A few days ago, on May 2, we celebrated the sixth anniversary of the Muslim-Catholic Agreement of Understanding and Cooperation, which made history for its uniqueness when it was signed in 2003 and remains a model internationally.
The event was planned not only to honor the signing but, like earlier successful joint programs before it, to bring Catholics and Muslims together to continue fruitful dialogue and learn more about all aspects of our faiths, Scriptures and common community concerns.
Not only has the agreement sparked honest, open and highly informative discussions of our differences and our similarities, but has resulted in community action, as well: This winter, for example, Muslims and Catholics together collected coats and donated them to St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Rochester. I am grateful for the tireless work of the Muslim-Catholic Alliance, a joint committee of Catholics and Muslims who have moved us from words on paper to real action to nurture relationships.
The anniversary also has inspired me to update you on some of the ongoing work we are doing in our diocese not only with our Muslim friends, but in many areas of interfaith and ecumenical relations, which I think you will agree is so vitally important in our increasingly diverse society. One only has to read world history or, sadly, note current events to understand how religious strife has adversely affected our world and can tear people apart to this very day.
That is why I am so encouraged by events such as this anniversary celebration. Having attended many of these programs, I am always struck by the marvelous scene before me: that people of two faiths, which sadly have been no strangers to long-ago historic tensions and ongoing issues, can so openly and honestly discuss in peace, friendship and mutual respect the similarities and differences between them and look constructively for ways they can make our community a better place. Catholics and Muslims in our community are saying yes to peace and tolerance and yes to opening the lines of communication.
Similarly, I was moved very much by the hospitality and welcome shown me recently when I was invited by Rabbi Laurence Kotok to speak at Friday-evening services at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Brighton. This talk came somewhat in the midst of the widely covered controversy over the Vatican’s reinstatement of a bishop with intolerable and unacceptable views on the Holocaust.
Because of the groundwork by the late Father Joseph Brennan and so many others, our two local communities were able to communicate, and did, quickly and with trust and understanding when the news about Bishop Richard Williamson broke and caused so much of an uproar. A statement we issued reconfirming our love for the Jewish people and restating the inscrutable evil of the Holocaust was greeted magnanimously.
In my remarks to the temple congregation, I spoke of one of my proudest moments, the day I was privileged to sign, with the Board of Rabbis, the celebrated Rochester Agreement in 1996. Like the subsequent Muslim-Catholic Agreement of Understanding, it was unique and historic. After expressing my own sense of sorrow over the tumult and the pope’s own regret for any pain caused, I told the Temple B’rith Kodesh congregation that night, “I now renew my pledge made in the Rochester Agreement of Understanding that we will work for solidarity and mutual defense within our two local communities and continue the bettering of interfaith relations.”
That a Roman Catholic bishop is invited to a Jewish house of worship to address the congregation at Sabbath services is still relatively rare in our world. I am personally delighted I have been asked several times, but I am more delighted that our relationship is such that I can go without hesitation and be received so warmly even in troubling times such as the Bishop Williamson event.
This speaks well of the Jewish people’s warmth and commitment to this cause of mutual respect, just as it does to the importance of forging bonds that are immeasurably valuable and calming when troubles arise.
Thus the Rochester Agreement continues to bear fruit. Besides two interfaith journeys to Israel and to the Vatican in past years, we continue to work to form friendships and understanding among our respective clergy with regular meetings, and to create a link between and educational opportunities for Catholic and Jewish young people in schools. This summer, the Brennan-Goldman Institute at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry — formed to honor the work of Father Brennan and Isobel Goldman of the Jewish Community Federation — will host the internationally recognized Bettina and Erwin Pearl Bearing Witness Institute, a special summer institute for Catholic educators and parish faith-formation and youth ministers. It is presented by the Anti-Defamation League in conjunction with the Museum of Jewish Heritage and our diocese.
We also regularly take part in public services with people of many faiths, such as the prayer service for elected officials we held at the cathedral on the eve of president’s inauguration, an interfaith Prayer for Peace on the sixth anniversary of the Iraq War, and an ecumenical Way of the Cross on Good Friday with leaders of many Christian denominations. We have held and are planning more events with other Christian faith communities and with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, traditional Chinese and Native American communities. I am grateful to Deacon John Brasley, our diocesan coordinator of ecumenical and interreligious affairs, for our ongoing involvement and planning in these areas, and to all those in our diocese who serve voluntarily on many interfaith and ecumenical committees to spur on this crucial work.
We would very much welcome your participation in these events, so please watch for announcements and come if you can. This work is so important to our richly diverse community.
Peace to all.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on ecumenical and interreligious affairs in the Rochester Diocese, visit www.dor.org and click on “Latest News.”