Ever since Pope Paul VI’s first encyclical in 1964, Ecclesiam suam (On the Church), the word “dialogue” has become a key word in identifying how the church relates to the modern world: dialogue with science, dialogue with politics, dialogue with other faiths and other Christians, dialogue with those with whom we disagree.
In an address to 200 Latin American bishops and 300,000 faithful in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007, Pope Benedict added an important quality to describe this dialogue. He said that the church “does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction,’ just as Christ draws all to himself by the power of his love.”
Pope Francis has quoted this phrase a number of times: The church grows by attraction. This is the pastoral approach Christians need to characterize their witness and their preaching.
In an address May 29 to those taking part in the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization’s plenary session on “the relationship between evangelization and catechesis,” Pope Francis added another criterion on how to dialogue and evangelize — a personal encounter with God’s mercy.
God’s mercy cannot be some abstract concept, he said. It has to be a real, “concrete experience in which we realize our weakness and the power/strength that comes from on high.” He said the new evangelization is becoming aware “of the merciful love of the Father so that we, too, become instruments of salvation for our brothers and sisters.” This mission requires proclaiming the Gospel with “pastoral wisdom” and a renewed language for the people and times of the world today, he said.
Why this emphasis on dialogue, on attraction and pastoral wisdom? This wasn’t always how the church (and society) operated in the past. Canada’s experience with the Indian residential schools, for example, reflects a different culture and a different historical understanding. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has exposed some of the flaws in that way of thinking. And our society, especially the Aboriginal population, is suffering from the effects of that policy. Canada, of course, is not alone in that way of thinking and acting.
But the popes’ call to dialogue is an invitation to re-examine how we approach people with whom we disagree, even on fundamental issues of our faith. It’s not only what we say, but how we say something, as the old adage puts it. Experts tell us that less than 10 per cent of our communication is conveyed verbally. More than 90 per cent of our message is communicated by our tone of voice, our attitude, our emotions, our expressions, our posture.
Today, more than ever, we need to learn how to dialogue respectfully. Throwing stones and cutting throats is not a fruitful approach. That does not reflect an encounter with Christ, nor lead to love or truth.
It may be a hard lesson to learn, but it flows from the best part of our tradition.