The loss of a leading figure in interfaith dialogue

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, (seated, center), president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is pictured at a 2015 conference at The Catholic University of America in Washington. Father Wallace is standing behind him.

Last month I was saddened to hear of the death of one of the leading figures in the church in the ministry of interfaith dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. You may remember him as the cardinal designated as “protodeacon” of the College of Cardinals, who came out on the loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome on the night of March 13, 2013 to announce to the world the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. Soon after his election Pope Francis named Cardinal Tauran as Camerlengo, the official who is called upon to run the Vatican during the period between the death or resignation of one pope and the election of another.

Cardinal Tauran, 75, suffered for years with Parkinson’s disease. He never let his battle with Parkinson’s interfere with his important role of representing the church in dialogue with Islam and the other non-Christian religions around the world. In fact, this past April, he made a lengthy and historic visit to Saudi Arabia to deepen the Holy See’s relationship with the Saudi authorities, including King Salman, who are the custodians of Islam’s most sacred shrine in Mecca. He said during his visit to Saudi Arabia, “What is threatening all of us is not the clash of civilizations, but rather the clash of forms of ignorance and radicalism.”

He died in a Connecticut hospital where he was receiving treatment for his Parkinson’s disease.

I had the pleasure of meeting Cardinal Tauran at a conference, “Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims,” in 2015 at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. This gathering brought together some of the leaders of the world’s religions. Some of the dignitaries and speakers included Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and, representing Pope Francis, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and Cardinal Tauran. In an opening statement at the conference Cardinal Tauran, speaking on the importance of the Vatican II document, said, “Our strength of Nostra Aetate is that it allows Catholics to recognize and appreciate truths in other world religions.” He added, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of acting and of living, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the one she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all.”

At the end of the three day conference, Cardinal Tauran presided at an historic gathering of Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists at the Durga Hindu Temple in Fairfax Station, Virginia. Distinguished experts in the field of Catholic – Hindu dialogue from both faiths reiterated the need for mutual respect not just in India but all around the world. Several speakers mentioned that Hindus and Catholics believe in the same God, with Hindus explaining it is a common misconception that their faith is polytheistic. Rather, several of the Hindu speakers tried to emphasize that they believe in the one Force, one God, who manifests in various avatars. In Hinduism, an avatar is a deliberate descent of the deity to earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being. The understanding of this phenomenon is most commonly referred to as “incarnation,” “appearance” or “manifestation.”

Cardinal Tauran was both an agile diplomat and an expert on interreligious dialogue. He set about after being named president of the interreligious council by Pope Benedict in 2006 to learn all he could about the Islamic faith in order to dialogue with moderate and reform-minded Muslim scholars and leaders to further the church’s outreach and help the plight of Christians and other minorities in Muslim-majority countries. He once remarked, “You have to remember that interreligious dialogue is not between religions. It’s dialogue between believers. It’s not a theological, philosophical exercise. First you have to accept that we live in a world that’s plural: culture, religion, education, scientific research. Every human being has a religious dimension. Between believers we try first of all to know each other. And the first thing you have to do is to proclaim your faith because you cannot build that dialogue on ambiguity.”

Upon hearing of the death of Cardinal Tauran, his friend, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, England, aptly eulogized him by saying, “He brought to his ministry a sharp intellect, wide-ranging knowledge and consistent graciousness. These qualities brought him admirers everywhere.”

May he rest in peace!

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.