interfaith

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A Letter for Ramadan

A Guest Blog from Fr Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

Dear Muslim sisters and brothers,

Assalam Aleikum!

In the month of April this year we will celebrate the advent of the month of Ramadan. I consciously use the word ‘celebrate’, because I have personally experienced and seen Muslim friends-sisters and brothers-really looking forward to the fasting month of Ramadan.

Let me begin with an anecdote from my days in Aligarh. On the day before the advent of the month of Ramadan in the year 2003, a Muslim journalist friend of mine, Shafi, and I went for an evening stroll. There was a lot of expectation in the air. There were people in the streets and on rooftops trying to spot the crescent moon, waiting for the announcement of the commencement of the month of Ramadan. The thought came to my mind how intently these people were looking forward to seeing a sign of God-the crescent moon. It was really beautiful! I felt very happy for that great awareness-looking for a sign of God in Nature.

God is the Creator of all things, and, using the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”. God’s signs are everywhere. One needs to pay attention to them to realise their significance.

I heard an announcement saying that the crescent moon had been sighted. Shafi and I looked in the direction of the moon. An elderly gentleman was before us. Two little children-a boy and a girl-were holding his hands. They were perhaps his grandchildren. The gentleman raised his hands in prayer. He said something, facing the crescent moon. I was moved to see the two little children also raise their hands in prayer. How wonderful it was that this grandfather was teaching, through his own example, these two little children to recognise a sign of God! Even these little children were aware of God! I felt very happy for that.

Dear friends, the Holy Quran says that fasting is prescribed for you. It is a means for developing God-consciousness. This is something very attractive for me. The month of Ramadan is about focussing on God-consciousness. To experience a deep experience of God-consciousness, fasting, prayer and charity are a means. They help us in awareness of the presence of God in the world.
So, God-consciousness is something that the Muslim tradition teaches me, including through the significance of the month of Ramadan in the lives of Muslims. The way Muslim brothers and sisters celebrate the month of Ramadan helps me grow in God-consciousness as a Christian.

Dear sisters and brothers, as a student of Christian-Muslim relations I have asked a number of Muslim sisters and brothers, ‘Why do you fast?’ Many of you have said that fasting is for purification, fasting is to please God, fasting is an act of obedience to God. Everything that you have said I know you are saying it from your own experience, because I know my Muslim friends and their deep faith in God and their commitment to God. For me, this is a very beautiful experience. What you have said is from the heart of your experience. It inspires me to become God-oriented in my own life. It is an invitation to lead a life that is based on God-consciousness.

As a Christian, something else strikes me very much. The Bible says, in the Gospel of Matthew (6:17-18):
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Dear friends, many years ago, I was a student at the Department of Islamic Studies at the Aligarh Muslim University. There was a professor in the Department who was a wonderful teacher and a very pious person. During the month of Ramadan I would notice that he would be extra careful to look fresh, with oiled and neatly-combed hair and well-ironed clothes. In the other months, he would sit and teach, while in the month of Ramadan he would teach while standing. He would not show any signs of tiredness on account of fasting. He would be fully ready to spend enough time especially with me to explain things. And he would never make any reference to his tiredness or about the time the fast would end. On some occasions I would say to him, ‘You must be tired, Sir’, but he would reply, ‘Victor, it is important that I should explain things to you.’

How beautiful is the message of the Gospel (referred to above) in a way it comes to me through the life of a Muslim! I was able to see the meaning and depth of those Bible verses through my Muslim professor. This was something really amazing, a beautiful experience for me.

Dear sisters and brothers, I pray with you as a Christian brother that this month of Ramadan be a blessing for all of us who desire to grow in God-consciousness, all of us who thirst for God in their lives. May all of us put our heart and soul, hands and feet, together and worship the One God according to our faith traditions. And together as brothers and sisters may we all spread peace, joy and harmony.

Ameen! Amen!

May God bless us all.

Khuda Hafiz,

Your brother,

Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

2020.07.Victor-Edwin-SJFr Victor Edwin is a Jesuit priest who teaches Christian-Muslim Relations at Vidyajyoti, a Catholic centre for higher theological learning in Delhi. He is deeply engaged in seeking to promote understanding and goodwill between Christians and Muslims. He has a PhD in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and has written widely on issues related to interfaith relations.

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Fr Hans Küng RIP

Vale, Fr Hans Küng:  Priest, Theologian, Promoter of Inter-religious Dialogue and Prophet

 by Dr Duncan MacLaren

The Swiss theologian, Fr Hans Küng, author of On Being a Christian, a magisterial attempt to ‘sell’ Christianity to the modern world and Infallible?, where he cast doubt on papal infallibility just before the reign of Saint John Paul II, has died at the age of 93. These two books in a way encapsulate the man. On the one hand, he was a priest in good standing with the Church who railed against those priests who were messy around the altar and were not true to their vows, and, on the other, in his search for truth, he was often regarded as an irritant, to put it mildly, by the Vatican.

