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The Commitment of the Order of Friars Minor
to Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue
The commitment of the Order of Friars Minor to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, especially with Islam, comes from a long tradition and, besides being in the Rule written by St. Francis, is also legislated for in our General Constitutions. Francis, turning to the Friars who were about to go on mission, exhorted them saying: «As for the Brothers who go, they can live spiritually among the Saracens and non-believers in two ways. One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians. The other way is to announce the Word of God, when they see it pleases the Lord, in order that (unbelievers) may believe in Almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Creator of all, the Son, the Redeemer and Saviour, and be baptised and become Christians…» (RnB 16,5-7).
The present General Constitutions, on beginning the chapter on evangelisation, takes up the concept of Francis once again: «The witness of one’s life, or the silent proclamation of the kingdom of God, is a kind of initial step and the first method of evangelisation. It can and must be given by all the friars, clerics and lay, by those who preach, pray or "work", by the young and the old, by the healthy and the sick» (GGCC. OFM 89,1).
Leaving aside the long and, for us distant, complex history, we can say that in recent decades and in the spirit of the II Vatican Council certainly, this commitment has been intensified and has taken on many concrete and institutionalised forms.
Following the impulse from the Council, the Order set up a Commission for relations with Islam: the Commission immediately showed itself to be very active by organising meetings and study congresses and promoting initiatives for the formation of the Friars.
Among the countries of Muslim majorities there are “historical” Franciscan presences that go back to Francis himself, such as Morocco and the Holy Land. Friendly relationships have since been started and consolidated in other countries of Africa and Asia also.
In “the spirit of Assisi”
After the 27th October 1986, the date of the great interreligious meeting convoked by John Paul II in Assisi, the need to have a new ecumenical and interreligious spirit arise has been clearly shown. Many Friars, in different countries of the world, have followed the example of the Pope by organising annual meetings with representatives of the different Christian Confessions and of different religions: I am thinking in particular of Egypt, Indonesia, Syria, Canada and Sweden.
Initiatives for dialogue have been carried out in Europe also. Among the more significant was that of the Province of Cologne, in Germany, which established a Fraternity explicitly assigned to the reception of and dialogue with the numerous Turkish immigrants and given the task of promoting both dialogue with Turkish Muslims and reconciliation between Turks and Kurds. I am thinking also of the Friars of Paris who, as in every year, have also, on the occasion of 27th October last, organised a great interreligious “celebration” with the participation of those responsible for the Jewish and Muslim Communities in France. They organised the whole lot in communion with the laity and Sisters of the Franciscan Family, with the help of friends from the Community of St. Egidio and of the Focolari.
On the level of the General Curia we have intensified a relationship of collaboration with the Community of St Egidio in order to renew the commitment of the Order to proceeding along concrete paths of dialogue.
Many other initiatives of interreligious dialogue have arisen and been consolidated in accordance with the possibilities offered by the local situations: e.g., in India, in Bangalore, a fruitful exchange of spiritual experiences with Hindu monks has been begun and some Friars have “inculturated” their Franciscan presence by living in a ashràm, with a style of life similar to that of local religious.
Analogous contacts have been undertaken with Buddhist monks. In Korea some Friars have passed periods of some months in Buddhist monasteries in order to be introduced to their methods of prayer; at the moment also some young Friars attend schools of prayer guided by Buddhist masters. Interest in Buddhist spiritual experience also characterises the small Franciscan presence in Thailand through the opening of a house of prayer managed by the Friars.
The year 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of the frontier that separated Western Europe from the East, marked a decisive turning point in the commitment of the Order to dialogue, involving the Minister and Definitory General in many rounds of talks and direct interventions. The European situation has convinced us to concentrate our attention on ecumenical dialogue, especially with Orthodoxy. From this was born the “ecumenical pilgrimage” that we are trying to continue through that “spirituality of meeting”, which seems to us to be characteristic of Francis, and through a style of “silent presence”, of witness through life, rather than by word.
After the first meeting of the Minister General, Br. Hermann Schalück, with the Patriarch Alexis II in Moscow (11th January 1993), spurred on by the desire to learn some elements of spirituality and given the many points of affinity between Orthodox and Franciscan spirituality, we asked to initiate relationships of knowledge and collaboration with Russian Monasticism that was being re-born. At the end of a frank conversation, the Patriarch ended the meeting with the words: “Collaboration is possible on this basis”. The visit of the Minister General was followed by other meetings in successive years and by an exchange of visits between Monks and Friars. A delegation of Friars and Franciscan Sisters visited Orthodox Monasteries in Russia and an official delegation of Orthodox Monks and Nuns visited the Franciscan sanctuaries. There was also a book published with the biographies of Franciscan and Russian Orthodox saints, in Italian with parallel Russian translation, to be circulated in Orthodox and Franciscan ambiences. Mutual knowledge, through testimonies of sanctity, is very important for dialogue.
The “Russia-Kazakhstan Project” was also born under the impulse of the General Definitory on the 15th October 1994, with the aim of co-ordinating and consolidating the Franciscan presence in these countries. Naturally, attention to ecumenical dialogue was one of the priorities for this type of presence, in which a generous disposition to meeting the other and a convinced spirit of service are essential. Today we have three Fraternities in Russia and two in Kazakhstan, made up of some fifteen Friars from different nations.
