Dilatato Corde 3:1
January - June, 2013

Cararina Belo and Jean-Jacques Pérennès, editors

This book, published by Peeters in its series Les Cahiers du MIDEO, 5, forms a fitting tribute to Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, a man who has given his life to interreligious dialogue. He has known it from almost every perspective, as a student of Arabic and Islam, as a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Makerere, Kampala, Uganda, where he taught courses on Islam to Muslim as well as to Christian students, as a professor and eventually Rector at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI), as President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and finally as the Vatican’s Nuncio to Egypt and Delegate to the Arab League. I doubt anyone else could amass such a CV.

This book of essays in his honour is a fine memorial. I make this judgement because so many of the authors refer explicitly and positively to the influence he has had on them. The varied contents testify to the different elements of his life, from the general to the particular.

The book begins with a four page summary of his life written by the editors and is followed by a list of his 300 publications, from 1969 to 2010. In ten of the seventeen chapters that follow there is explicit mention of his work and influence. Herewith some brief comments.

Jean-Marc Aveline and Gavin D’Costa (authors of the first and third chapters) begin by affirming their friendship and gratitude.  The second chapter by John Borelli focuses on the archbishop’s role in the Pontifical Council, first as Secretary and then President, during which time he had a close relationship with Blessed John Paul II. These three chapters form a section entitled “Theology of Religions.”

In the next seven chapters, under the heading “Experiences of Dialogue,” three of the authors make special reference to the archbishop’s contribution.

Archbishop Teissier, Archbishop Emeritus of Algiers, offers a reflection on the work of dialogue within the missionary context, making particular reference to Cardinal Lavigerie, the founder of the Missionaries of Africa, the missionary congregation to which Archbishop Fitzgerald belongs. Cardinal Lavigerie set out to promote dialogue rather than evangelisation, which was the philosophy of missionaries in the nineteenth century. This inspired Teissier, who had to deal with the abrupt change in the Church following the independence of Algiers, from  being a significant minority with widespread influence, to a small minority whose principal aim was to build ever more friendly relations with their new Muslim hosts. This task became ever more hazardous as the country faced a violent civil war in which one party was particularly intolerant of the Christian presence. He emphasises that dialogue is not an alternative to mission, but another way of being missionary, a distinction frequently misunderstood to the detriment of both mission and dialogue. This theme is developed by Sister Lucie Pruvost, who has had long experience of life in Algeria in both “climates.” These two essays are particularly important for those seeking to understand how the Church has coped with this dramatic change and how effective it has become in its new role as witness to the Love Who Is God among people whose fervour is, in large part, as impressive as that of Catholics anywhere. The story of the monks of Tibhirine highlights the powerful way of witnessing to the Gospel achieved by the Catholic remnant, but sadly not always affirmed, understood, or appreciated by their fellow believers. 

The essay of Archbishop Felix Machado, now Bishop of Vasai, India, and one time Under-Secretary at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, reflects on the contribution of Archbishop Fitzgerald to interreligious dialogue within the Catholic Church. The secular world gives no answers; the rich-poor divide grows wider by the day and violence is increasing at all levels: in conflicts within local communities, in civil wars within countries, and internationally as the terrorist groups move across national boundaries and face both national armies and local militias. In this context, individual religious groups working in isolation can accomplish little. They are much more effective when they come together in dialogue to underpin their commitment to peace and justice. In that way they highlight the truth of being human: that each person is unique, a “revelation” of God originating from a divine Creator, however described. The increasing numbers on our planet and the challenge of growing materialism and secularism require the different faith traditions to work together. In this way there will be some chance of justice for all based on mutual respect and a just distribution of resources.

The third section is entitled “Muslim-Christian Relations.” In essays covering different topics, four of the authors again refer to the influence of the archbishop on their lives. Dr Sandra Keating offers thoughts on the obligation of Christians to reconcile, forgive, and promote justice while paying tribute to his inspiration and encouragement over the years. Jane Dammen McAuliffe articulates her gratitude in “A Centuries-long Conversation,” an impressive essay on the dialogue of the Scriptures in which she affirms his rare ability to integrate biblical and qur’anic perspectives in his speeches and writings. Emilio Platti, OP, begins his essay on the diversity of devotions in Egyptian Islam with a reference to a visit that he and the archbishop made to the City of the Dead, or Cairo Necropolis (Qarafa, el-Arafa). He recalls how both of them were struck by the rich past these ancient remnants represented, and also by the diversity of Egyptian society today, where the traditional lives side by side with the modern. 

In some ways the most powerful essay in this already rich book is Mona Siddiqui’s “Following the Faith of a Friend—Desirable or Dangerous.” Her personal approach to the subject, her articulation of a profound experience, and her sensitive writing  make this essay stand out from the others. I quote her starting point: “It seemed to me that no matter how much of a distance or time span there was between us meeting, whenever I met Michael, I met a friend.” She goes on to reflect on friendship as “both a gift and a task,” and her essay develops this theme from both Christian and Muslim sources. She concludes with this insight: “In our conversations and exchanges, I probably have at times ‘followed the faith of a friend,’ because faith speaks to faith in different ways and challenges our complacency, demanding that we look within ourselves to who we are and what we believe. . . . I expect we have both been transformed far more than we ever thought.”

