JOHN PAUL II and OTHER RELIGIONS - Father Ernesto Lettieri

Wednesday, 15 October 2003

Rome (Fides Service) Introduction - “Divinely sent to the nations of the world to be unto them "a universal sacrament of salvation," the Church, driven by the inner necessity of her own catholicity, and obeying the mandate of her Founder, strives ever to proclaim the Gospel to all men.” (Ad Gentes 1).
“In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely he relationship to non- Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.” (Nostra Aetate 1).
The opening of two important documents of the Vatican Council perfectly express the idea of the Church that the Council wanted to outline, a universal sacrament of salvation for all men and women and sacrament of unity for all mankind. Such idea is synthesised even more perfectly in the Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church, the main focus of all teachings of John Paul II together with the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes. Such idea of the Church was inherited by the Council from the Tradition, and it broadened its range of references and stressed its solemnity. The 25 years of the pontificate of Pope Wojtyla, are in furrow of this Tradition, and they represent the realisation and the apostolic and pastoral witness of this idea of the Church as a “sacrament”.
According to John Paul II these two essential perceptions of faith – the Church as universal sacrament of salvation and sacrament of the unity of humankind – did not and do not represent only an intimate nature of the Church, they embody also pastoral and missionary challenges he wants to respond to through his pontificate and especially his teachings. They are two “signs of the times” which the Church wanted to pursue through the person of John Paul II to improve and to express itself better.

John Paul II’s Teachings on Other Religions
All the Pope’s teachings on other religions should be read within the theological, pastoral and spiritual framework we have briefly drawn.
We can find the main framework of John Paul II’s teachings on other religions already within his programmatic encyclical, Redemptor Hominis,. These teachings were the basis for to the ideas developed during the 25 years of his pontificate. In this document, the Pope clearly and unmistakably points out which is the Church’s fundamental task: mission, the task of bringing every man and every woman the Redemption procured by Christ. At this level the Church is called to address – and dialogue with – man himself and all issues related. At numbers 6, 11 and 12 of the document, he outlines in further detail the dialogue the Church should undertake with religions in general and specific religions.
In these sections of his programmatic encyclical, therefore, we can already perceive John Paul II’s vision of other religious traditions at two different levels we consider fundamental: one, the Pope considers other religious traditions universal emanations of the Holy Spirit which blows beyond the visible boundaries of the Church, and they are called to dialogue with it; two, other religions are unmistakably interpreted under the light of the mission the Church to bring Christ’s Redemption to every man and every woman.
Throughout his pontificate, in different ways, John Paul II has often stressed these two fundamental theological considerations on religions, which the Church is called to found its relations with other religions on. With regard to more practical means in order to do so, we need think of the interfaith meeting in Assisi in 1986, where many leaders of different religious traditions gathered around the Pope to pray for peace; and at the same time we should not forget the other encounters he has had in his apostolic journeys, especially in Asia, with the most important religious leaders of the countries he visited. Assisi especially, but all these meetings, have deeply affected the contemporary history of the Church and the world by showing not only a new face of the Church, but also a truly authentic witness of what the Council asked her to do, by being a sacrament of salvation and unity for all mankind.
John Paul II’s teachings on religions are full of these signs, high profile events, but it is also true that the Holy Father’s teachings and words, which we are interested in here, are a novelty of very high stature.
The two fundamental considerations stated above, which the Pope has looked to in speaking of other religions in these 25 years of pontificate, are revealed in several of his speeches and interventions, but especially in two encyclicals which are of great significance within his teachings. The first is the one on the Holy Spirit, Dominum et Vivificantem, the fifth of his pontificate and the final one of the trilogy of encyclicals dedicated to the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Not only does it exalt the person of the Spirit, but it also outlines its action within the Church and its universal action in the world. Especially nr 53 proves that “The wind blows wherever it pleases” (Jn 3, 8), and thus that the Church needs the capability to look “into the deep” to find that there is the Spirit fulfilling the vision of the will of the Father of recapitulating the whole universe in Christ (Cf. Eph. 1, 3-14). It clearly states that “…the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.” (GS 22). At nr 64 it wonderfully stresses how the “Church is the sign and instrument of the presence and action of the life-giving Spirit”. And looking back at the Lumen Gentium it envisions the Church as a sacrament of unity of the whole of mankind, rooted in the mysteries of Redemption and Creation: “And we rejoice to realize ever more clearly that within the work carried out by the Church in the history of salvation. which is part of the history of humanity, the Holy Spirit is present and at work-he who with the breath of divine life permeates man's earthly pilgrimage and causes all creation, all history, to flow together to its ultimate end, in the infinite ocean of God”. (DV 64).

