The Holy Spirit: A Guide for Interreligious Dialogue

by Christina Corvese

The Plurality of Religions: Is Mere Tolerance Sufficient?

When examining how to approach interreligious dialogue, the concept of tolerance must be analyzed. Does tolerance ease tensions among various religious groups, or does tolerance only provide a passive-aggressive solution? Today, tolerance appears to have been adopted as a method of “just getting by” while living in the vicinity of those who are disliked. This type of tolerance is mediocre, and will not act as the most beneficial resolution for interreligious conflicts. Catholics are called to reach beyond this version of tolerance because they have one of the richest spiritual guides of all: the Holy Spirit. If Catholics choose to invoke the Holy Spirit while engaging in interreligious dialogue, they could gain insight into God providentially at work within all religions.

Without respect, tolerance becomes like a Band-Aid solution for the root causes of tension. In his book Rekindling the Christic Imagination, author Robert P. Imbelli describes how anything that causes strife (fear, tension, discrimination, etc.) tends to distort the relationship between God and His people as well as the relationships between different groups of people, through “mistrust and disobedience.”1 Temporary solutions for religious tensions will only fuel a false sense of security, and will inevitably result in an increase of mistrust for the future. Therefore, Catholics should take Imbelli’s advice that tensions and fears must be dealt with at their “very root.”2 A more adequate and complete understanding of the term “tolerance” is needed in order to show Catholics how to act and proceed within interreligious dialogue.

In “Christ Among the Religions,” Cardinal Avery Dulles describes what tolerance is not. He writes, “Tolerance is not the same thing as approval. We tolerate things that we find less than acceptable because we find ourselves unable to suppress them or because the suppression would be too burdensome or morally evil.”3 His view indicates that people become tolerant towards others when full agreement does not seem possible. Thus, people resort to tolerance as a temporary solution when there seems to be no other morally acceptable option for living among those with different religious and cultural backgrounds.


Tolerance in Light of Vatican II

Vatican II’s definition of tolerance incorporated the concept of respect. In reference to Dignitatis Humanae, Dulles states that Vatican II taught the following:  “the religious freedom of all citizens and religious communities should be recognized and upheld, even in commonwealths that give special recognition to some one religion (DH 6). For the peace of civil society and the integrity of the religions themselves it is essential to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect.”4 Due to the inclusion of both “tolerance” and “respect,” Vatican II recognized the distinction between the terms, but believed that both were necessary to include. This definition of tolerance, one that includes respect, is the type that Dulles believes “best coheres with the doctrine of the magisterium,” despite the fact that the term “tolerance” has not been “extensively used in Catholic official teaching during the past fifty years.”5 Without respect, tolerance results in the dismissal of others.

According to Dulles, the combination of tolerance and respect has the potential to create   peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding. He writes, “The posture of tolerance and qualified approval, if it is reciprocated, opens the way for a variety of strategies that may lead to peaceful and friendly coexistence.”6 Dulles supports this claim by describing ways in which coexistence can be achieved, but Catholics can take a step further. There must be appreciation for other religious beliefs without falling short of respect. Also, there must be recognition of the inherent value of each religion. To succeed at such appreciation and recognition, Catholics should keep in mind the following teaching from Nostra Aetate #2:


…other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart,  each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and           sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and  teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.7


Respecting other religions requires giving each the dignity that is due by recognizing and professing the “ray” of  “Truth” that exists within their doctrines. Catholics can cultivate peaceful coexistence by rejecting “nothing that is true and holy in these religions” and by regarding with “sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life” that strive to answer the same existential questions. According to Nostra Aetate #1, questions found in many non-Christian religions include, “What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness?”8 By practicing tolerance that emphasizes respect, Catholics are able to find common values within the beliefs of other religious groups.


