Interfaith Dialogue

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Common Ground in Dialogue

A Blog Post by Sr Isabel Smyth, Secretary of the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue

Last week I was introduced to the work of Dr Peter Admirand who is the Director of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin City University. Dr Admirand was the keynote speaker at a colloquium on ‘Interreligious Dialogue in the Time of Pope Francis, organised by the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for interreligious Dialogue.

While acknowledging the change and development in the Catholic church’s attitude to interreligious dialogue and the strong bond of friendship between the Pope and Rabbi Skorka, Dr Admirand widened our understanding of dialogue to include not just believers but also those who, as atheists, do not believe in God.

Dr Admirand’s most recent book is an account of such a dialogue, his own with Dr Andrew Fiala, the Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Ethics Centre at California State University, someone who has an interest in religion but is a declared atheist. The dialogue contained in their book Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist-Theist Dialogue is refreshing in that, like so many of these kinds of dialogues, it is not polemical with one side or the other trying to prove or disprove the existence of God.  Rather it focuses on the common ground of a set of virtues which allows for an honest conversation and a common search for understanding without suspicion and resentment. 

 Having learned something of the faith journey of each of the writers, the rest of the chapters focus on a virtue, suggested by one of the writers and then responded to by the other. There are seven virtues in all – harmony, courage, humility, curiosity, honesty, compassion and honour.  While the writers explore each virtue from their own perspective there is a learning for all of us in considering their role in interfaith relations.  Some, it would seem to me,  refer to the attitudes necessary for dialogue – a desire for harmony so that we are willing to set aside, at least for the time of dialogue, judgements and prejudices; a humility in listening to the truth as another sees it while recognising and acknowledging the terrible consequences of the failings of religions and ideologies; a compassion that recognises our shared humanity in its seeking for truth, even if we come up with different answers; an honour that  respects and values the integrity of the other and an honesty that allows us to see how others might interpret and understand our words and actions. Recently Pope Francis, a great advocate of dialogue, found himself challenged when he suggested that the Torah does not offer fulfilment but is in fact a journey that leads to an encounter with Christ, seemingly undoing advances in Catholic – Jewish relations from the days when Christianity was thought to supersede Judaism and render it irrelevant.  Now the Vatican is having to clarify that the Pope was speaking within the context of Christian scripture and stating “the abiding Christian conviction is that Jesus Christ is the new way of salvation. However, this does not mean that the Torah is diminished or no longer recognized as the ‘way of salvation for Jews.”

When such a thing happens to a Pope it is newsworthy, but such misunderstandings can happen in dialogue to all of us though if the dialogue is based on friendship, as is the case with the Pope’s relationship with the Jewish community, the upset can be talked about openly and be a moment of learning for everyone.  But it is fear of such incidents that can keep some people from engaging in dialogue. Courage is then needed to break out of our sense of self-sufficiency and comfort and enter the world of another. For those of us who have done it, the journey is transformative and enriching but taking the first step can be difficult. Perhaps it is at that point that curiosity is something to be valued as a motivation for setting out on what is truly an adventure.

At our colloquium Dr Admirand highlighted curiosity as the value he hesitated over and some attending the event agreed with him. He noted that the Catholic tradition, based as it is on the certainty of Revelation, was suspicious of curiosity believing that it could undermine religious belief and, in their book, Dr Fiala states his belief that progression in science, psychology and other disciplines has done just that, especially since the Enlightenment.  It certainly has taken many people beyond what Fiala calls naïve religion and that surely must be a good thing. There is of course a dangerous curiosity and today we are aware of the dangers of the internet, experimentation with drugs and other substances for example that can lead young people to play with fire – metaphorically if not literally. Pope Francis has warned against idle curiosity that is empty and superficial, but he has also said “the secret to joy: never suppress positive curiosity; get involved, because life is meant to be lived”.

Within the context of interreligious dialogue curiosity is surely a value which, if strong enough, gives us the courage to enter into the world of others and come back to our own changed and enlightened not just about the other but also about ourselves, our beliefs and the world we inhabit.