Infallible? cost him his professorial chair in Catholic theology at Tübingen University in Germany though they made him a Professor in the Institute for Ecumenical Research instead. The case against him pursued by the Holy Office was led by a man whom he had made, years earlier, a professor at Tübingen, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the then Prefect of what became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They made up soon after Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 at a lunch together in the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. They corresponded afterwards but never met again to discuss their disparate visions of the Church.

For the readers of this blog, their main interest in Hans Küng lies in his search for a Global Ethic, launched by the publication of his Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic in 1991. Ten years later, shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, he addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations with his vision of a global ethic that could lead the planet to peace with the world’s religions as major protagonists. He said,

Globalization needs a global ethos, not as an additional burden, but as a basis and help for people, for civil society. Some political scientists predict a ‘clash of civilizations’ for the 21st century. Against this we set our different vision of the future; not simply an optimistic ideal, but a realistic vision of hope: the religions and cultures of the world, in interaction with all people of good will, can help to avoid such a clash, provided they realize the following insights: No peace among nations without peace among religions. No peace among religions without dialogue among religions. No dialogue among religions without global ethical standards. No survival of our globe in peace and justice without a new paradigm of international relations based on global ethical standards.”[1]

This is precisely why inter-religious dialogue, in which Küng participated passionately for many years, is so important for all of us in the Church. In the Global Ethic Institute at his beloved Tübingen University, he leaves a magnificent legacy, one which continues his search for a global common good found in the moral values of all great religious traditions in order to realign our world along ethical, more person-oriented and more compassionate lines. May Hans Küng, priest and prophet, rest in God’s peace.

Dr Duncan MacLaren is a member of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee on Inter-religious Dialogue

[1] Hans Küng, On the Dialogue of Civilizations, Address on 9th November 2001 at the United Nations General Assembly.   Retrieved from   One of the Greatest Visionaries of Our Time – We Mourn the Death of Hans Küng. The Global Ethic Project lives on. – Weltethos Institut Tübingen (weltethos-institut.org).

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ICCJ President’s Greetings for Pesach and Easter

Life goes on and what seemed as abnormal has become ”the new normal.”

It is human to celebrate. To nature and animals, all days look the same. It is human to give each day its special character. Actually, the purpose of all religion is to make us more humane and remember that human means godlike.

Jews and Christians celebrate holidays because, in separate ways, we share a common history. When we celebrate Pesach and Easter, it’s because God has done something new in our lives. Celebration is communal but no Holiday has caused as much conflict between Jews and Christians as this. To Jewish-Christian dialogue it’s a constant task to see how this holiday unites us more than it divides.

Both Pesach and Easter are stories of beginnings. It all starts with Pesach and Easter. You cannot define yourself as a Jew or a Christian without considering them. In this way the holidays define who we are.

This is my last greeting as President of the ICCJ. It’s been a privilege to write these greetings. As everything else, all good things come to an end. I will still be engaged in dialogue work between Jews and Christians, doing what I can and I hope we soon can meet again.

I write this greeting on behalf of the Executive Board of the ICCJ and the General-Secretary Anette Adelmann, with the staff of the Martin-Buber-House in Heppenheim, Germany. Working with you has been wonderful, a pleasure. Still, our co-work will go on but in other ways.

I wish all a Happy and Blessed Pesach and Easter!

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Peace and Hope in Iraq

A guest post, reproducing an article from the website of the Jesuits in Rome

FATHER CASSAR: THE POPE HAS SOWN PEACE AND HOPE IN IRAQ

By Iacopo Scaramuzzi

The Pope “sowed seeds of hope and peace”: Father Joseph Cassar SJ, the Jesuit who leads Jesuit Refugee Service in Iraq (JRS), comments warmly on Francis’ visit to the martyred Middle Eastern country (March 5-8).

“This visit was a kairos, a moment of value, which goes beyond the immediate time in which we live, and which lies entirely in the hands of God,” comments the Maltese Jesuit from Sharya, where JRS accompanies displaced Yazidis. “I was reminded of Jesus’ travels, as he looks at the crowds of those so much in need, dare I say like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord has mercy on them. The whole visit had a prophetic dimension, which for its relevance goes beyond the boundaries of what is now a very small Christian community: I believe that Pope Francis sowed seeds of hope and peace in this country – a country in which, over these four decades, so much evil has been poured: conflicts, bombings, Isis. So much evil, so much violence, so many people have suffered.”