The Activity of the Holy Spirit

To put this definition of tolerance into practice, Catholics must first comprehend the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells within every human being. For instance, Gaudium Et Spes #22 states that because Jesus Christ died for all men, the Holy Spirit dwells within all of humanity. Citing from Rom. 8:11, Pope Paul VI explains:


If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised        Jesus Christ from the dead will also bring to life your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who dwells in you (Rom. 8:11)…All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all         men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died     for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the             possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.9



Due to the universality of Jesus’ saving death, the Holy Spirit works through every human being. Pope Paul VI states that grace can work in the hearts of good-willed men “in an unseen way.” Catholics should recognize that the Holy Spirit is present within individuals of other faiths, but might not be activated to the highest potential. The above passage implies the humility that Catholics must have while engaging in interreligious dialogue: Christ did not only die for Christians; rather, He died for all of humanity, regardless of any secular or religious factions.


The Holy Spirit As Love Within Other Religions

The Holy Spirit does not dwell the same way within adherents of different religions. In order to understand how the Holy Spirit works in other religions, the notion of love should be analyzed. Along with respect, Gaudium Et Spes #28 emphasizes how love opens the door for dialogue: “Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.”10 Thus, establishing a relationship based on “courtesy and love” makes dialogue fruitful. In order to build a foundation of trust, adherents of various faiths must strive for a depth of understanding of each other’s religious doctrines.

Love can be found within the theologies of other religions, such as Islam. In an article titled “Conviction of Truth and Tolerance of Love,” Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Osthathios is asked to give a response to “the thought-provoking thesis that agape is a criterion of truth in religions, especially Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and that measured by such a criterion these religions contain agape and truth.”11 He identifies such love as the Holy Spirit. Metropolitan Osthathios first describes how the Holy Spirit is love as one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity:


In this statement, there is conviction of truth with tolerance of universal love. God alone   is ultimate, absolute, infallible, eternal and perfect truth. Potential love in a monad God    lacks reality of action and so exclusive monotheism is not love in perfection. Whom did  God love before creating angels or anything visible or invisible in the created order?    Hence God has to be eternal Father loving eternal Son and sharing eternal love in the      person of the Holy Spirit.12



Though Metropolitan Osthathios is of the Christian Orthodox tradition, his statement offers valuable insight. When he asks, “Whom did God love before creating angels or anything visible or invisible in the created order?” he indicates that God had to have been love itself before creation came into being. Metropolitan Osthathios implies that the Holy Spirit is love because as the “eternal Father,” God loves the “eternal Son” and then shares “eternal love in the person of the Holy Spirit.” Thus, the Holy Spirit is love through sharing and participating in the divine love of God.

There are different modes of the Holy Spirit that are present within other religions. For instance, Metropolitan Osthathios argues that there is a kind of hidden Trinitarian theology within Islam:


With apology to my Muslim friends, who consider trinity as a heresy, I would like to        submit that there is a hidden trinity in Islam…The implied tritheism in Allah, Mohammed and the Qur’an has to be logically spelled-out in Tri-unity in the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If this step is taken, love will become the central theme of Islam also. At present, the word love is seldom used in the Qur’an. Yet, each Sura starts with the epoch-making statement, “In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful.” In some translations, God is “compassionate.” Compassion implies togetherness. If God has no partnership in the very being of God, how can God be compassionate? To whom did  Allah show mercy in all eternity? If God is love,13 God has to be trinity qualitatively,  though not quantitatively.14



Though different in context compared to Christianity, Metropolitan Osthathios argues that there is a Trinitarian relationship between Allah as God, Mohammed as prophet, and the Qur’an as the word of Allah. He believes that the concept of God as love is implied within Islamic teachings. For example, he states that God is called the “most gracious, most merciful” in each Sura, and God is even called “compassionate” in certain translations. Metropolitan Osthathios poses the following questions to Muslims: “If God has no partnership in the very being of God, how can God be compassionate? To whom did Allah show mercy in all eternity?” He concludes that in Islam, Allah is love and mercy in itself by nature. This concept of love leads to the identification of a Trinitarian love, thus leading to the presence of the Holy Spirit.


