ROME (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI must help lead the Church to continue its dialogue with other religions, two members of the Society of African Missions told Catholic News Service.
"Interreligious dialogue is an unavoidable question in the world today," said Father Justo Lacunza Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies, based in Rome.
Father Kieran O'Reilly, superior general of the Society of African Missions, agreed that the new pope must "emphasize interreligious dialogue," especially since it is an issue that "won't go away."
However, Father Lacunza expressed concern that the past 24 years Pope Benedict spent as a top official in the Roman Curia would hinder his ability to relate to the challenges present elsewhere in the world today.
Interreligious dialogue involves understanding "the lives of people. Reading dossiers and digesting paperwork may not help him in knowing what the real world outside is like, and this is important when talking to believers of other religions," Father Lacunza said.
Father O'Reilly said Pope Benedict's appointments to head the Vatican's various congregations and especially its council for interreligious dialogue will have a great impact on the work of missionaries around the world.
"We must see who he puts in the dicasteries," because even though the pope "is a very intelligent and cultured man" it is "the machinery inside" the Vatican that implements papal pronouncements, he said.
What is in store for interreligious dialogue "has yet to be seen," Father O'Reilly said.
"Who he appoints in the next coming weeks will be indicative of what he wants to do, because he will put in the people who will put his program in place," he said.
Father O'Reilly said he would like to see Pope Benedict "invite members of other religions to Rome" or to visit them "like John Paul II did."
But Father Lacunza said he believed the newly elected pope had created much animosity while he was prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The congregation's document, "Dominus Iesus," was a focal point of ecumenical and interreligious controversy when it came out in 2000 because of its firm statement that Christ and the Church are necessary for salvation.
After the document's release, some Catholic missionaries said aggressive statements about Christianity as the only true religion would actually hurt their evangelizing work -- an opinion with which Father Lacunza said he agreed.
"I believe Jesus Christ is everything," but "if my message excludes others who don't follow my path, then this brings doubt about my message of God and theology," he said.
"People may begin to wonder 'What kind of God is this then?'" he said.
"There is a way to explain the Christian message without watering down that message and yet by building bridges" between diverse religions and cultures, said Father Lacunza.
"If we really believe others are our brothers and sisters and that they have dignity, then I think many of (the world's) problems would be solved," he said.
Father O'Reilly said people cannot say whether documents such as "Dominus Iesus," which came out of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, will reflect the direction of Pope Benedict.
"Some saw 'Dominus Iesus' as negative; but there will be new documents out" with his stamp on them as pope, said Father O'Reilly.
Forthcoming papal documents "will be his work" as opposed to the work of a congregation that includes many members and consultants.
"So then we'll see" what his thoughts are on all the issues that touch the Church, he said.
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