The Main Doctrinal Guidelines of John Paul II’s Teachings on Other Religions
If these, generically speaking, are the Pope’s teachings of on other religions, which doctrine do they embody? Which are the main theological characteristics of John Paul II’s teachings of on other religions?
We must first of all stress how difficult it is to deduce the main guidelines of the teachings on other religious traditions; this issue is obviously intertwined with many theological aspects and with many specific aspects affecting the Church. In these 25 years the Holy Father has considered this issue in different contexts, from different points of view and through a huge range of contents. This means it is not easy to synthesise such a wealth of information and we certainly do not want absolutely to run the risk of diminishing in any way the reach and vastness of such teachings.
The doctrinal points which we consider fundamental in the teachings of John Paul II are the following:
1. The universally operating presence of the Holy Spirit, with no limits of time and space;
2. The Holy Spirit as it acts by means of the “semina verbi”;
3. The Holy Spirit as it acts in the heart of men and women, offering them light and strength to respond to their vocation;
4. The action of the Holy Spirit related also to the “social dimension” of man, thus, also to religion;
5. The general attitude of the Church towards the universal presence of the Holy Spirit and especially towards other religious traditions.
These are the 5 main points of the teachings of John Paul II on other religions, throughout the 25 years of the Holy Father’s pontificate.