Saint Pope John Paul II on the Holy Spirit

Saint Pope John Paul II offers insight into the power of the Holy Spirit. In Dominum Et Vivificantem #30, his description of the Holy Spirit’s role during Pentecost can be an example for how the activity of the Holy Spirit creates one community among diverse religions. He writes that the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the spirit gave them utterance, thus bringing back to unity the scattered races and offering to the Father the first-fruits of all the nations.”15 The Holy Spirit did not bring unity by allowing the apostles to speak only in one tongue or language. Rather, as they became vessels of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were given the ability to communicate across language barriers.

The activity of the Holy Spirit was not just limited to the apostles. In Redemptoris Missio #21, Saint Pope John Paul II states that while the Holy Spirit was working through the apostles, the Holy Spirit was also at work within those who were listening. He writes:


The Holy Spirit is indeed the principal agent of the whole of the Church’s mission. His     action is preeminent in the mission ad gentes, as can clearly be seen in the early Church:  in the conversion of Cornelius (cf. Acts 10), in the decisions made about emerging         problems (cf. Acts 15), and in the choice of regions and peoples to be evangelized (cf.          Acts 16:6ff). The Spirit worked through the apostles, but at the same time he was also at  work in those who heard them.16



While the apostles preached to masses of people on their evangelizing missions, the Holy Spirit worked simultaneously through individuals so that they were open to receiving God’s Word.  Likewise, Catholics must engage in interreligious dialogue both believing and trusting that the power of the Holy Spirit is capable of working through listeners from other diverse religious groups.

Saint Pope John Paul II emphasizes that the Holy Spirit guides the human decision-making process, which includes decisions on how to communicate with others. Since the action of the Holy Spirit is preeminent, such activity precedes human action. The Holy Spirit specifically guides human action to conform to God’s will. The apostles were able to evangelize in ways that personally resonated with diverse groups of people. Likewise, Catholics can explain their theological viewpoints in ways that will resonate with different religious leaders and laity.

The human person is the vessel through which the power of the Holy Spirit manifests God’s plan. The Holy Spirit brings God’s plan to fruition by acting as a kind of counselor for humanity. In Dominum Et Vivificantem #64, Saint Pope John Paul II writes:

The fullness of the salvific reality, which is Christ in history, extends in a sacramental      way in the power of the Spirit Paraclete. In this way the Holy Spirit is “another           Counselor,” or new Counselor, because through his action the Good News takes shape in human minds and hearts and extends through history. In all this it is the Holy Spirit who gives life.17



As the “new Counselor,” the Holy Spirit transforms the “human minds and hearts” of evangelizers and listeners of the “Good News.” Just as a counselor gives advice to change any negative, old habits clients may have, the Holy Spirit leads human beings away from sin and on the path towards a redemptive life with Christ. Furthermore, a counselor’s work is never truly finished. Though meetings with clients may come to an end, the counselor’s advice stays with them. Clients can choose to practice the counselor’s advice daily in order to overcome the troubling aspects of their lives. The Holy Spirit works in a similar way. For instance, after the apostles received the gift of tongues at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit continued to be present in their evangelizing missions. Though there were not always physical manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit was still actively recruiting followers of Christ within their hearts and minds.


A Step Further: The Invocation of the Holy Spirit

Looking to the Holy Spirit for instruction, Catholics can pray to receive the ability to speak the words that will resonate with other religious groups. Today, however, Catholics face the challenge of trying to understand the work of the Holy Spirit when members of other religions resist the faith of the Gospel. As previously stated by Saint Pope John Paul II, the Holy Spirit can transform the “minds and hearts” of human beings. Realistically, some religious leaders will not respect the Gospel and Catholic theology. Therefore, the following question arises: What are Catholics to do?