Father Cassar had the opportunity to meet briefly with Pope Francis on Sunday as he prepared to celebrate Mass in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, along with three confreres: Msgr. Antoine Audo, Chaldean bishop of Aleppo; Father Michael Zammit, provincial; and Father Antonio Spadaro, director of La Civiltà Cattolica. “My two minutes with the Holy Father were beautiful: he was very tired, almost exhausted, but also very, very happy.” Two years ago Father Cassar met Francis at the Vatican, during an audience granted to ROACO (Riunione delle Opere di Aiuto alle Chiese Orientali): “I had introduced myself to the Pope very briefly as a Jesuit working in Iraq,” he recounts, “and then he called me back and said, ‘Pray for me because I want to go there so much.’ And yesterday I heard that he was very happy to have made that visit.”

Francis’ visit to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani in Najaf, a holy city of Shiite Islam, was “a gesture that mirrors St. Francis’ visit to the Sultan. The Pope did not go there for politics or diplomacy. For the Shiite community, the majority here, this visit was important to heal the many wounds that have been inflicted on Iraq by so many years of mutual suspicion between the various communities. The meaning of this meeting goes in the sense of what the Pope said: the peace of God is stronger than violence and war”. Thus, the fact that Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi declared March 6 as the National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence in Iraq in memory of the pope’s visit to Al-Sistani and the subsequent interfaith meeting in Ur, “has enormous significance.”

The reception given to the Pope, “both by Christians and believers of other religions, was beautiful, everything worked very well,” says the Jesuit, who recounts meeting nuns, priests, and lay people from all parts of Iraq, all happy to participate in the concluding mass, joyous and energetic even after many hours of hard travel. “There were people who came from the district of Amadiya, on the border with Turkey, from Sulaymaniyya, there was Father Jens Petzold from the monastic community of Deir Mar Musa in Syria founded by Paolo Dall’Oglio, who is still missing, there were so many people and I could see on their faces an immense joy. Our Yazidi colleagues told me that they shared the joy of Christians, and so did Muslim colleagues who shared with us the joy of seeing the Holy Father in Ur, the ancient city of Abraham, or of seeing him enter Mosul, this city where all the cowardice of Isis has made slaughter even before the bombings.”

“Christianity in Iraq belongs to Iraq, it is not a foreign body. Christians have been in these lands since before Iraq was established as a modern state. Christians belong to these lands,” Father Cassar stressed, adding, “It is a great pity that this country has emptied itself of the Christian population. Those who stayed either consciously chose to stay or were stranded because they did not have the means to leave. I think that of all who are in the limbo of exile, in Jordan or Turkey or Lebanon, these in Iraq are not to be forgotten.”

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Photo: Vatican Media

In Qaraqosh, a predominantly Christian city devastated by Isis, joy was mixed with astonishment: “The local head of JRS, Fadi Yabbo, told me that he never imagined that the Pope would visit this small town. “Abuna, Father,” he told me, “you have no idea what this has meant for me and all the people, more than Hoshana,” the greatest celebration of the Syriac Catholic rite, Palm Sunday, which is celebrated almost more vigorously than the Easter of the Resurrection, the whole city comes out with olive branches to make a large procession: yesterday it was like Jesus visiting our country, a joy that we cannot contain and whose fruits will be felt and experienced in the future.”

For Father Cassar, the first challenges to be faced are those related to the dire situation of the refugees. “During the Mass, the Pope said that there are visible and invisible sufferings: here,” explains the head of Jesuit Refugee Service in Iraq, “there are so many people who still suffer, physically and psychologically, after being displaced, kidnapped: for having seen relatives killed before their eyes – and not only during the presence of Isis, but also now. For example, the attack in the cathedral of the Syriac rite that was visited by Francis in Baghdad on the first day of the visit.”

A Maltese Jesuit, Father Cassar – who will be 60 years old on March 9, after 30 years of priesthood – was close to Father Pedro Arrupe who founded JRS. Since February 2016, Father Cassar has been the director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Iraq. “We are Muslims, Kurds, Arabs, Christians: foreigners we are only four.”

