Embarking on a path of healing
Several weeks ago, I was privileged to give a talk at the Islamic Center of Rochester to a group of Muslims and Catholics. I was humbled to accept their thanks for the work we have done as a diocese on interreligious dialogue, most especially the signing of the Muslim-Catholic Agreement in 2003, and the ongoing work of the Muslim Catholic Alliance, which works to bring our two faiths together toward the common good and to increase our knowledge of each other’s beliefs. I present an edited version of the talk here.
This evening’s event brings back to mind another happy time, our gathering here on May 6, 2003, for the signing of the historic Accord between the Masajid of Rochester and the Rochester Roman Catholic Diocese.
I have been very pleased with the creative work done by the Muslim Catholic Alliance in the succeeding years to implement the terms of the 2003 accord, particularly in educating the local Catholic and Muslim communities about each other’s religions. In doing so, the MCA has helped the two communities not only to appreciate their commonalties but also to understand and accept their differences. Perhaps best of all, these educational events have fostered friendships among people of both faiths, a key ingredient and reward of meaningful dialogue.
Both of us, Muslims and Catholics, came to these shores as immigrants. Our arrival in great numbers antedated yours by some decades, of course.
But in those early days, we Catholics experienced prejudice similar to what, I am sad to say, many Muslims experience today. Part of what motivated the building of our parochial schools was the desire to protect our children from discrimination and to ensure that the education they received would be in accord with our religious values.
Not until the post-World-War II period did anti-Catholic prejudice begin to lift. I mention this not to emphasize the negative, however, but to point out the commonalties between our communities as well as to encourage you to believe that the present atmosphere will change for the better, just as it has done for us. In the meantime, you can count on your Catholic sisters and brothers to stand with you in hope and solidarity as you continue to establish yourselves as a vibrant part of this great country.
I do not say lightly those last words about Catholics’ standing with Muslims in solidarity. Our call to work shoulder to shoulder with you in addressing the evils humankind faces has been a key part of our mission as Catholics since Vatican II. I am speaking of the prophetic words of the Vatican document Nostra Aetate, which for the first time in our history clarified our relationship with the world’s Muslims.
Please allow me to read a key passage from this very significant document. These words will not only remind us of how much the Catholic Church changed in 1965, the year Nostra Aetate was promulgated, but will also give us guidelines for thinking about our future together.
"The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the bidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own…. Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values."
In following years, Pope Paul VI and especially Pope John Paul II worked hard to live out those words from Nostra Aetate in both their speech and personal example. John Paul made a point of visiting many Muslim countries, always stressing the similarities between the two faiths. In 2001 he became the first pope to enter a mosque when he prayed in the great Omayyid Mosque in Damascus. He continued the tradition begun by Paul VI of addressing an annual message to Muslims throughout the world for the end of the holy month of Ramadan, part of a program of outreach to other religions that also included two great interreligious gatherings, in 1986 and in 2002, in the Italian town of Assisi. (I should point out that our present Pope Benedict XVI met with religious leaders in Assisi once again this October.)
The motive behind these gatherings was John Paul’s hope that an accord among religious leaders could help bring about peace in war-torn regions, especially the Middle East. We mustn’t forget how strongly John Paul spoke out against the Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
This call for peace on the part of John Paul is, I believe, the key to what interfaith dialogue has meant for us Catholics, and what it will mean in the future. Note that the call is envisioned at the end of the passage I quoted for you from Nostra Aetate: For the benefit of all men, let [Catholics and Muslims] together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.
Nostra Aetate set the goal – and Pope John Paul II set a high personal standard in reaching it. But the fuller articulation of that goal has been a gift of the Muslim community and specifically of those more than one-hundred Muslim thinkers and clerics who produced in 2007 the remarkable and prophetic document, A Common Word Between Us and You. This document, described as an "open letter" to the Christian leaders of the world but addressed in a special way to Pope Benedict, may be for the world Muslim community — and for humankind in general — as powerful a document as Nostra Aetate has been for us. (If you do not know the document, I urge you to find it online at acommonword.com and to study it carefully.)
The "common word" of which the document speaks is the prophetic mandate given to both Christianity and Islam: the mandate to love God and God alone, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
The document gives numerous quotations from the Bible and the Qur’an showing how central this mandate is to our respective covenants with God. Despite the many differences that exist between Islam and Christianity, this mandate sounds forth as the call uniting us.
The "A Common Word" document is not content merely with citing this commonalty, however. It eloquently and forcefully enjoins on both communities, Christian and Muslim, the obligation of living out the mandate in our present time.
Allow me to quote from the document’s conclusion:
"Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.
"And to those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say that our very eternal souls are all also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony."
