Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why I Choose to Live My Faith Outside of Organized Religion

We ran across an interesting blog post on Huffington Post by Mickey Mooney who authored the book, An Outsider's Guide to the Gospel. Mr. Mooney represents a growing number among our younger generation who are foregoing participation in institutional religion and are find their own ways to live out a faith life in God. Others bring together multiple identities that seems to fit their lives very well, like being both secular and Christian, or Hindu, or something else. Welcome to the world of the New Evangelization and what we must dialogue with in order to understand this new world we live in, and to find much better responses to a younger generation who have little trust in absolute truth, church hierarchy, and institutional religion. We include his blog post in its entirety in order to invite you to engage in a conversation about this. What is your response to Mr. Mooney? What are the implications of a younger generation opting out of the institutional churches and other faiths? We appreciate respectful and constructive comments.

Let me start by making my premise clear: Believing in God doesn't mean I believe in religion, and believing in Jesus doesn't mean I believe in the religion of Christianity. While I accept I'll often be lumped into these groups because I believe in God and Jesus, I know that I myself don't subscribe to any organized religion. I have in the past, and I learned my lesson.

While some say only one religion leads to God, and others might say all religions lead to God, I would say the opposite: That no religion leads to God. They may talk of God, point to him even, and have some relevant points, but, in my opinion, they do not, and can not, lead fully to God; the various branches and denominations of Christianity are no exception.

The very structure religion confines itself within, along with its immovable dogmas, is proof enough that it will always fail to lead anyone to the full reality of our boundless, cosmic-sized God. It's clear to me that God is bigger than any box a religion can set up to put him in.

While it seems popular to think Jesus came to build an army of sorts for God, and to then organize his followers to build him an empire on earth, I personally don't subscribe to such a concept. In fact, I think Christ came to do the opposite; I believe he came to end empire thinking and bring each of us back to a personal, individual experience of God.

I believe it is a divine experience that is not based on us (as some kind of Christian army) conquering the world on his behalf, but rather, it is the experience of Christ himself conquering our individual heart with the victory of his love. For it is only when his love has fully overcome our hearts that we can truly be led into a divine understanding of God.

So what does a personal relationship with God feel like? It feels personal, that's what. It's a relationship that you and God experience and understand. It's not a corporate relationship. Yes, many others also have a personal relationship, and that's a beautiful thing, just as connecting with other believers is a beautiful experience, but I don't expect their relationship to God to be a cookie cutter of mine. Vocabulary that describes my faith and belief is -- and I think should be -- different. The way I connect with my divine Father naturally varies to others.

The thoughts and questions that God stirs my heart with -- and the answers I find -- are never going to be the same as everyone else, because my relationship with God is personal.

Contrary to this is organized religion. Religion creates a corporate identity. When we buy into religion we end up speaking, sounding, even looking like everyone else within that corporate branded identity. Same thoughts. Same beliefs. Same well-defined doctrines; and if you step out of line and have questions that don't fit that corporate identity, chances are you might be silenced, or even booted out.

Well, you know, I don't mind if I don't fit the corporate identity of organized religion, nor do I seek membership. I'm happy to have a relationship that is unique with my creator, to let go of long-held religious ambitions, and simply live in the reality of everyday life. I simply want to walk freely in each day, with an open mind to learn new things and an open heart to connect authentically with the world around me.

Mick Mooney is the author of An Outsider's Guide to the Gospel.
The best place to connect with Mick is on his facebook page.

Follow Mick Mooney on Twitter:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Peacemaking in the Cultural Wars of Christmas

We ran across the blog of Rachel Held Evens which brings an insightful point to what some have called the cultural wars of Christmas. Some Catholics and other Christians imagine a kind of "persecution" from our non-Christian friends, religious or not by imagining that Christ can be "taken out of Christmas" by replacing Christian symbols with secular ones. It is an imagined battle where we need to retaliate in order to preserve the real meaning of Christmas. What it instead displays is a kind of Christian insecurity in a very diverse and pluralistic society we actually live in. We should instead find ways to engage the religious with the secular in the common ground of our humanity, our common concerns for family, love, and the goodness of the world we share. Based on our common ground, common compassion in a divided world is possible. We present Rachel's perspective in its entirety. Merry Christmas!

There is a pernicious rumor that resurfaces every Advent season and spreads across social media faster than a cold in a kindergarten class.

It’s the rumor that God can be “kept out” of Christmas.

You may have heard it from Kirk Cameron or an anchor at Fox News or an army of culture warriors who have once again worked themselves into a frenzy over the “War on Christmas.” Galvanized by fear, they storm checkout counters to demand that clerks issue them a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and cry persecution when inflatable manger scenes are moved from public courthouses to private property. They pine after the good-old-days when Christians could force Jewish kids to sing Christmas carols at school and they demand that every gift purchased, every mall opened late, every credit card maxed out must be done so in Jesus’ name or else Christ will be “kept out” of Christmas. They do it because someone told them that God needs a nod from the Empire to show up, forgetting somehow that the story of Advent is the story of how God showed up as a Jew in the Roman Empire.

In a barn.

As an oppressed minority.

To the applause of a few poor shepherds.

The whole story of Advent is the story of how God can’t be kept out. God is present. God is with us. God shows up—not with a parade but with the whimper of a baby, not among the powerful but among the marginalized, not to the demanding but to the humble. From Advent to Easter, the story of Jesus should teach us that God doesn’t need a mention in our pledge or on our money or over the loudspeaker at the mall to be present, and when we fight like spoiled children to “keep” God in those things, we are fighting for idols. We’re chasing wind.