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Photo: Vatican Media

Also on the itinerary of the Pope’s visit is Sharya, where JRS accompanies displaced Yazidis. In speaking about the ministry, Fr. Cassar said, “with my director general from Beirut, Daniel Corru, and the provincial of the Near East, Michael Zammit, we discussed with the head of the mental health program the many challenges that exist for the survivors of the Yazidi genocide in the Sinjar area of northern Iraq. There are teens, children, women who survived slavery by Isis, imprisoned, beaten, abused, even trained to fight. There are also those who managed to escape by going through northeastern Syria and entering Iraqi Kurdistan, and now they are either in refugee camps or outside them in a precarious situation. This is a situation that has been ongoing for seven years.” Father Cassar hopes to bring the lessons learned in Sharya to other places as well. “If the Yazidis who survived the genocide manage to return to Sinjar, I would like us to be able to accompany them.” And again, “I still dream that JRS can go to Mosul to help in rebuilding peace. For many reasons, related to access permits, so far it has not been possible”.

For the Maltese Jesuit, the central point is always “to ask oneself, through discernment: Lord, where and in whom do you want JRS to serve you?”.

Hence the hope that the seeds sown by the Pope will flourish. “I hope that there will be a greater openness to one another, I hope that we can undertake common initiatives among religions to respond to the needs of those who are most in need in this country – doubly hit in 2020, by the pandemic and its economic consequences, and by the economic disaster triggered by the collapse of oil prices. People are suffering, those who are not paid wages are suffering, those who depend on daily work are suffering. That is why I hope that we can take common steps to help the neediest among us. I hope that the Pope’s message that we are all brothers and sisters permeates the hearts of people of good will.” Father Cassar, who stresses that he spends half of his time and apostolic zeal on resolving bureaucratic issues, points out that the government office for non-governmental organizations in Baghdad has in recent days replaced its WhatsApp profile with the logo of the Pope’s visit. “This is also a gesture of welcome and openness. The Lord acts in the hearts of all, beyond the boundaries of the Church, and there are people who have open hearts. I hope that this visit touches the hearts of many people.”

Reproduced from the website of the Jesuits in Rome – www.jesuits.global/2021/03/08/father-cassar-the-pope-has-sown-peace-and-hope-in-iraq/

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A Reflection on Dialogue

A reflection on engaging in online interreligious dialogue – by John Stoer, Member of the Bishops’ Committee For Interreligious Dialogue

97034859_986069351790112_4208132012281692160_oAs someone new to inter-religious dialogue, I am conscious of how important it is and how difficult it is.  I have spent most of my life in a Catholic world: I come from a Catholic family; went to a Catholic school; married a Catholic; and have worked in Catholic education all of my professional life. I do not regret any of this but like many Catholics my experience of people of other religions is limited. I have in recent years, however, become interested in how the Church understands other religions (the theology of religions) and, from a Catholic perspective, inter-religious dialogue.

Pope St John Paul II argued for the need for dialogue with others. Inviting leaders of different religions to come together to pray at Assisi in 1986 is a well-known example and throughout his papacy he exhorted all believers “individually and together, [to] show how religious belief inspires peace, encourages solidarity, promotes justice and upholds liberty” (Vatican City 28/10/1999). Pope Francis continues this work through his own witness and his writings from Evangelii gaudium (2013) to Fratelli tutti (2020).

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September 20, 1986: Pope John Paul II’s Inter-Faith Summit in Assisi

Four inter-related forms of dialogue are identified in a Vatican document, Dialogue and Mission (1984). They are: dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit; of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for common good; of theological exchange; and of religious experience. Speaking only for myself, though I suspect for many others as well, through much of my life I have not engaged in any of these four forms of dialogue. I did not prioritise it and had limited opportunity to meet adherents of other religions, even as neighbours. At the same time, I have become increasingly aware of the need for dialogue to inspire peace, encourage solidarity, promote justice and uphold liberty, and I would add, to promote the importance of the religious dimension of life.

In recent years I have, however, had opportunities to engage in dialogue especially with the Shia community in Glasgow, the Ahl Al-Bait Scotland Society. I was a member of a small committee of three Catholics and three Muslims who together organised a Zoom conference on human fraternity. (A recording of the conference can be found on this website). Without question, I learnt from engaging with the three Muslim men on the committee. Their courtesy in both manner and forms of address, the strength of their faith and their participation in their community made me very aware of my need for ongoing conversion.

image1During the conference Cardinal Fitzgerald, who together with Dr Shomali was a keynote speaker, made reference to Dialogue and Mission and how through dialogue “Christians meet the followers of other religious traditions in order to walk together toward truth and to work together in projects of common concern” (DM 13). In my limited experience, working together is much easier than “walking together towards truth”. In the committee everyone was focused on one outcome, the best possible conference given the limits of lockdown, with everyone keen to ensure an appropriate balance between Christian and Muslim, and that the conference really was a joint effort. The two speakers shared this goal, and in their talks and dialogue it was evident that both Christians and Muslims have much in common in their desire to work for the good of all. At the same time, I am aware of barriers. Some are social, political and cultural – barriers which exist between Catholics as well -but every time I attempt to understand something religious or ‘doctrinal’ in another religion I am always conscious of difference: different starting points and taken-for-granted assumptions such as who Jesus is, the place of sacred texts, and how to arrive at a moral and ethical position. I suspect that in “walk[ing] together towards truth” I am only just beginning to crawl.

