Melbourne News

Parliament of the World’s Religions

Kairos: Volume 21, Issue 0121-1-parliament-pg16

In December last year, Melbourne hosted one of the most extraordinary events of the modern interfaith movement. Rather than a gathering of elected representatives to enact legislative decisions, the Parliament of the World’s Religions is an international convention of private individuals held every five years, originally in Chicago, but since in Cape Town and Barcelona and now Melbourne.

The Parliament allowed 5500 people of different religious communities and projects throughout the world to meet face to face and to discuss several important issues. The theme was ‘Make a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth’, so there was a major emphasis on the role of religious believers in tackling issues of justice, poverty, food and water, peace, social cohesion and the environment. A special and new feature at the Melbourne Parliament was the particular attention paid to Indigenous issues.

The venue for the Parliament was the new Melbourne Exhibition Centre, which was well suited to the structure of the Parliament as it has a large plenary hall that could accommodate all the participants as well as dozens of smaller rooms for separate sessions. More than 600 separate sessions were listed in the (very heavy) official program book.

Each day of the Parliament began with a variety of simultaneously conducted religious observances and prayers, from which participants could choose to attend. Catholic Mass was offered according to several different rites, including the Coptic and Ukrainian rites. As I was handing out worship orders one morning before Mass, I noticed the Jains at the door to my left and the Yogis at the door to my right – a very real experience of the ‘religious marketplace’!

The rest of each of the seven days was split into sessions on topics that were intra-religious or inter-religious, about engagement with the world around us or dialogue with one another in informal discussions. Major presentations including by personalities like Fr Hans Küng or presentations by the Youth Council took place in the plenary hall. Dancing, music and artistic displays were also presented. The plenaries each evening were major events, including the opening and closing ceremonies. Archbishop Hart was among those religious leaders from Melbourne specially chosen to give a blessing to the opening plenary, and the Dalai Lama made a special guest appearance and speech at the closing ceremony.

The largest number of contributions and speakers from any one religious tradition was from Catholics. Both local and international Catholics, clerical and lay, from a wide range of private and ecclesiastical organisations made presentations on topics including interfaith marriage, praying together, recent developments in Jewish-Christian dialogue and religious dual-belonging.

On Friday 4 December, the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne was one of 23 different local religious traditions which took the opportunity of hosting a ‘Communities Night’ for members of their communities, both local and visiting. The Catholic Communities Night was held at Central Hall thanks to the generosity of the Australian Catholic University. The entertainment for the evening was by local Celtic harp group Hills Angels.

Archbishop Hart was present at Central Hall to welcome our visitors, among whom were the Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, Tim Fischer, and in particular our special guest of honour for the Parliament, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington. Cardinal McCarrick participated in six separate sessions of the Parliament, as well as being the principal celebrant of Holy Eucharist at St Patrick’s Cathedral on 6 December. Also concelebrating at that Mass were Archbishop Hart, Bishops Michael Putney and Brian Finnegan, and fifteen other local and visiting clergy participating in the Parliament.

I personally enjoyed the many private conversations that took place in the foyer and outside in the gardens around the Exhibition Centre. For me, this was the most valuable aspect of the Parliament. People of all kinds of beliefs from all over the world met face to face in warm friendship. This gave me overwhelming hope for the future of relationships between world religions and proves beyond doubt that religious believers can be a force for good in the future of mankind.

David Schütz is Executive Officer Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission

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