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How interreligious dialogue got a front-row seat at World Youth Day

Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Pope Francis has been deeply committed to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, as were both Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Central Lisbon mosque. Credit: Manuelvbotelho/wikimedia/ CC BY SA 3.0

But while John Paul II was well-known for his interreligious gatherings in Assisi and elsewhere, World Youth Day had long been customarily a strictly Catholic affair.

No longer. 


For the first time, World Youth Day 2023, in Lisbon, has a specific program of interreligious activities, and Pope Francis will be meeting with local leaders of different religions as an official part of events.

The official WYD website and app have sections about interreligious dialogue and about Christian unity, where one can book guided tours to the Lisbon Mosque, the Synagogue, the Hindu temple and the Ismaili Centre, as well as listing the contacts and addresses of several protestant, Anglican and Orthodox communities. There is also a list of different ecumenical events that pilgrims can attend.

On Aug 2, representatives from the six main world religions — Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — will plant trees in the Tropical Botanical Garden in Belém. 

“In 40 years, they will still be there, reminding us that those trees will grow into a forest, and a forest is a place where trees have to learn to live together, and not overshadow each other,” Fr Peter Stilwell told The Pillar.

Stilwell was born to English Catholic parents who were living in Lisbon, in 1946. An academic, he was head of the theology faculty of the Catholic University of Portugal for several years, and later headed the University of Saint Joseph in Macau, the only Catholic University on Chinese territory. 

When he retired and returned to Lisbon, he was asked to resume his role as the Church’s point man for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in Lisbon. 

A bit of Abu Dhabi in Lisbon

In an interview with The Pillar, Fr Peter Stilwell explained that the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which oversees the organization of World Youth Day, was reticent about introducing an interreligious dimension to the event in Lisbon, but that eventually they were given the green light. 

“We were asked to organize something that gave a clearer view of Pope Francis' goals as laid out in the Abu Dhabi statement, and in Fratelli tutti,” he explained, specifically the commitment to “work for world peace and to face challenges such as caring for nature.”

Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb sign the Document on Human Fraternity
Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb sign the Document on Human Fraternity. Credit: Vatican News

Sources told The Pillar that there was also some difficulty in getting the local organizers in Portugal on board for a focus on interreligious dialogue during World Youth Day, until apostolic nuncio Archbishop Ivo Scapolo personally intervened to make clear that was a papal priority. 

Once there had been approval from all sides, the next step was to invite non-Christian leaders to participate. Fortunately for organizers, that was made easier by the very friendly relations that exist among different religious leaders in Portugal. 

“There is a working group for interreligious dialogue, organized under the government’s department for migrants, and we meet once a month, so relations between us are very friendly, we just call each other if there is any issue, so I found no problems in working with other communities.”

Many people in Portugal have criticized the country’s public support for World Youth Day-related projects and infrastructure updates, with prominent commentators arguing  that a secular Government has no business supporting an exclusively Catholic event. 

But reactions from other religious leaders have been almost exclusively positive. 

“Remarkably, in all my contacts, I have not heard a single negative comment. They have all shown great interest. They were slightly worried that perhaps the pope would not meet with them, and that the Catholic character of the event would be overwhelming and there would be no attention paid to other denominations, but otherwise, the dominant feeling among the religious communities is that the state may be secular, but that society is religious, and that there are many religions in society and that they should be respected by the state,” Stilwell said.

“The state does not give preferential treatment to any specific religion, but if there is a large religious event that has an impact on society at large, obviously the state structures are here to serve the community, and can, and should, support it.”

Stilwell said that religious leaders in Portugal mostly recognized that they have much to gain from being involved with WYD, rather than sitting on the sidelines. 

“They have followed all this with interest. Obviously, it is very much a Catholic event, the Catholic Church is organizing it, and it is the pope who calls the youth together, but other religions, other denominations, have the same challenges with youth that the Catholic Church has: How do you motivate young people? How, in a very secularized context, do you help young people understand that religion is important for their lives and encourage them to deepen their understanding of their faith and practice it?” 