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World Day of Fraternity

h-e-cardinal-michael-czerny-s-j-5-770x500Guest blog – Cardinal Michael Czerny reflects on the significance of the first International Day of Human Fraternity marked on Thursday, in this reflection which is reposted from www.igNation.ca – the blog of the Canadian Jesuits.

 

4 February has entered the world’s calendar of significant commemorations.

On that day in 2019, during his apostolic journey to the United Arab Emirates, Pope Francis co-signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (Cairo), Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. This Document raises the great themes which, 20 months later, would be taken up and developed in the Encyclical Fratelli tutti.

The unprecedented encounter in Abu Dhabi soon inspired the creation of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity. The members, an international group of religious and cultural leaders and scholars, are dedicated to sharing the Document’s message of mutual understanding leading to peace. The Committee plans to establish an Abrahamic Family House with a synagogue, a church and a mosque facing each other around a commons on Saadiyat Island in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

On 21 December 2020, the United Nations General Assembly designated 4 February as the International Day of Human Fraternity. In the January 2021 edition of the Pope Video, titled “At the service of human fraternity,” the Holy Father highlights the importance of focusing on what is essential to the beliefs of all religions: worship of God and love of neighbour. “Fraternity leads us to open ourselves to the Father of all and to see in the other a brother, a sister, to share life, or to support one another, to love, to know.”

The Holy See’s planning for this inaugural International Day of Human Fraternity has taken place under the leadership of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The Council was created in 1964 by Pope Paul VI to work on relations and dialogue between the Catholic Church and the faithful of other religions. It holds interreligious meetings, publishes a variety of materials, and collaborates with bishops and episcopal conferences on matters related to interreligious dialogue. Here is the first IDHF video in various languages.

Today, 4 February, Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb are participating virtually in an event hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, with the participation of United Nations Secretary-General António Guteres and other personalities. The event is being broadcast on Vatican News at 8:30 a.m. (EST).

Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, MCCJ, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, says the celebration “responds to a clear call that Pope Francis has been making to all humanity to build a present of peace in the encounter with the other.” He adds that “in October 2020, that invitation became even more vivid with the Encyclical Fratelli tutti and comments that “these meetings are a way to achieve true social friendship, as the Holy Father asks of us.”

Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, secretary general of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity agrees with this perspective. In his presentation at the conference launching Fratelli tutti, he remarked that “In this decisive phase of human history, we are at a crossroads: on the one hand, universal fraternity in which humanity rejoices, and on the other, an acute misery that will increase the suffering and deprivation of people.”

In the future, starting in 2022, with the experience of this first celebration of the International Day of Human Fraternity and with more time to prepare, the local Churches will be encouraged and helped to participate actively with intercultural and interreligious events marking this date.

At yesterday’s weekly audience, Pope Francis said: “I am very pleased that the nations of the entire world are joining in this celebration, aimed at promoting interreligious and intercultural dialogue… The U.N. resolution recognizes ‘the contribution that dialogue among all religious groups can make towards an improved awareness and understanding of the common values shared by all humankind.’ May this be our prayer today and our commitment every day of the year.”

Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ

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A Holocaust Memorial Day Like No Other

Guest blog by Nathan Eddy, Interim Director of the Council of Christians and Jews, taken from the 22 January CCJ Newsletter

cb0debf7-3ae7-4bc4-ac0c-6e67444d282fHolocaust Memorial Day, observed across the country on January 27th, will be unique. A year ago, I remember queueing in the rain to get into Methodist Central Hall in Westminster for the national ceremony and seeing friends and colleagues there. This year we gather in front of laptops, tablets and phones to remember, to hear stories of survival and loss, and to be together. And HMD is different this year for another reason; last year, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was the last major anniversary at which survivors will likely be present. We now enter a new era of commemoration, with new ways of remembering, educating and gathering together.

During lockdown I was helped by reading the poetry of a Holocaust survivor, Dan Pagis, whom I first encountered on a CCJ Yad Vashem seminar. Born in 1930 near the Bukovina area of present-day Romania, Pagis lost most of his family in the Shoah, was interned in a concentration camp, and emigrated to Israel as a teenager. There he learned Hebrew for the first time and, remarkably, became one of the prominent Israeli poets of his generation and a world expert in Medieval Jewish literature. Life went on after the horrific events he experienced as a young person, but haunting and ambiguous images fill his poetry. ‘I was a shadow’ — a tzel, in his Hebrew original — he writes in his poem ‘Testimony’. Yet perhaps the very act of sharing his testimony is his poetry’s power — at least, it is for me.