Developing the Doctrinal Guidelines of John Paul II on Other Religions
Point 1 refers to the universal action of the Holy Spirit. As we have seen it is rooted in the texts of RM 28 and 29, in DV 53 and RH 64, together with the Council text of GS 22. Its biblical roots can be traced in Jn 3, 8 and Wis 1, 7.
From these texts by John Paul II it seems that within the universal action of the Holy Spirit the historical fact of salvation realised through the historical presence of Jesus from Nazareth is in no way diminished; on the contrary he reveals the universal reach of that salvation in Christ, as through the Holy Spirit is becomes attainable for every man, wherever he may be or whatever may be his social and cultural conditions.
According to the Pope, because of this pneumatologic vision of the Event of Christ, Christianity is given a universal value: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” (RM 10). The greatness of John Paul II is also in having helped the Church of the third millennium discover the universal value of its faith and the consequences of this value.
So, for those who were born and raised in social and cultural conditions different from a Christian context and often educated according to other religious traditions we see that “For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.” (RM 10).
With regard to point 2, we are proved “how” this universally operating presence of the Spirit concretely touches the life of every man and every woman relating him or her to the Redemption operated by Christ.
For the Pope and for the Council (cf. AG 11 and LG 17) the this is fulfilled through the action of the Verb of God which spreads its “seed” of Truth and Good. The ancient doctrine of the “semina verbi”, already adopted by some Fathers of the Church in speaking about the truth revealed outside the Church under different forms, is assumed by John Paul II and related to other religions in RH 11 and obviously in RM 28 by stressing how it is not connected only to the Person of Christ, but also to the universal action of the Spirit of Truth: “The “seeds of truth” present and active in the various religious traditions are a reflection of the unique Word of God, who “enlightens every man coming into world” (cf. Jn 1:9) and who became flesh in Christ Jesus (cf. Jn 1:14). They are together an “effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body” and which “blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8).” (Audience, September 9th, 1998).
This doctrine is significantly inspired to Pope Wojtyla by the fourth Gospel and it is extremely dear to him. It helps us in understanding how in its light, both “economies” – that of the Verb and that of the Spirit – can find an interesting interpretation aimed at realising the unity of the universe and of history: the unity of the human family which the Church is sacrament of: “The universal sacrament founded on the event of creation and redemption can not avoid leaving a trace in the living reality of mankind, even belonging to different religions. For this reason the Council invited the Church to discover and respect the germs of the Verb present in such religions.” (Address to the Roman Curia, December 22nd, 1986).
Points 3 and 4 are important in helping us to understand the anthropological and creational “place” where these seeds of the Verb are spread by the Holy Spirit. The question we want to answer here is “where” does this Grace act, and “what” does this Grace – work of the Verb and of the Spirit – produce within the whole creation?
The Pope, through his teachings, reveals how the Spirit acts within the heart of man and every “social” aspect of the person, where religion and religions dwell.
The Pope speaks of the Spirit’s action within the heart of man in nr 28 RM, obviously focusing his attention, since he was one of its inspirers at the Council, on the doctrine of the Gaudium et Spes, and precisely nr 38. At the light of the doctrine of the Council he wants to stress how man is, in himself, capable of God: “If God opens himself to man in his Spirit, man, on the other hand, is created as a subject capable of accepting the divine self-communication. Man — as the tradition of Christian thought maintains — is “capax Dei”: capable of knowing God and of receiving the gift he makes of himself. Indeed, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gn 1:26), he is able to live a personal relationship with him and to respond with loving obedience to the covenant relationship offered to him by his Creator” (Audience, August 26th, 1998 - cf. DV 34).
But what does the Spirit do through the seeds of the Verb in a heart capable of God?
According to John Paul II – at the light of the teachings of the Council – the Spirit makes man fundamentally “religious”. How? By giving him that “light” and “strength” which enable him to respond to his human and divine vocation (cf. RM 28). This vocation is revealed especially when he expresses himself religiously, more than ever through prayer, or when, in the course of his human activity, man endeavours tending towards Truth, Good and God, or when with his life he bears witness to the absolute value of moral Good (cf. VS 94).
As we have said several times, John Paul II considers a matter of fact that: “The Spirit's presence and activity affect not only the individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions… Again, it is the Spirit who sows the "seeds of the Word" present in various customs and cultures, preparing them for full maturity in Christ.” (RM 28).
Founding his words on the doctrine of GS 22, AG 3, 9, 11 and of the famous document “Dialogue and Proclamation” of 1991 (document issued jointly by the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples), in the quoted Audience in 1998, he even says that normally the followers of other religions answer positively to God and they receive salvation in Christ when they practise what is good according to their own religious traditions, even though they may not recognise Jesus as their Saviour. Actually: “This possibility is achieved through sincere, inward adherence to the Truth, generous self-giving to one’s neighbour and the search for the Absolute inspired by the Spirit of God” (Audience, September 9th, 1998).
What about the Church then? At the light of all this, which is its reason to exist? In such a context, which is its role? Even more! Which behaviour should it assume in facing other religions?
Once again we want John Paul II to answer all these questions in point 5 of our survey. In this final point we want to stress “how” the Church should behave in facing this Spirit that blows from the outside also through other religious traditions.
From the teachings of the Holy Father we can first of all realize the value of this Spirit breathing outside the Church with no limits of time and space, in order to determine the attitude the Church should assume in facing different manifestations of this Spirit, especially in its relations with other religions.
With regard to the value the Church should give the Spirit acting through other religions, the Pope, faithful as always to the Tradition of the Church and to the Fathers up to the Vatican Council, explains to us that because of the presence of the breath of the Spirit, religions should be considered by the Church “praeparatio evangelica” (RM 29, DV 54, TMA 6). This indication directs us towards two essential facts connected to the life of the Church. The first is that there can be no separation between the action of the Spirit and the Verb outside the Church and the action of the Spirit and the Verb within the Church (RM 29, DV 7, 23, 54); even though there is a clear alterity between the two dynamics of this same action. This alterity is due to the absolute novelty of the Incarnation of the Verb which the Church is heir and witness to. The second, equally essential, is that because of the diversified action of the Spirit within the Church, and thanks to the inheritance it received, the Church is called to carry out its mission unerringly. Here, naturally, we obviously cannot quote all the texts of teachings of the Pope referring to the mission of the Church. We would simply like to state that according to John Paul II and exactly as described by the Council especially in the Lumen Gentium, other religions are theologically oriented and ordered towards communion and towards the uniqueness of the single people of God.
From this point of view then, and according to the thought of John Paul II, which should the attitude of the Church be towards other religions?
According to the Pope, the general attitude the Church should maintain towards other religions is qualified through three fundamental characteristics: a) “profound esteem” and “sincere respect” for all other religious traditions mindful of the missionary nature of the Church (cf. RH 12; RM 29; Audience, September 9th, 1998); b) the crucial question of “dialogue” qualifying the Church as sacrament of unity for mankind (cf. RM 56; Audience, September 9th, 1998; Address, December 22nd, 1986); c) the “deaconate – service – of unity” for the whole human Community, rooted within Nostra Aetate 1 (cf. Address, December 22nd, 1986).

Coming to the end of this survey of the teachings of John Paul II on other religions, we must look back at that “cry” he gave at the beginning of his pontificate, which resounded prophetically: “Do not be afraid! Open, throw wide open your doors to Christ! To his saving power open the boundaries of states, open economical and political systems and the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid! Christ knows what there is within the heart of man. Only he knows!”.
His cry resounded also within us then, but it resounded even stronger, with a spirit of prophecy and sovereignty through all these 25 years of his pontificate, marking the history of the Church and of the world in this passage from the old to the new millennium.
As we saw, the cry of faith and spiritual novelty uttered by John Paul II was expressed with regard to other religions as well, so that the Church, guided by the Spirit of Christ and the Father, may open up to the future with greater hope and continue to be sacrament of salvation for the world and sacrament of unity for the whole of mankind.

Don Ernesto Lettieri (Fides Service 15/10/2003)