These short summaries show the diversity of Archbishop Fitzgerald’s engagement with Islam. In particular they reflect the many levels—personal, social, theological, and spiritual—in which he has been in dialogue. At a deeper level, they show the extent to which this relationship with Islam has become part of his own spiritual life. At that level of engagement there comes a genuine a richness, not found elsewhere. Reading those chapters alone offers a way that others may follow.

The Other Essays

In his essay, Hans Ucko offers an assessment of what dialogue has achieved to date. He expresses disappointment at the apparent lack of progress but then concludes with this positive comment: “The awe that makes us speechless and silent enough to listen to ‘the sound of one hand clapping’ or sense the presence of ‘a sound of sheer silence’ (I Kings 19:12) is ultimately what makes us open to the possibilities of interreligious dialogue.”

Archbishop Joseph Doré, Archbishop Emeritus of Strasbourg, offers an informative essay on Jewish-Christians relations as they developed in his diocese.  He notes three achievements: first, a renunciation of any accusation against the Jews of deicide; second, an affirmation that Jesus, his mother, and the apostles were all fervent Jews, from which is derived Christianity’s singular debt to Judaism; and, third, an acknowledgement of the unique crime of the Holocaust and of Israel’s right to exist.  He then offers three areas where greater clarity is needed: first,  the Christian view of the place of Judaism in the history of salvation; second, the affirmation that contemporary Judaism is divinely willed, because  the Old Covenant has never been revoked and third, finding a way to uphold the uniqueness of the one without harming the integrity of the other.

 James H. Kroeger offers a comprehensive summary of the work of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) in interreligious dialogue. Maurice Borrmans describes the early years of Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Andre Ferre writes on “Sacred History” according to Ya’Qūbi, reflecting on his comparative research of sacred texts, especially the Bible and the Qur’an. David Thomas focuses on the role of Christians in ninth and tenth century Muslim society. He shows that the Christian doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity caused most difficulty for Muslim theologians, but at the same time helped them define their understanding of the One God.

Christian Troll tells the story of Muslim-Christian Theological Dialogue, referring to various projects. Sadly, he misrepresents one of these initiatives, one in which this author was involved. On page 225 he refers to the Catholic-Shi’a Dialogue established between the Imam Khomeini Institute for Education and Research in Qum, Iran, and Ampleforth Abbey. This started as an initiative undertaken by me and Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali when I was Abbot of Ampleforth. Dr Shomali’s visit to the monastery while studying for a PhD at Manchester University led to his inviting me and one of the monks of Ampleforth to visit his institute in Qum. There the idea of a conference was first mooted in discussion with several Ayatollahs. Their approval led to the second stage in which Ampleforth investigated a link with London University through Heythrop College. It was at this point that Anthony O’Mahony came on board and strengthened the academic side of the project. After three meetings in the UK, these arrangements came to an end. A few years later the dialogue was re-established at Sant’Anselmo in Rome in 2011, and then in Qum in 2012,. Both were sponsored by Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. The new format was smaller and more monastic. It is in the spirituality of the Rule of Benedict and the Qur’an that we meet each other. That “touch” for both of us is focused on the Inspired Word, a theme was further developed in my PhD thesis (University of Wales 2012). A book derived from that thesis will be published in August 2013 by Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minnesota, USA) under the title No Peace Without Prayer: Christians and Muslims Must Pray Together.

There is one further point on which I will comment. Gavin D’Costa offered four guidelines for reading the Scriptures of other religions and then added this general point: “Intrinsic to friendship is mission in an inculturated and sensitive fashion.”

In referring to Islam I would rephrase this point: Islam and Christianity are both religions of “mission.” Many from both sides would present themselves to the “other” in a way that makes conversion an option. But such an approach would undermine the work of dialogue between them. Both believe in the One God, transcendent and all-powerful, merciful and relational. In dialogue each should discover a unity of mutual affirmation, focused on their spiritual understanding of the Word. Therein lies the true similarity and difference. When the Scriptures are shared, a number of issues become clear: first, the remembrance of the presence of God is what energizes this spirituality; second, the insights that each receives in the sharing of “remembrance” both enhances the spirituality of the other and defines more clearly its difference; and third, the atmosphere of this shared engagement with the Word makes it possible to be truly Christian and truly Muslim, to be able to forgive each other as appropriate, and grow in ever closer appreciation of the “other.” The mission of each is to persevere in their spirituality and to be encouraged by the insights of the “other.”

This is a fine book, a treasure for those who admire the life and work of Michael Fitzgerald and want to highlight his outstanding contribution to the Muslim-Christian dialogue. Not all the essays will suit all readers, but many will, and for that it is worth buying.

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