The theme this year chosen by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is ‘Be the light in the darkness’. For survivors of the Shoah and other genocides, as was the case for Pagis, the shadows are present even in the light of liberation and a conflict’s ending, and this testimony of survivors can challenge those of us who want an easy ‘happily ever after’. As may be the case in the current pandemic, trauma changes lives forever. Yet there is a curious power, a healing power, in hearing testimony and reflecting on lives like Pagis’. The testimony of survivors can be a light in the darkness for us all, giving us courage to be a light in our communities today. That light will be shining brightly on Wednesday, encouraging and empowering us all.

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Virtual Pilgrimages

By Anthony MacIsaac

During the difficulties imposed by Covid-19 many of our religious habits have necessarily changed. Among these are habits of prayer, personal and collective. One especially profound form of prayer is the pilgrimage, which has been affected extraordinarily. At its root, the concept of pilgrimage involves leaving one’s normal space, to enter into sacred space. To leave oneself (along with any notions of selfishness) and to be embraced by a living and selfless whole. When we make pilgrimage to a particular site, we indeed walk the paths on which countless others have trod, living and dead. We enter into communion with them, even if an unseen communion, and we focalise that onto a particular space. We might call this focal-point a kind of Divine presence in the world around us. It is indeed a kind of deep communion with God.

pic_1518594231It is impossible to conceive of any religion that doesn’t include some concept of pilgrimage. Islam makes it one of the Five Pillars to its religion – the Hajj. Every adult Muslim is expected to make this journey at some point in their life, even if only by great difficulty. The Holy site of Mecca is itself rather illusive, despite being at the centre of this rite. It’s Ka’bah is popularly considered to have been built by Adam, and to have been re-built by Abraham. These legendary associations transform this figurative “House of God” into a focal-point for all Humanity, in the first instance, and then into an Abrahamic shrine. Pilgrimage to Mecca thereby accomplishes, for Muslims, a return to their source (Allah) and to the foundation of His relationship with Humanity. They fulfil religious obligation in making a journey of prayer to this site, and return home uplifted. For Jews and Christians both, Jerusalem is the central space by contrast (Muslims make a secondary pilgrimage there nonetheless). By Biblical narrative, this city was the site upon which God blessed Abraham – through Melchizedek, its King – and upon which His Chosen Nation was founded centuries later. In the New Testament, it was the city in which Jesus Christ was to be suffer His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. It was also the city in which Pentecost was to come, and from which the Gospel would leave to reach the ends of the earth. So that, in making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there are again the two key notions of returning to a Divine source and leaving rejuvenated by that source, to bring its joy to others.

article-2059042-0EB7BDCD00000578-46_634x416In the tradition of Hinduism, the ancient city of Varanasi holds especial significance for pilgrimage. Within its boundaries is the sacred river Ganges, which is of great importance to most Hindus, as a river in which they might wash away their sins. The city itself was reputedly founded by Shiva, who beheaded his rival Brahma. Brahma’s head was lost by Shiva, and fell into the ground, therefore making the land encompassed by Varanasi absolutely sacred in Hindu belief. Varanasi is crucial also to many Buddhists – the Gautama Buddha having given his first sermons not far from the centre of the city, at Sarnath. For Sikhs, there is the city of Amritsar, which hosts the Golden Temple. The city’s name translates as “Pool of the Nectar of Immortality” – returning us to the theme of a space’s power to transform us from within – and it was founded alongside the temple by Guru Arjan.

