition of spirituality has lots to contribute to the Asian religions and to the dialogue with them. What we are discovering is that interreligious dialogue is a way of being Church in Asia.
For me, it is a great gift and a privilege to work with the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference in its commitment to dialogue with religions, cultures and the poor.