God says in the Holy Qur’an: Lo! God enjoineth justice and kindness, and giving to kinsfolk, and forbiddeth lewdness and abomination and wickedness. He exhorteth you in order that ye may take heed (SuraAl Nahl, 16:90). Jesus Christ said: Blessed are the peacemakers ….(Matthew 5:9), and also: For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? (Matthew 16:26)."
Almost one year to the day after the publication of "A Common Word," in October 2008, Pope Benedict invited its writers as well as leaders of the world’s other Christian churches to meet at the Vatican to confirm the call voiced by the document and to urge the respective communities of the assembled Muslims and Christians to work together for the common good.
In the years since, Pope Benedict has again and again stressed common action for the common good as the goal of Muslim-Christian dialogue. He has also stressed that interfaith dialogue should be the work of the Muslim and Christian grassroots, not just the topic of intellectual discussion among the elites. By doing so, Pope Benedict has, in my opinion, powerfully validated the thrust both of Nostra Aetate and of "A Common Word."
The bonds we Catholics and Muslims form from now on should embrace our entire communities and should be focused on what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam, "healing the world."
So now I come finally to the theme of my talk, "Catholics and Muslims in Dialogue: Future Prospects." I ask your pardon if I have seemed to take a roundabout way to get to my main points. But I felt that it was important to set the context for what I have to say by reminding us all of the excellent statements and guidelines our leaders have already given us. My points are three:
1. The future prospects for Catholics and Muslims in Dialogue are very good. Never in the centuries of our often-troubled history together have we had from our leadership such clear, unambiguous and positive exhortations towards solidarity as we have today.
And our leaders do more than merely exhort. They exemplify in their actions their desire to break new ground in forming relationships with each other and in healing the wounds of the past.
2. The solidarity we seek has, of course, to go beyond mere tolerance. But it has to go also beyond personal enlightenment and mutual acquaintanceship as well, valuable and necessary as these are. The prophetic mandate to which we are both equally bound demands that our relationships be directed outward, towards the neighbor, specially the neighbor — and he or she is legion — who is suffering from the evils of which we are all only too aware: from those of war, poverty, discrimination, abuse, and scapegoating. Our dialogue must in other words move from mutual understanding to active engagement with improving the lot of brothers and sisters less fortunate than ourselves.
The prospects here, too, look very good. I note with pleasure the focus on developing a peaceful, pluralistic national climate at last summer’s ISNA conference. (For those of you who don’t know, ISNA stands for the Islamic Society of North America. And I urge you to visit on line or subscribe to the ISNA magazine, Islamic Horizons, which will give you a heartening sense of how other-directed the concerns of America’s Muslim community are.)
Speaking for the Catholic community, I know we stand ready to join forces with our Muslim brothers and sisters on projects of service and social justice. Our teachings and traditions in this area are very strong, and we are eager to widen their effectiveness through inclusion of Muslim partners.
3. Solidarity between our own two communities is desirable and necessary. But it is not enough. Our solidarity must in time embrace other communities of faith as well. And the first of these should be that other religion of Abraham: Judaism.
The prophetic mandate enjoining Christians and Muslims to love God and neighbor was given initially to the Jewish people, and it is just as binding upon them as it is upon us. The future prospects for such inclusion may not seem good because of continuing strife in the Holy Land.
That is all the more reason for strenuous efforts on the part of both of us, Christians and Muslims, to work towards that inclusion now, as a prophetic sign of our commitment to love God and neighbor and as a recognition that such solidarity is urgent — it is not a matter to be casually postponed for an easier day.
An "easier day" is not likely to arrive anytime soon. I am not speaking as a prophet of doom. Even if I were to feel that way, the optimism of my Catholic Christian faith would prevent me. But it takes no great prophetic power to see that the peoples of the world — and the planet itself — are in crisis. Wars, environmental degradation, poverty, social inequality, racism, fear — the list of the evils besetting humankind could go on and on. In such a situation, Catholics and Muslims — even without the prophetic mandate given us — have ample motivation to work together for the common good.
The mandate to love God and neighbor means that we betray the very basis of our relationship with God if we refuse to work for the common good or, if through distraction or indifference or timidity, we give only lip service to the idea.
Let us pray, for our own good and the good of the world that we do not succumb to these evils. "Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil," we Catholics say in our Lord’s Prayer. "Guide us not onto the path of those for whom there is wrath or who have gone astray," as my brother and sister Muslims pray in the Fatihah.
And let us pray together that God will shine God’s light upon us and lead us both on a path of healing not only for ourselves but for every one of God’s creatures on this beautiful planet God has provided as our common home.