The above sites are just some of myriad different locations venerated in religions around the world. Each religious tradition will usually have a plurality of sacred spaces. This returns us to the effects of Covid-19. In the first instance, we have found that making great pilgrimages to great places has been an impossibility. Yet, what some of us might have recovered is a sense of the Holy in Nature around us – which is an even more fundamental source of the Divine than any Holy city, we might say. Whether we walk in a nearby park, or look to the night sky – we are able to sense something greater than ourselves within Nature. Granted, many of us live in busy cities and it is difficult to recover any of this sense. Parks might be closed, the night skies covered in artificial light. However, we still might have so many other little spaces of prayer around us – if we are fortunate. Our local Church, Masjid or Synagogue can become that source of the Divine in our life – we can make pilgrimage to it. Of course it is clear that the imagination becomes important with all of this. We are perhaps re-thinking our space around us. Seeing beauty in Nature, even when hard to spot, and appreciating the Holy in everyday religious life. The Catholic Church has certainly encouraged virtual pilgrimage throughout the pandemic, and perhaps other religious groups have also done so. In November, the Holy See even declared that a virtual visit made to a cemetery would allow us to obtain a Plenary Indulgence – which we would be free to offer to anyone buried there, or perhaps to anyone buried anywhere. Such a virtual pilgrimage as this didn’t presuppose the Internet – it went beyond that. We were told that even the act of imagining a visit made to the graveside, perhaps just the act of imagining our loved one, would bring this Indulgence. The emphasis on individual spirituality has taken centre-stage in this declaration. Through our own personal contemplative life, we can access the full bounties of God despite being so very confined in this difficult pandemic. For this winter season, the Christians among us (but others too if they desire) might stop to make a virtual pilgrimage – a pilgrimage of the heart – to Bethlehem. This has been the idea of the Christmas crib, for so long, and it would surely bring great benefits to us – even equalling those we would gain by making a physical visit to Bethlehem itself. There are no distances in God. 2539739a446a5da1756d7d6e39867554

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New Year Resolutions

From the blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

Christmas has been different and difficult for many of us this year but we’ve survived it and we’re now in a period of recovering from card writing, parcel posting, shopping and cooking  – all of which somehow became more insistent this year.  Now we’re back to lockdown and, for some perhaps, a feeling of isolation, even with skype and zoom possibilities. It feels rather flat and quiet with no new year celebration to look forward to. It’s so different from last new year when I was invited to bring in the new year at a 1920’s themed party. We put together clothes that somehow expressed the spirit of the 20s and even attempted to dance the Charleston. There was a sense of excitement and hope as there often is at new year as we entered what might turn out to be another roaring twenties decade.  This was the  decade which followed on from the Spanish flu of 1918 and was a time of economic growth and prosperity after the devastation of the First World War. It was not to be.

Unknown to us (but not to everyone) there was lurking a tiny, deadly virus which would disrupt the economy, cause chaos and reveal to us all the vulnerability of humanity and the cracks in our societies with the widening  gap between rich and poor.  The Coronavirus has been the topic of conversations, a motivation for social action, given us a recognition of our dependence on key workers and a growing sense of thankfulness and neighbourliness.  Now as we move into another calendar year there’s much to reflect on and hope for as we dream of a better world which will demand a change in all of us if that dream is to become a reality.

New Year is a time for resolutions and new perspectives. So what might they be?

For me one of them is to try to stand in the shoes of my brothers and sisters who are suffering because of poverty, war, abuse, discrimination, neglect, isolation. I was very aware in writing the first paragraph of this blog that the reality I described of Christmas cards and presents, family and celebrations was not everyone’s reality. Any flatness I might feel is a consequence of not having the opportunity to meet friends and family as would normally happen at Christmas. In itself that’s a sign these things are a reality for me but they’re not for everyone. There are people with whom I live cheek by jowl who have no family, no home, no money, no possibility of the kind of family and community relationships that I have. Life is flat for them all the time. There are neighbours who are lonely, friends for whom Christmas evokes sad and not happy memories and for whom all the razzmatazz around Christmas is painful. This is as true of the reality of Christmas as the joy.  Others for whom the virus has exacerbated mental health issues and the many who in this year are grieving because of the death of loved ones, made even more painful by their inability to be there as their family member died of be consoled by the presence of family and friends at funerals.

Another is to deepen my understanding of ecology. Covid 19 and its restrictions have shown us how much we humans pollute our atmosphere. We heard bird song more than we have done for a long time, we saw blue skies. Some in India saw the Himalayas for the first time in years. We rejoiced in cleaner air as airplanes were grounded and cars were left at home. But now as restrictions are easing we can see the pollution creep back again. Can I feel the pain of this world on which I depend and to which I am intimately related? Can I walk on this earth with reverence and respect doing my little bit to overcome pollution and waste?  Can I cut down my consumption to live a more simple lifestyle?

There is so much that needs done that it can seem overwhelming. At my age and stage I can do little but I can pray a prayer that feels the pain of the world, offers compassion and hope  to a world and society that I hold in my heart, believing that this  good energy can have a positive and transforming effect. Tibetan Buddhism has a name for this kind of meditation. It’s called Tonglen and is a practice in which we breathe in the pain of others and our world, perhaps visualising this pain as a dark ribbon and breathe out compassion and love, again perhaps visualising this as a light coloured ribbon.

