Seeking mutual understanding

By  Fr. Bill Ryan, S.J.
  • June 29, 2007
Editor’s note: Below is an excerpt from a speech by Fr. Bill Ryan, S.J., founder of the Center of Concern in Washington, a former general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and longtime social justice advocate. It was presented to a gathering of Canadian Muslims at the Congress Centre in Ottawa on May 20.
Without denying our history, I suggest that this evening we dwell on our common challenge of fulfilling a healing, compassionate and hope-filled mission in today’s world — described in that Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, in the words “Let (them) us strive sincerely for mutual understanding (and) on behalf of all mankind let (them) us make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice and moral values, peace and freedom” (no. 3).

Much is already being done — everything from Seder suppers and local interfaith dialogues to national and international seminars and conferences. Though we generally hear in the public media only about our failures in community building, on the local, national and international level. Nevertheless, the list of positive experiences of religion in the public forum is lengthy — but I will not recite them here.. . .

It might be good, first, to recall some of the tenets of our respective faiths that permit us to dialogue seriously and confidently. We share belief in the same God, and in a moral code based not on values but on the revealed Ten Commandments and a belief that the purpose of life is to know, love, obey and serve God. For us morality is objective, not simply subjective or relative. Of course, we have major differences on the role of Jesus who for us Christians represents an astonishing entry of the holy and transcendent mystery of God into human flesh and the human community, in a previously unimaginable solidarity of Creator with creatures. Divine-human covenant relationships and the concept of original sin are foreign to Islam, and among us I am sure there are a variety of views on the role of reason, and on the separation of church or religion and the state.

Catholic social teaching can be summarized in the principle that we should have right relationships with God, with ourselves, with all our brothers and sisters, and with the earth. We are also taught that as God’s gift human life has inherent dignity or sacredness; that human solidarity is a primary social principle; that decisions in society should be taken at the lowest competent level to protect individual and minority rights; and that human work is a participation in God’s creation. I believe you will agree that your own social teaching substantially coincides with these social principles, though perhaps in different words.

Now I will share a few personal experiences and draw some insights and encouragement from them for our present situation. In the 1960s, social ecumenism took off in Canada. Christian churches sponsored or co-sponsored major public conferences on medicare (1966) and poverty at home and abroad (1968). In 1968 the World Council of Churches and the Vatican’s new Secretariat on Justice and Peace organized a major international conference in Beirut on World Co-operation and Development. Well-known Muslim and Jewish leaders participated. And in 1970 the first conference on Peace and Development organized by world religions took place at Kyoto, Japan. By 1975, the Center of Concern in Washington, of which I was founder and first director, brought together 23 Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian women from around the world to discuss the role of women in development. And, years later, I remember the sense of solidarity that swept over me when, while visiting an Indonesian Muslim dignitary, I discovered in his personal library several books on liberation theology.

For me personally, “the sign of the times” that gave me most hope for the future of Muslim/Jewish/Christian dialogue was a week-long international gathering of a group called “The Interreligious Colloquium.” We met alone in a small hotel on the Atlantic coast just above Lisbon in November 1977. Cyrus Vance, one of the founders of the group and soon to become U.S. Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter, invited me to act as executive secretary for the event and to make the Center of Concern its operational base. The other inspiring leaders for this bold initiative were Professor Ismai’l al-Faruqui, president of the Association of Muslim Scholars; Rabbi Henri Siegman, executive vice-president of the Synagogue Council of America; and Msgr. Joe Gremillion, the founding executive director of the Vatican’s then-new Secretariat for Justice and Peace.

The 30 leaders who committed themselves to a full week of uninterrupted dialogue were a very distinguished group. . . .

The question on the table was: “What can our three monotheist communities contribute to the search for a new world order of justice and peace?” All present agreed that a new world order must be constructed, and that Jews, Christians and Muslims have a unique responsibility in this arduous endeavour. Their unique sharing proved to be a demanding but joyful and hope-filled experience, at times stormy but always energizing and creative.

What I remember most vividly were the seven hours of their precious time that they devoted to hearing each other reply frankly to the two questions: “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” As we moved around the circle, each had an opportunity to share her/his identity, rich experiences, accomplishments and even tap into root values, beliefs and dreams. One could sense changes happening in the group as new levels of understanding and of touching someone else’s reality took over. It was as if no amount of ideology or righteousness could wipe out the very real person who emerged in each real life story.

The group produced a powerful statement entitled Changing World Order: Challenge to our Faiths. In it, they said many compelling things that seemed prophetic 30 years ago. . . .

Today, 30 years later, interfaith dialogue, especially between us people of the book, has spread worldwide. It now happens regularly at all levels of society. It has not always been easy, and we have become more aware of how our faiths can become compromised, or used by political, cultural or economic groups for causes foreign to our belief that coercion and violence should never be the mode of action by religion as it interacts with the world. But this is not the occasion to pass judgment on the past. For me and my faith community, I take as a hope-filled sign of the times Pope John Paul praying at the temple wall in Jerusalem, and Pope Benedict praying with Turkish Muslim leaders in the Blue Mosque.

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