Vatican City building against clouds at dawn


Pope Francis Welcomes Georgetown Conference in Rome on the Culture of Encounter

By: Henry D. Brill

November 12, 2021

Vatican leaders and scholars met earlier this week in Rome to explore the future of intercultural and interreligious dialogue at a conference co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.

In a letter to the two organizations, Pope Francis expressed his public support for the conference, which coincided with the first anniversary of his encyclical on fraternity and social friendship, Fratelli Tutti.

“Dialogue is an authentic expression of the human,” the pope wrote in the letter he published about the conference in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper. “It is a way to transform competition into collaboration—a way that takes patience. We must put all our energies into teaching people to be respectful towards others, out of a recognition of their fundamental rights and freedoms. This is the way to build the future together.”

Berkley Center Director Thomas Banchoff emphasized the timeliness of the conference and its theme.

“In a world so divided along political, socioeconomic, and cultural and religious lines, the pope’s call for a culture of encounter is vitally important,” says Banchoff, who also serves as vice president for global engagement at Georgetown. 

The Centrality of Global Solidarity

The conference featured two keynote addresses from high-level Vatican leaders. In addressing the theme of encounter, Cardinal Miguel Ayuso, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, emphasized the importance of global solidarity

“Solidarity is a word that is not always well received,” the cardinal said. “In certain situations, it has become a dirty word.”

The cardinal stressed the importance of returning to the original roots of Christianity and other traditions to support social friendship across lines of difference. Of Fratelli Tutti, with its appeal to global humanity as a frame of reference, he noted:

If the world is finding out just now that we are brothers and sisters, we are in trouble! Something is wrong. In the situation of confusion, fear, and emptiness we are plunged in, we must go back to the roots of our own faith.

In his keynote Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, emphasized how Francis’ idea of a culture of encounter builds on the key texts of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). 

“Pope Francis is not inventing something new,” the cardinal explained. “Pope Francis is receiving, as pope, as the bishop of Rome, this legacy of Vatican II—he reappropriates it and, given the new context, he develops it.” 

An Innovative Encyclical

Author and literary critic Paul Elie, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center, moderated a panel on the innovations of Fratelli Tutti, situating the recent encyclical in terms of the longer history of Catholic social thought.

Fratelli Tutti carries forward a number of significant aspects of the thought of the Church: the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council; the conviction in Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si that everything is connected; and a third of a century of interreligious dialogue,” says Elie.

But there are a number of contemporary challenges in implementing Pope Francis’ call for a culture of encounter, according to the panel. 

“The challenge for Fratelli Tutti is the challenge of recognizing that we are brothers and sisters that exist in every age,” explains Elie. “So much works against it: our human nature, our institutions, our cultural and political divisions, the span of geography, and so on.”

Dialogue in Action

Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, spoke on a panel that focused on the Document on Human Fraternity as a practical model for interreligious encounter. The 2019 document was signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, representing a major advance in Muslim-Christian understanding. 

“Dialogue offers paths to the understanding and human connection that are so essential to breaking down prejudices and gaps in communication,” says Marshall. 

Marshall also underscored the Berkley Center’s emphasis on linking interfaith dialogue to practical action on global challenges: 

Our long-standing work to highlight multireligious action—linking it to global agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals, hunger, and health—jibes well with a pragmatic appreciation for the urgent need to build on dialogue in the period ahead.

The Culture of Encounter and the Global Agenda

The conference marked the launch of a new project on the Culture of Encounter and the Global Agenda, an international collaboration between the Berkley Center and Vatican partners made possible by generous support from the GHR Foundation. 

Berkley Center Senior Fellow José Casanova hosted a closing panel on the future of dialogue with leading representatives from three partners: the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. 

“To create sustainable, inclusive societies we need to bridge cultural, religious, political, and ideological divides in new ways,” says Casanova. “Our new project will bring together scholars and practitioners to develop the idea of a culture of encounter and explore its theoretical and practical implications for the global agenda.”

Georgetown in Rome

The conference and new project will be coordinated through Georgetown’s representative office in Rome, which is housed in Villa Malta, the home of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica. In his opening remarks to the conference, Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the journal’s editor-in-chief, emphasized the importance of the papal letter: 

Pope Francis’ words invite us to ‘make history’ and to ‘help many to become adepts and artisans of a culture that fosters mutual understanding.’ This is a wonderful challenge. And this is also why we are here today.

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