During the period of 3rd to 6th March 1995, the Minister General met the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, thus attempting to extend and consolidate a direct relationship with the whole of Orthodoxy. This meeting also set in motion a series of relationships that continue up to the present. A dialogue between Friars and Monks of the Patriarchate on “Spirituality and ecumenical dialogue” was held in Istanbul. A study seminar on the subject of: “Re-reading the Councils in dialogue” was organised in Turkey in collaboration with the Ecumenical Patriarch. Every year since then, on the occasion of the Feast of St. Andrew, the Patron of the Patriarchate, a delegation of the Order goes to Constantinople on a friendly and fraternal visit in order to present their best wishes to the Patriarch. With this simple gesture the fraternity is well consolidated.
There is, finally, a further initiative that is about to arrive in port: The Order had a presence in Istanbul, already at the end of its tether, which no longer responded to the situation and present requirements of the country. The re-foundation and re-qualification of the presence was decided on with the establishment of an international Fraternity, characterised by witness and dialogue with the local Islamic reality and with the Orthodox world that sees the presence of the Patriarch and of many ancient oriental Churches in Istanbul.
From the 21st to the 23rd March 1997, the Minister General and the Vicar General of the Order went to Belgrade to pay a visit and to give a greeting of Peace and Good to the Patriarch, Paul II, the representative of a Church that is considered with diffidence and suspicion by a great part of the world, even Christian. It was a totally gratuitous visit, without any pastoral interests to protect, even if there were two of our Fraternities in Serbia. The initiative deeply touched the soul of the Patriarch and opened the doors to the sending of a delegation that met the Pope during his visit to Zagreb a few days later. Up to that moment it was taken for granted that no delegation would have been sent by the Serbian Church.
On the 30th June 1999, the undersigned was invited by the local Church for the famous visit of the Pope to Bucharest. During a subsequent visit to the Friars who work in Romania, I had the possibility of a personal meeting with the Patriarch, Theoctist, and of visiting an Orthodox Monastery in Bucharest. During the meeting with the Patriarch it was hoped that Friars and Monks could follow the example of the Holy Father and of the Patriarch during the visit and that they could meet systematically in order to know, love and stimulate each other in fidelity to their vocation. This is now being done.
During last summer there were two significant events: an experience of itinerant evangelisation on the part of a group of young Friars who shared for some months the life of the “street children” in Bucharest, stopping for prolonged prayer in the churches that put them up. A second group of Friars and other Italian Franciscans visited some Orthodox Monasteries and next January a delegation of Romanian Orthodox Monks and Nuns will visit our Convents, beginning in Bari, passing through Rome and Assisi and on to Venice and Padua. Naturally, we are not dealing with tourist visits, but of occasions for exchanging experiences and reflections and of praying together.
Franciscans of other Christian Confessions
I would like to recall the latest initiative with regard to ecumenical dialogue. There are, in different parts of the world, stable Franciscan Congregations, both male and female, recognised by their respective Churches, and of different Christian Confessions: Anglican, Lutheran, etc. We thought of organising a first meeting of the Catholic Franciscan Family with that of non-Catholics: we will hold it here in Rome, but also with some days in Assisi and other significant places for Franciscanism. It is a first attempt to give stability to the relationships that already exist with these Brothers and Sisters of other Christian Confessions, in the different nations, which try to follow the gospel forma vitae of Francis of Assisi.
The “St. Bernardine” Institute of Ecumenical Studies in Venice
The Institute was born of the experience of various courses on ecumenism, begun in the Theological Study Centre of Verona during the 70s. In 1981, at the request of the Italian Episcopal Conference and in agreement with the Pontifical Athenaeum Antonianum, these courses were structured into a two-year autonomous course, corresponding to the academic requirements necessary to obtain a license in theology. At the same time the paper work for its recognition was begun at the Congregation for Catholic Education. While the Institute of Ecumenical Studies was transferring its activities to its new headquarters in Venice, the Congregation gave its approval to the two-year course (1St March 1990). This now allows for the reception of a license in theology with specialisation in ecumenical studies from the faculty of Theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Antonianum. Besides the teaching, guaranteed by teachers from different Christian Confessions, the Institute organises congresses and seminars in collaboration with other institutes operating in this field. At the Institute also the chair of theology and spirituality The Lord is One, which promotes cultural activity that is not strictly academic, is active.
Finally, we are convinced that the quality of dialogue does not depend on the quantity or vastness of initiatives: the first preoccupation is that of forming the Friars for dialogue and meeting with all. And so that the initiatives of the Minister and Definitory General do not remain as isolated episodes and without consequence for the rest of the Order, we have established (on 13th May 1996) a “Service of Dialogue”. It is composed of three commissions that take an interest in, respectively, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and dialogue with cultures. It is coordinated by the Vicar General along the Directive Lines laid down, which emanate from the Definitory General. The experience of these years has taught us that these commissions, rather than operating as central organisms that furnish information and directives to the local entities, are useful if they do their best for local animation in direct collaboration with the Friars of the various regions. Two international congresses have achieved good results in this direction: one in Cali, Colombia, during the summer of 2000, which saw the Commissions for dialogue with religions and culture involved and the other in Damascus, in the autumn of the same year, organised by the Commission for ecumenical dialogue.
At the moment, aiming at formation, we are committed to offering all the Friars formation aids, destined for study by individuals and for ongoing formation in local Chapters. It was sought to make them easy to handle and read, with language that is accessible to the simplest person. The first booklet, entitled: “The ecumenical vocation of the Franciscan”, was issued in 2001; the second is now at the printers and deals with dialogue itself; the third should appear before Easter 2003 and will deal with interreligious dialogue.
To finish, I think it can be said that by rediscovering dialogue, the Order has in some way recovered one of the most characteristic and constant traits of its history.
Br. Giacomo Bini, ofm
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