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The Father in Abrahamic Religions

By Anthony MacIsaac

Inter-religious dialogue has often touched upon the topic of Motherhood, and there has been a wealth of reflection on this, even unto the apparently radical idea of God as Mother. Not so often, it would seem, has Fatherhood been discussed in this way. In this “Year of St. Joseph” – inaugurated by Pope Francis, and ending this December – it seems pertinent to consider what Fatherhood means more deeply. 

To begin with St. Joseph himself, Christianity generally considers him the “Foster-Father” of Jesus Christ. In a certain sense of analogy, the Holy Family resembles the Holy Trinity. Jesus Christ as the Son, Mary as the Holy Spirit, St. Joseph as the Father. Alike to the Father – St. Joseph remains in the background, and is an unseen presence. His position within Christian piety has fluctuated. In the medieval period, he was often seen even as a cantankerous nuisance – caricatured as such in the carnival performances, which sought to emulate the key elements of Christ’s life, usually on Shrove Tuesday. It is difficult to say how this unfortunate image grew, but it seems to have been culturally rooted in the time. Many may have considered him an unequal spouse to the Virgin Mary, and the role of step-father may have been thought of in negative terms. Yet, it could be that the humour regarding St. Joseph was in good natured spirits too. Whatever the case, his cult soon grew, especially with his role as Patron of the “Good Death”. Since he disappears from the Gospel early on, he is considered to have died during Jesus’ teenage years. By the 19th century, he was seen as “The Worker”, and a Patron to labourers everywhere. His popularity continued to increase, and in the 20th century his role began to emerge anew as a Father-figure. He was invoked in particular as a Saint of family life. With the “Year of St. Joseph”, his status might be at its apogee, and it would seem the Catholic Church is calling her members to a greater consideration of this holy man. In short, his role as a Father-figure carries with it many connotations. Even if he wasn’t perfect, his hard work as a carpenter and his devotion to Mary provided a safe and secure environment for Jesus to grow. Himself taking on the carpentry that St. Joseph no doubt taught Him, Jesus became a man probably quite like St. Joseph, doubtless also in His tenderness and care for those around Him. It is also notable that the Jews of this time saw Jesus as the son of Joseph, to the extent that the genealogy of Jesus refers back to King David via him – even if Mary’s genealogy is actually used in one of the Gospels. 

 The place of the father within Islam has certain similarities to that of St. Joseph within Christianity. When the Prophet Muhammad’s mother Aminah fell pregnant, her husband Abdullah left for a trading trip. Tragically, during his time away he fell seriously ill, and died without ever meeting his son. The aged figure of Abd al-Muttalib, the father of Abdullah, then took Muhammad under his protection. Despite being Muhammad’s grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib raised the boy as his own son, and exerted a formative role in the boy’s growth. His place within the Islamic tradition is interesting, in that his earlier life is characterised by an adherence to the “old ways” of monotheism, before the coming of Islam. One episode in particular is striking, in that Abd al-Muttalib almost sacrifices his son Abdullah, alike to Abraham and Ishmael – in Islam it is Ishmael and not Isaac who occupied this place. The familial descent of Muhammad from Ishmael comes through the line of Abd al-Muttalib, whose own great-grandfather was Qusai, the King of Mecca. The parallels with Jesus’ descent from the King of Israel, David, and the preceding Patriarchs are clear. Dying when Muhammad was eight years old, one of Abd al-Muttalib’s other sons took on the role of foster-father to Muhammad, Abu Talib. The relationship between Abu Talib and his nephew was always one of warmth, but there is controversy as to whether he accepted Muhammad’s claims to prophecy – and he thereby remains a difficult figure in Muslim tradition. In any case, he helped his nephew secure his place within the Meccan community. Over time Muhammad himself became a father, and many Muslims today trace their ancestry back to his grandsons Hassan and Hussein. There are certain Sufi litanies that invoke these individuals, in prayer to God, and these reflect a veneration for Muhammad as father to the Ummah (Nation).

In Judaism, certain figures are likewise considered as fathers to the Chosen People. Abraham – venerated as “Father in Faith” by Jews, Christians and Muslims – represents the first among these, leaving asides the legendary Noah for now. Recently Pope Francis visited Abraham’s place of birth – the ancient city of Ur, in Iraq. This choice was made because of the unifying significance to the life of Abraham, whose role as father is key to God’s Covenant with him, that promises descendants as numerous as the stars. God even introduces Himself to Moses as the God “of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob”. With Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve Tribes of Israel are evoked – and the Nation of Israel proper takes its foundation from these twelve Tribes. To take a brief glance back at Noah, his position as proverbial father of Humanity has also been used somewhat within Jewish apologetics to underscore the reality that we are all called to some share in God’s plan. There is much more that could be said here; however it seems good to highlight the role of fatherhood within mainstream Abrahamic religion as a creative, nurturing and guiding presence.