“The fact that hundreds of thousands of young people get together for a religious event is sufficient to motivate young people from other denominations, who will feel that they can take an interest in their own religious denomination and faith, and try to deepen their understanding of it.”

“Muslims don’t want to miss out”

Khalid Jamal, vice-president of the Islamic Community of Lisbon, is also active in interreligious dialogue in Portugal, and enthusiastic about the interreligious opportunity. 

“When it was revealed that Portugal would be hosting World Youth Day I was one of the first to go and speak to Bishop Américo Aguiar because I believed, as does the community, that as Portuguese Muslims we could not miss out on the opportunity to participate in such a magnificent event,” he told The Pillar

In fact, the Sunni Muslim Community offered to host pilgrims in Lisbon’s main mosque, and was scheduled to receive 50, although due to a last-minute change of plans the pilgrims ended up being redirected elsewhere. The Shia Ismaili Cultural Centre, on the other hand, is hosting several.

Though one could be forgiven for thinking that minority communities would feel threatened by sheer size of this Catholic event, Khalid Jamal says that the main sentiment is enthusiasm. 

“This is biggest event in the history of our country, and that fills me with joy, because people will be speaking about God in the public square, and that is something that I have always defended that we should do. The young people coming to Lisbon are moved by their faith, and that is inspiring for us,” he explained.

The young community leader says that he knows several Muslims who will be working as volunteers during WYD, and others who will be taking part in different events, even if only out of curiosity. 

The fact that this year’s edition will have a particular focus on interreligious dialogue is the cherry on top of the cake, he believes. 

“We often say that the youth are our future, but we rarely give them the opportunity to make themselves heard. This is a beautiful message that our Catholic brothers, through the Pope, are giving the world and humanity. The pope has called on the youth, and even though this is a Christian, and specifically Catholic event, this year people from other religious confessions have been made to feel welcome as well.”

“John Paul II created WYD and it is an excellent opportunity for young people to reflect on what concerns them, and think about what the future holds for them. I often say this, but I mean it as more than just a soundbite: We have more in common than that which divides us: fraternity, belief in one God, a common father in Abraham, and the universal values that our religions promote. The Muslim youth does not want to be left out of this opportunity,” said Khalid Jamal. 

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Breaking down barriers

Many Protestant figures are also getting involved in WYD. The Anglican Church, both its Portuguese branch, the Lusitanian Church, and the chaplaincy for English speaking faithful, are hosting events, and one Portuguese evangelical pastor took the initiative of organizing an ecumenical concert in the country’s largest soccer stadium, where players and managers will be able to share their own faith stories. 

Pastor António Rodrigues Pereira says that what motivates him is to be able to bring young people closer to Jesus Christ, and he dismisses other evangelical leaders who have a colder, if not openly hostile attitude to ecumenical dialogue. 

“There will always be critics, but our role as Christians is to be friends with everyone, with full respect for our differences. Those of us who have Christian love cannot be afraid to be with others. We have our own identity, but we get along with everyone, and we should all be involved in any event in which we can share Christ’s love for us, and evangelize. That is our role, and that is what drives me, to play a role in this evangelization.”

Of course, exposure to other religions can also be a touchy subject. 

Many Catholics are coming from countries where they are an oppressed minority, treated as second class citizens. The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need will be showcasing many such stories during WYD. 

For some of those Christians, the idea of visiting a mosque, for example, might not be so appealing.

But Stilwell, for his part, believes the experience could be positive. 

“I think it will show them that you don't have to fight with other religious denominations in order to affirm your identity, that there is a possibility of setting up a fellowship between communities. Certainly, it will be a good result if they go back with that idea.”

Khalid Jamal concurred. 

“I think it is excellent, and I have no problem in saying that Muslims in other countries have a lot to learn from Portugal in this regard, where the friendship and empathy that exist between religious leaders have created bonds that make it possible to have better dialogue and understanding.”

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