In an address to the general audience at Saint Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI refers to the insight of St. Paul concerning how the Holy Spirit becomes the interpreter between humanity and God:


In the Letter to the Romans, he writes: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for  we do no know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too    deep for words” (8:26). And we know how true it is when the Apostle says “we do not        know how to pray as we ought.” We want to pray, but God is far, we do not have the        word, the language, to speak with God, not even the thought. We can only open           ourselves, set our time at the disposal of God, waiting for Him to help us enter into true  dialogue. The Apostle says: this very lack of words, this absence of words, even the            desire to enter into contact with God is a prayer that the Holy Spirit not only understands, but carries, interprets, to God. It is precisely our weakness which becomes, through the Holy Spirit, true prayer, true contact with God. The Holy Spirit is almost the interpreter who makes God and us ourselves understand what we want to say.18


Similarly, the Holy Spirit can help Catholics in their “weakness” in communication when faced with resistance to the Gospel by other religious leaders. The Holy Spirit can act as the interpreter. For example, if there appears to be an impasse in communication during a conference for interreligious dialogue, Catholics should do the following: “open” themselves; set their “time at the disposal of God;” and wait “for Him to help” them “enter into true dialogue” with the other religious leaders throughout the remainder of the conference.

Invocation of the Holy Spirit requires Catholics to be patient with God, waiting for Him to pour His graces upon them as well as upon those of other religions in order to eliminate any resistance or tension. As a result, different religious groups will be more inclined to see and understand the common ground that exists between them and Catholics. Invocation would allow Catholics to recognize as well as treasure the dignity of all human beings. During dialogue, the Holy Spirit can help to ensure that interpretations of diverse theological viewpoints (both Catholic and non-Catholic) are not misconstrued by the bias of listeners.


Distinction Between Invocation in Dialogue Vs. Evangelization

Invocation, however, is different than evangelization. According to author Francis X. Rocca of the National Catholic Reporter, the “Retired Pope Benedict XVI said dialogue with other religions is no substitute for spreading the Gospel to non-Christian cultures and warned against relativistic ideas of religious truth as ‘lethal to faith.’ He also said the true motivation for missionary work is not to increase the church’s size but to share the joy of knowing Christ.”19 Interreligious dialogue gives Catholics the opportunity to recognize, comprehend, and engage with the rich spirituality that diverse religious groups share. It does not, however, fulfill the same purpose as evangelization, nor should it. A Catholic should not use interreligious dialogue for the purpose of sharing “the joy of knowing Christ” and how Christ has worked in his or her own life. Such sharing must be kept to evangelization, when Catholics are called to teach those who are unaware of Jesus Christ. Rather than preaching, interreligious dialogue should focus on sharing theological perspectives.

Though such dialogue is not the same as overt evangelization, this does not mean that the Holy Spirit is not both present and active. Pope Benedict XVI explains the “three consequences in Christian life when we let work within us not the spirit of the world but the Spirit of Christ as the interior principle of our entire action.”20 Specifically, the third consequence of the “Spirit of Christ” allows Catholics to be spiritually connected to others:


And, the third, the prayer of the believer opens also to the dimensions of humanity and of all creation, in the expectation that “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom 8:19). This means that prayer, sustained by the Spirit of Christ speaking in the depths of each one of us, does not stay closed in on itself. It is never just prayer for me, but opens itself to sharing the suffering of our time, of others. It becomes intercession for others, and like this deliverance from me, a channel of hope for all creation, the expression of that love of God that is poured into our hearts through the  Spirit whom he has given to us (cf. Rom 5:5). And precisely this is a sign of true prayer,    which does not end in us, but opens itself to others and like this delivers me, and thus       helps in the redemption of the world.21



Thus, the fruits of prayer do not remain within the Catholic for his or her sole possession. Instead, the prayer is spiritually transmitted and acts as an offering to share in the “suffering of our time, of others.” Within interreligious dialogue, invoking the Holy Spirit will enable Catholics to build a common, spiritual union among individuals of diverse faiths who do not believe in or who do not have knowledge of the Holy Spirit. Catholics can engage in intercessory prayer for members of various religious groups in the silence of their hearts.