Tonglen and similar  meditations  make tangible the reality that we can never pray or meditate as isolated individuals, that we approach God or that Reality in which we live and move and have our very being united to our sisters and brothers and indeed the whole cosmos. It also reminds us that our desire for justice, love and compassion is united to that of many, many good people whose kindness and generosity have been so visible during this past year.  We are part of a great movement towards wholeness and reconciliation. We can have confidence that “the love, courtesy, generosity and beauty that is put into to the world will never vanish from the world. And when it’s time it will restore itself instantly” a quotation from Cynthia Bourgeault that can give us hope as we let go of one year and welcome another.

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Fratelli Tutti

From the blog of Sr Isabel Smyth  SND – Interfaith Journeys  –

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An Interfaith Encyclical

Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, is an example of what Jonathan Sacks would call side by side interfaith dialogue as distinguished from face to face dialogue.  An encyclical is traditionally a letter to the Bishops of the Catholic world but this one, as with some others, is addressed to the whole of humanity because it deals with issues that are relevant for all.

Relations with Islam frame the document. It begins with the story of St Francis of Assisi’s meeting with Sultan Malek al-Kamil of Egypt in the 13thcy during the fifth crusade.  While the story is true – there is the gift of an ivory horn from the Sultan preserved in St Francis’ Baslica in Asissi as proof – it has become the stuff of legend. In some versions Francis, accompanied by Brother Illuminato, was on a peace mission, in others his desire was to preach Christianity and perhaps die as a martyr. Whatever was the truth of the situation the two were men of peace. The Sultan had offered peace to the Christian army five times and sought peaceful coexistence with Christians.  Francis urged the crusader not to attack the Muslims during the siege of Damietta. When they met each recognised the other as a man of God. The story is that they spent time conversing with one another about the things of God. As a result of this encounter Francis encouraged his brothers not to engage in arguments or disputes with Muslims and non- believers while using opportunities to witness to their own faith by actions rather than words.

The encyclical ends with another Christian’s encounter with Islam. This one is Charles de Foucauld who lived as a hermit in the Sahara desert in Algeria among the Tuareg, a substantial Berber ethnic group in North Africa. He was murdered there and is considered to be a Christian martyr. His approach was like that of St Francis, living close to and sharing the life of the people. He preached, not through sermons but through the example of his life, studying the language and culture of the Tuareg and publishing the first Tuareg-French dictionary.  He was challenged and impressed by the Tuareg’s  faith.  He wrote “The sight of their faith, of these people living in God’s constant presence, afforded me a glimpse into something greater and truer than earthly preoccupations”.   In Fratelli Tutti  Pope Francis describes him as one who “made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all ….. he wanted to be in the end a brother to all”.  The very last words of the encyclical are that God might inspire that dream in each one of us”.

An example of this brotherhood is seen in the friendship between the Pope and Ahmed el- Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo.  Both men signed a document entitled Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together at an interfaith gathering in Abu Dhabi in February 2019.  Pope Francis explicitly acknowledges the encouragement of the Grand Imam in the writing of Fratelli Tutti which he says takes up and develops some of the great themes raised in the Human Fraternity document where together the two religious leaders declared “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters”.

The Pope and Imam stood side by side in Abu Dhabi, so we can imagine them standing side by side spiritually and intentionally   in the reading and the writing of this encyclical. To underline this point a representative of the Grand Imam was at the launch of the encyclical – the first time a Muslim has ever presented a papal document. The Muslim was Judge Mohammed Mahmoud Abdel Salem, secretary general to the Higher Committee  on Human Fraternity established to promote the Abu Dhabi document.  Commenting after that event he said” I was really very moved when I first read Pope Francis’ message. I felt that the Pope is representing me in every word, in everything he said.”  The Grand Imam also publicly welcomed the encyclical calling Pope Francis his brother and agreeing that  “ Pope Francis’s message, Fratelli Tutti, is an extension of the Document on Human Fraternity, and reveals a global reality in which the vulnerable and marginalized pay the price for unstable positions and decisions… It is a message that is directed to people of good will, whose consciences are alive and restores conscience to humanity.”

The final interfaith moment for me are the prayers which conclude the encyclical. As with the Pope’s previous encyclical Laudato Si there are two of them. One of them is an ecumenical Christian prayer and the other is a prayer to the Creator which can be said standing side by side with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, particularly the Abrahamic faiths. To have a prayer like this in a papal document cuts across face to face dialogues that examine and debate the validity of interfaith prayers. In the face of the crises that face all of humanity why would we not want to pray

May our hearts be open to all the peoples and nations of the earth.
 May we recognise the goodness and beauty that you have sown in each of us,
and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects and shared dreams. Amen

 

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