(Our Feature Image is Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Renic. 1635)

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Lockdown and Interfaith Dialogue

By Bishop Brian McGee – Published originally in ‘The Coracle‘.

The pandemic has proved to be a difficult experience for everyone. The lockdown, whose purpose was to save life, inevitably also limited our experience of life. As people of Faith we too felt this keenly. For long stretches praying communally was impossible and when public worship resumed distance, brevity, no singing and masks were the rule. And yet we were delighted to be back!

Naturally, we wonder what the effects of the pandemic will be on Faith and religious observance. Yes, we hope that family prayer and personal reflection will have been rediscovered but what effect will ‘loosing the good habit’ of attending Mass hold for many people? Time will tell. However, the Lord is still with us and he remains our source of hope.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic Pope Francis encouraged us by insisting that every crisis also offers opportunities. I have found myself wondering what opportunities have unfolded for Inter Faith Dialogue. I became the Bishop President of the Inter Religious Dialogue Committee not long before the virus struck. I only managed to attend a few events before lockdown began. Certainly online Meetings followed but these, although beneficial, were somewhat awkward as I am not technology minded but, more importantly, had never met the other Faith leaders in person. A certain frustration endured. What opportunities could possibly rise from this crisis?

During May 2020 Pope Francis had called for people of all Faiths to pray and fast for the end of the pandemic. Our Committee got together with Ahl-alBayt Scotland for a short time of prayer on Zoom. The invitation for prayer during this global crisis was certainly well received and the attendance was much higher than typical in-person Inter Faith gatherings. It was an uplifting experience but I presumed that would be the end of it.

Our Muslim friends would celebrate Eid ten days later. By then they had been fasting for thirty days. As we know, Muslims break their Ramadan fast each night at sunset in family groups and within friendship circles. Communal prayers may also be offered. The concept of being with others is integral.

Meanwhile, the Festival of Eid which closes Ramadan also involves great family and communal celebrating. Festive meals are enjoyed together. However, none of these communal celebrations could take place during lockdown. The isolation of lockdown would be felt very deeply by everyone. Even those living in families would still miss their wider family and friends.

What happened next was very beautiful. Many within Ahl-alBayt had felt genuine bonds of warmth and friendship with us as we turned to God for an end to the pandemic. Painfully aware of the isolation they were feeling at this special time of the year they asked if we would join them online! That they would ask us to share in their special day was a great privilege. Once again a healthy number of Catholics and Muslims joined together. Although I had not met of the participants it was still good to support others at that challenging time.

There followed very pointed criticism levelled at our committee for participating in the occasion. To be honest, even at the time, I did think that we rushed a little into the event and more thought and planning would have been beneficial beforehand. Nevertheless, the criticism, although more emotive than based on fact, did make us stop and think. Our committee consists of good, solid and enthusiastic people. We did not want to be doing anything wrong and causing anxiety for our fellow Catholics. We studied relevant parts of Vatican II, more recent Papal and Church documents as well as the example of the Popes. We shared the text with a previous President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. We concluded that we had not done anything wrong but that more preparation should be used in the future. The Committee further discussed our findings and drew up a protocol so that we could participate in future events with confidence. The criticism pushed us to learn for the future and that was a good outcome.

What was more interesting that during Advent the Ahl-alBayt Society wanted to reciprocate our kindness. They knew that Christmas is a special festival for Christians which we celebrate in families and with friends. The restrictions, although lighter than in May, still prevented our usual gatherings. Our Muslim friends wanted to reach out to us. This time we invited two scholars – one Catholic and one Muslim – to share our respective understanding of the person of Jesus. Friendship, a genuine care for those of another Faith and sharing of beliefs. Surely this was true Inter Religious dialogue. After discussion we finished with a prayer composed by Pope Francis to be used by those who believe in One God.

