Meeting Pope Francis in a private audience with other religious leaders from around the world in 2014. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano

Michelle Tan

Lawrence Chong was recently appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) as a Consultor for a period of five years from Aug 4, 2020. Here, he answers a few questions for The Catholic News.

Why is interreligious dialogue important?

Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelising mission as it is a space where religions are expected to be open in sharing their beliefs and worldviews so as to engage in meaningful dialogue. Interfaith dialogue also facilitates the continued participation of religions in the public space and helps to ensure the right of religious freedom.

What exactly is the PCID?

The PCID is the Catholic Church’s dedicated high-level office for interreligious dialogue, currently led by Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot. It promotes interreligious dialogue guided by the teachings of the Church and the Holy Father. The PCID does this through forming relationships and building networks of mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of other religious traditions. It also encourages academic research and exchanges so that fruitful dialogue can take place based on solid academic frameworks, and promotes the formation of persons dedicated to dialogue, especially lay people to support religious leaders in interfaith relations and peace-building.

How did you get involved in interreligious dialogue?

As a youth, I joined the Focolare movement, a Catholic movement with deep involvement in interreligious dialogue. I was sent to participate

in many international young leaders’ conferences which really opened my eyes to the value and power of interreligious dialogue. Eventually I was elected as Asian Coordinator for Religions for Peace Asian and Pacific Youth Network, a role which I served from 2007 – 2014. This experience was incredible as it put me in close contact with religious, political and interfaith leaders from around the world.

What is your role as a Consultor?

The PCID has around 30 Consultors from clergy, academia and laity who hail from different continents to advise the PCID and the Holy Father on trends and new developments of interreligious dialogue around the world. Our role is to provide insights and also work with the PCID to advance the common good according to the tone set by the Holy Father. The most recent example is to promote discussion around his recent encyclical letter Fratelli tutti.

How do you feel about your appointment?

I feel really humbled! But I’m also very excited to share Singapore’s experience where the government and religious leaders have comprehensive dialogue and engagement platforms; this is not often the case in many parts of the world. I also believe that the Holy See appreciates the strategic value of Singapore as a hub for interreligious dialogue in this region.

Can you recall a memorable moment in your interfaith experience?

As I was serving as the regional head of the Religions for Peace Asian and Pacific Youth Network, I learnt the valuable lesson that some of our actions, no matter how good the intentions, may not always be seen in the same way. For example, there was a moment when we danced to celebrate the end of a interreligious youth conference – as is normal in any youth meeting – but we failed to consider the fact that our non-Christian friends in that part of the world disapproved of dancing. So we had to apologise after that. This taught me that I must be prepared for moments when one can feel the strong presence of joy, of God, and then suddenly, things can make an about turn and fall apart!

In another unforgettable moment, in a private audience with Pope Francis and other religious leaders from around the world in Casa Santa Marta in 2014, the Holy Father told us that the most important thing in dialogue is the willingness to walk together. So long as we are willing to work side by side, we will always find new ways to overcome our differences. And interreligious dialogue is that long walk of humanity together, so much needed in a deeply divided world.