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Our Time Together in Rome

By: Ismat Jahan

August 22, 2022

Reflections on Rome: The Experience of Encounter

The two-day “Culture of Encounter: An Imperative for a Divided World” conference in Rome was a unique opportunity for me to engage with a diverse group of very interesting people. I used the occasion to listen and learn from them, even if we did not agree on everything. The beauty of this shared experience was that at times “we agreed to disagree.”  This is how I would describe “culture of encounter” in action, in a nutshell.

In this regard, I recall that Pope Francis in a meeting with a group of students from the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, who were on pilgrimage in Rome in April 2022,  reminded the students that “Building a culture of encounter in the service of God’s kingdom is personally demanding. It is not simply about seeing, but looking; it is not about hearing, but listening; it is not about just meeting or passing people by, but stopping to engage with them about the things that really matter.”

In his keynote address at the Rome conference, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, speaking on culture of encounter as an imperative for a divided world, underlined at length that the very word  “encounter” points to the interplay of diplomacy, global governance, and the search for peace. He quoted from Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti encyclical: “There is always movement in an encounter. If we all stand still, we will never meet. ‘Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter’” (215).

As we met in Rome, debating the culture of encounter and arguing about its ramifications for global peace and governance, a fierce war was raging, and is still raging, in Europe. The “interplay of diplomacy, global governance, and the search for peace” did not seem to have any marked consequences on the ground. Passionate appeals for building bridges through the art of encounter seemed to ring hollow.

In our small group discussions as well as in informal exchanges over meals, we tried to hash out our opinions about the real implications of a culture of encounter and its application on ground, namely peacemaking. Some among us outrightly saw any suggestion of diplomacy or dialogue with the opponent as an act of weakness. Such a line of thought appeared to me as a simple preference for confrontation, including military confrontation, over any overtures for the peaceful resolution of war through dialogue and culture of encounter.

Unfortunately, in the end, it must be admitted that in the international arena, it is realpolitik which still manipulates the dictum: “might is right.” Here I think of the structural inequalities of global governance, both in economic and political terms, together with the “inadequacies” of multilateral institutions, namely the United Nations, where the Permanent Five with their Security Council vetoes dominate power politics. Furthermore, a new kind of nationalism, be it “ultra-nationalism” or “narrow populism,” is gaining traction in many parts of the world and causing new conflicts to arise or old conflicts to revive. In our collective efforts to overcome these global problems, it is critically important to never stop challenging the existing power imbalances which deepen polarizations and undermine national, regional, and international peace and security. 

I would stress that diplomacy is an art. If exercised with sincerity of purpose, it usually helps to reach a mutually desirable outcome. It is important to bear in mind that the international community of diplomats, although representing different nationalities and different national interests, is most often trained in “diplomatic ways of seeing the perspectives of the others.” Such an aptitude, matched with sincerity of purpose and applied in good faith, is an important tool in conflict resolution. A culture of encounter presupposes such sincerity of intent: the sincere will and readiness to engage and tackle situations by encountering them head-on.  

Against the backdrop of political hegemony in today’s world, the resolution of crises most often requires holistic strategies involving collaboration of many actors, both at local and global levels, extending beyond governments to various interest groups, religious and faith-based actors, and civil society groups, depending on the specific circumstances of each case.  

At the conference, I was happy to have the opportunity to participate in the important panel on the role of “culture of encounter” and interfaith collaboration. The essence of my presentation was that building trust across religions and states by encountering opposing viewpoints is not an easy task, especially when international relations are guided by realpolitik and strict national interests and not necessarily by moral, humanitarian, theological, or ideological considerations. Notably, however, the positive impact of interreligious and intercultural approaches to dialogue both at societal and global levels is being recognized in the discourses on mediation, conflict resolution, peacemaking, and peacebuilding. Such dialogues are not always strictly limited to religious institutions and faith-based groups, but also involve secular civil society organizations. I referred to a few examples of mediation by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). 

In addressing the real challenges of translating advocacy for peaceful coexistence into active efforts at implementation, Pope Francis’ idea of culture of encounter has a potentially strong and distinct spiritual appeal in triggering openness of human minds for the purpose of building human solidarity. While seemingly rooted in the Christian narrative, this concept does call for serious cross-religion reflections. 

In closing, I would like to underline that, for me, the most important takeaway from the Rome conference was a lesson in the role of “forgiveness,” both as an art and as a conscious practice in one’s life. The exchanges that I had during breakfast with a fellow participant on our last day about his personal experience deeply touched me. It was illuminating. It was thought-provoking. It opened up a new horizon in my mind; to be able to see and feel the liberating force of “forgiveness” as an intrapersonal process of healing through the mending of relationships with the aggressor or perpetrator. As I understood, the process began with a conscious decision to forgive, then moved on to reconciliation and ultimately reached the final act of unconditional forgiveness. The whole process can be explained as an uplifting example of the culture of encounter as a force in our daily lives.