Covid-19 has been so detrimental to human contact in so many ways. In Scotland it has opened new paths in Catholic- Ahl-alBayt dialogue. I wonder where it might lead next?

Bishop Brian McGee

Bishop of Argyll and the Isles

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A Holy Land?

By Sr Isabel Smyth SND, Secretary of the Bishops’ Committee For Interfaith Relations

Since my last blog two weeks ago a war has raged in Israel-Palestine. It’s not the only part of the world that’s at war but it is a conflict which affects interfaith relations here in Scotland in a way that no other conflict does. This is because for four of the world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith the land is regarded as holy and often referred to as ‘The Holy Land’.  For Jews it is the land that God gave them and offered them a place of safety after the Holocaust and hundreds of years of antisemitism in Christian Europe. For Christianity it is the land where Jesus was born, lived, preached, died and rose again. For Islam it is the place where Mohammed undertook his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then ascended through the seven heavens to encounter the various prophets and meet God face to face.  For Bahai’s it is the land where the three central figures of their faith, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha are buried and where the Baha’i’s global spiritual and administrative centre is to be found.

For all four faiths it’s a place of pilgrimage and many believers have an investment in and concern for this part of the world that’s not always recognised. I’ve often heard Jews question why people seem to be more interested and critical of Israel than any other area of conflict, even suggesting such interest could in fact be antisemitic. I’ve also been in a situation at a Council of Christians and Jews where someone from the Jewish community was disturbed that we Christians might think of Israel as our Holy Land while Jews obviously think of it as theirs.

This is a challenge and often the elephant in the room during dialogues between followers of the four faiths who see themselves as descendants of Abraham, which in fact makes them brothers and sisters. However, while we all agree that Abraham is our father, and hold that the land is holy there is much not to agree on. For Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the spot from which Mohammed travelled to the highest heaven during his night journey and received the revelation of the Qur’an. The Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and the one to which the early Muslim community turned when praying until God directed them to pray in the direction of the Kabaa in Mecca instead. Towards the end of Ramadan this journey of the Prophet is celebrated as the Night of Power and devout Muslims will spend the whole night in prayer and recitation of the Qur’an.

The Mosque is built on the Temple Mount and, within the shrine of the Dome of the Rock beside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, lies the place where Abraham was sent to sacrifice his son Isaac and the site of the First and Second Jewish Temple including the Holy of Holies, the most sacred site in Judaism.  This was the innermost and most sacred area of the Temple, accessible only to the High Priest who once a year, on the Day of Atonement, was permitted to enter the sanctuary to offer sacrifice to atone for his own sins and those of the priesthood. Within the Holy of Holies was kept the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of Israel’s special relationship with God. And for many orthodox Jews it is the place where the third and final Temple will be built when the Messiah comes. So sacred is this place that many Jews will not walk on the Mount itself in case they unintentionally enter the area where the Holy of Holies stood, since according to rabbinical law, there is still some aspect of the divine presence at the site. What is left to Jews is what remains of the Western wall of the Temple which for them is a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

So, here we have, in a land troubled by concerns about nationhood and land boundaries, a holy site which is claimed by both Judaism and Islam. It’s one of the most contested religious sites in the world and a focal point for the Israeli – Arab conflict as we have seen in this most recent war. It’s not the cause of the conflict, which is much more political than directly religious, but it does reflect a little bit the different loyalties, narratives, histories, allegiances that come in to play when reflecting on Israel-Palestine – loyalties, narratives, histories and allegiances that can affect relations here in Scotland. Most attempts to speak about the situation leads to polarisation, a desire of both Israelis and Palestinians to tell their story, believing very often that the ‘other’ side’s story is heard more than theirs. I’ve stopped listening to these stories unless balanced by the story of the ‘other’ side. Perhaps what we need is for those of us who call this land holy to reflect with one another on what that means, to feel the pain of division, to recognise the right of all to justice and statehood and above all pray for a peace which shows that it is not ownership or even history that makes a place holy but a recognition of a common humanity under God that recognises all others as our sisters and brothers.