Moving Forward – Taking Caution with Relativism

Furthermore, along with believing that interreligious dialogue is not a “substitute for mission,” Pope Benedict XVI warned about relativism. He states:


The counter-question is: ‘Can dialogue substitute for mission?’ In fact, many today think religions should respect each other and, in their dialogue, become a common force for      peace. According to this way of thinking, it is usually taken for granted that different       religions are variants of one and the same reality. The question of truth, that which         originally motivated Christians more than any other, is here put inside parentheses. It is assumed that the authentic truth about God is in the last analysis unreachable and that at best one can represent the ineffable with a variety of symbols. This renunciation of truth seems realistic and useful for peace among religions in the world. It is nevertheless lethal to faith.22



Catholics must be careful not to renounce the truth about Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Pope Benedict XVI speaks truthfully that such renunciation is “lethal to faith” because it undermines the dignity of Catholicism as the fullness of the faith. Likewise, other religious groups, such as Muslims, should not renounce the truths of their faith, for then the core of Islam is undermined. How can Catholics find a balance between respecting the dignity of other faiths without compromising their own? Again, the answer lies within the help of the Holy Spirit. In reference to the previously quoted insight of St. Paul in Rom. 8:26, the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” when we are at a loss for communication. The invocation of the Holy Spirit will lead Catholics to receiving divine guidance. As a result, Catholics will have the grace to speak in such a way that God wills: with love towards neighbor yet with confidence of the truth of Christ’s message.



Within interreligious dialogue, mere tolerance will not suffice; the activity of the Holy Spirit is much more compelling, loving, and grace-filled. Catholics should include in their daily prayers a petition for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that they can speak in a way that will bring about peace and understanding among adherents of the world religions. Catholics are called to communicate with all of God’s people, not just Christians. Like at Pentecost, Catholics must be the apostles who are not afraid to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, enabling them to communicate beyond cultural and religious barriers.




  1. Robert P. Imbelli, Rekindling the Christic Imagination, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014), 13.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Cardinal Avery Dulles, “Chapter 26: Christ Among the Religions,” in Church and Society, November 7, 2001, 363, PDF.
  4. Ibid., 366.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 368.
  7. Pope Paul VI, Vatican Council II, Nostra Aetate #2, 1965.
  8. Ibid., #1.
  9. Pope Paul VI, Vatican Council II, Gaudium Et Spes #22, 1965.
  10. Ibid., #28.
  11. Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Osthathios, “Conviction of Truth and Tolerance of Love,” International Review of Mission 74, no. 296, (1985): 490, accessed December 12, 2016,  http://web.a.ebscohost.com.providence.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=05236e99-e2a3-478e-bd88-4b7caacd8fc1%40sessionmgr4010&vid=4&hid=4101.
  12. Ibid., 491.
  13. “The epoch-making biblical revelation, “God is Love” is not found in the scriptures of other religions, though Judaism hints at it. What the Holy Qur’an says is that the most gracious God will bestow love on those who work deeds of righteousness (Sura xix. 96) and “He is oft-forgiving, full of loving-kindness” (lxxxv. 14). This is quite understandable because, if God is love, He has to be the Holy Trinity. In Christianity, love is not an attribute of God but the ontological nature of God,” from Endnote #3 as cited in Ibid., 492.
  14. Ibid., 491-492.
  15. Saint Pope John Paul II, Vatican Council II, Dominum Et Vivificantem #30, 1986.
  16. Saint Pope John Paul II, Vatican Council II, Redemptoris Missio #21, 1990.
  17. Saint Pope John Paul II, Dominum Et Vivificantem #64, 1986.
  18. Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience of 16 May 2012,” Vatican, May 16, 2012, accessed November 17, 2016, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20120516.html.
  19. Francis X. Rocca, “Retired Pope Benedict XVI: Interreligious Dialogue is No Substitute for Mission,” National Catholic Reporter, last modified October 23, 2014, accessed November 17, 2016, https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/retired-pope-benedict-xvi-interreligious-dialogue-no-substitute-mission.
  20. Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience of 16 May 2012,” Vatican, May 16, 2012, accessed November 17, 2016, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20120516.html.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Specifically taken from “a handful of public statements, including an interview and a published letter to a journalist, that Pope Benedict has made since he retired in February 2013,” as cited in Ibid.

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