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 The St Mungo Museum

by Sr Isabel Smyth SND

90433a9d77b7fe301a2afc0c7e8b61570c336a47The St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art is a very special place. It’s named after Glasgow’s patron saint who brought the Christian faith to Scotland in the 6th century and designed in the style of the medieval Bishops’ Castle on which site it’s built.  When it was opened in 1993 it was one of only two museums of religions in Europe though there were Christian monasteries and churches that had been converted into or housed displays of religion. What made St Mungo’s different was that it included all religions and none and in the 1990s this wasn’t very popular especially with the Christian Churches, many of whom had a theology of believing they had an exclusive insight into truth and salvation and weren’t at all sure about displaying artefacts from ‘non-christian’ faiths.  What challenged many of them was that the Gallery of Religious Life showed that all faiths celebrated, ritualised, and customised significant moments in life – birth, initiation, commitment, marriage, death. The displays honoured the integrity of each faith but showed their similarities.  I delighted to see statues of the Virgin Mary with her son Jesus next to the Goddess Isis with her son Horus in exactly the same pose, or the infant Jesus next to the infant Krishna. This did annoy some people, but part of interfaith work is to realise that all want to celebrate significant rites of passage and that there are universal symbols and commonalities in the way they do this.  It should also be said of course that it attracted a lot of praise and recognition for being ground-breaking and innovative and for significant artefacts like the statue of Siva Nataraja and the first authentic zen garden in Britain.

When the museum was being set up the curators worked hard to involve stakeholders and be inclusive of all faiths. Through the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths, faith communities were kept informed of developments, were consulted about the displays, and even contributed to them.  Because of this the various faith communities felt they had an investment in the museum. In a very special way, it felt like home to them, and was used to celebrate festivals and events like the exhibition on the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic which was brought to Glasgow by Hans Kung who had presented it and had it accepted at the Parliament of World Religions in 1993, the same year the museum opened. But above all the museum became a centre for interfaith activity.

EPcLyRmWsAAdaksThe mission statement of St Mungo’s says that it is designed to ‘explore the importance of religion in people’s everyday lives across the world and across time, aiming to promote mutual understanding and respect between people of different faiths and none’. As an interfaith practitioner I’ve had a lot to do with the museum and been greatly supported in my work by the curator, manager and staff.  For about fifteen years we hosted an annual Meet Your Neighbour event which happened over a weekend but took an interfaith committee many months to plan. Different religious communities set up a display of their faith in the function room and were available to meet and talk to visitors. The weekend was punctuated by musical or cultural events, like the Jewish Choral Society, Hindu dancers, bellringers, tabla and sitar players. We had workshops on storytelling, sari wearing. Mehndi, calligraphy.  We involved schools and on occasions when we decided on a concert on the Sunday afternoon, we had people standing by the zen garden with the doors and windows open so that they could hear the concert as there were no seats left in the function room. Sometimes the dialogues were of a more serious nature and in the run up to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 it was where members of faith communities gathered to consider what the New Scotland would be like for people of faith.faa2fd178f6d502b558226e09f84c8e3

It was in the light of these discussions that the Scottish Interfaith Consultative Group was formed and this then led to the setting up of the Scottish Interfaith Council which today is known as Interfaith Scotland.  The Council was started with very little – myself as the founding director, the gift of a computer from my community and the use of an office in St Mungo’s. This consolidated the relationship between the Museum and SIFC and we continued to work well together. For us St Mungo’s became the home to our dialogues with First Ministers, religious leaders, interfaith practitioners from England, Ireland, and Wales. It’s where we grew and developed. We eventually had to move out when we got funding to appoint staff and even then we were given an office by Glasgow Life, the body that runs Glasgow Museums. And continued to work together especially in projects such as the setting up of the Forum of Faiths by Glasgow City Council.

I think it’s obvious that St Mungo’s Museum is very close to my heart and I hope it’s obvious that it has fulfilled its mission well and contributed positively to the social fabric of Glasgow.  So, I am appalled and dismayed that there is some likelihood that it might not open after the pandemic.  The suggestion that the Council is looking to transfer the museum to a third party is worrying. St Mungo’s is unique, it has made a significant contribution to overcome racism, sectarianism and religious prejudice. It has worked with faith communities, school children and others to promote mutual understanding, respect and cooperation. It has involved stakeholders in a way no other museum has and to shut it would be a disgrace as far as I am concerned. It’s something that must be contested.

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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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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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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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