Religious persecution is real. Suffering is real. But sharing the public square is not persecution and being wished “happy holidays” causes no one to suffer. We would do well this time of year to remember the words of the Apostle Paul from Philippians 2:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Facing Ebola at our Parish St. Guido Conforti, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Fr. Girolamo Pistoni, Xaverian Missionary, points toward Sierra Leone his home
Fr. Girolamo Pistoni, Xaverian Missionary and pastor of our parish, St. Guido Conforti in Makeni, Sierra, shares his experience as the parish grapples with the terrible effects of the Ebola Virus. 

When the virus Ebola hit the Northern Province of Sierra Leone in July, tension was high due to the lack of acquaintance with this new disease. But later one question arose in the diocese of Makeni and among the Xaverian Missionaries: What can be done to help the country in this dramatic situation?
The first answer was: be very prudent!!

Thanks to the sensitization promoted by the authorities, through the media, especially through the FM radio stations, almost everybody in the country now knows how to avoid Ebola infection. We ourselves try to implement the simple measures that can help to save lives, such as: avoiding body contact, for example the shaking of hands when greeting; suspension of the funerals, main source of contagion; cancellation of all pastoral activities, except the Mass in the morning and the rosary in the evening.

This information has been passed on also to the prayer leaders, by organizing a workshop in each parish of Bombali and Port Loko Districts. A diocesan team, formed by a priest, a nurse, a member of Caritas and one of Justice and Peace Commission visited the parishes and presented very useful information on Ebola from the pastoral, medical and social point of view. In Conforti Parish the workshop was held on Wednesday 22nd of October and was attended by 26 people.

The Diocese and the Xaverians realized  that those who suffered were not only those infected by the virus, but also their families, who were put in quarantine and therefore the second answer to what could be done to help the country was: “coming to the aid of the families in quarantine”.
When a member of a family is found positive to Ebola, all those who live in the same house are obliged to remain inside the boundary of their compound, without coming into contact with other people, for 21 days. The soldiers and the police guard these places to prevent any escape or intrusion from outsiders. If later another member of the same family presents symptoms of Ebola or dies for the same reason, the counting of the days of the quarantine period starts again from zero.

A family of Masongbo, a village distant four kilometers from Makeni, started their quarantine on the 7th of August and finished on the 15th of October! They were thirty in number at the beginning of the crisis, half of them died.

This isolation is a very serious problem, because most people have not saved any money, not even
extra food in their house. At the same time they cannot go out and do some work to provide for their sustenance. Hunger becomes a real threat. The head of a family in New London (a zone of our parish) was complaining and crying because the neighbours did not allow them to draw water from the well.

In addition, their friends and their family members, due to ignorance, are afraid to visit them and therefore they remain isolated and without help.

The Government came to the rescue by providing them some food. But when the family is large, the rations received last only for a few days. For this reason, in dialogue with the Diocese, we decided to add something to the supply given by the authorities.

 Fr. Natale, the Administrator, and our General Direction have offered money donations. Even the catholic community of Mongo Bendugu have collected some cash for the Conforti parish in order to help the people in need.

The christian community of St Conforti parish, too, decided to join in these efforts by bringing to the church, during the Sunday mass, some provisions, such as rice, clean water, onions, charcoal, salt, maggies, milk for the babies and other items, to be shared among the families in quarantine.

When a parishioner brings the message that a family living inside the boundary of St Conforti parish, regardless of their religion, has been put in quarantine, a team, formed by the priests and some members of the church, visit them, to express their sympathy and to see how the community can address their needs.

They keep at a safe distance, in order to avoid contagion and ask them information of the members who have been brought to the hospital and they are encouraged to be strong in such a difficult moment, because as the krio proverb says: “hawevar tin tranga tete, i de don” (even if a situation is very difficult, it will come to an end).

After praying together, they are informed that the team will return the following day with the food they need to survive.

Even if they suffer a lot for the loss of their beloved (in one of the families with 20 members, who received assistance, only six survived), they do not feel abandoned and left to themselves. They are certain that the Catholic community has not forgotten them and will be close to them during the duration of the quarantine.

Ebola-hit Sierra Leone city crying for help

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bringing the Embrace of God during Ebola Crisis

Fr. Patrick with three of his students at the Catholic High School.

by Fr. Patrick Santianez, SX
Xaverian Missionary working in Sierra Leone, West Africa

Pope Francis entrusted to us consecrated men and women the task of bringing the embrace of God to all not only by our words (by our preaching and by our shouting) but more importantly by our actions. Pope Francis says, “People today certainly need words, but above all they need a witness to the mercy and tenderness of the Lord, which inflames the heart, awaken hope, appeals to the good.” The same challenge to be a witness was powerfully described by Pope Paul VI who asserted that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

Consecrated people are disciples, called to be living witnesses of Jesus, of His life and of His deeds wherever they are. Where I am planted, there I am called to grow. In June 2008 I left the Philippines for Sierra Leone to witness and proclaim the story of God’s great love to all.

Supplies for those in the quarantined areas

Sierra Leone is famous now all over the world for the Ebola virus. The Ebola virus disease is a severe, infectious disease that can be fatal (the fatality rate of the 2014 outbreak in West Africa is about 50%). People become infected through- direct contact, through broken skin or mucous membranes, with the blood or other bodily fluids or secretions (stool, urine, saliva, semen) of infected people. Infection can also occur if broken skin or mucous membranes of a healthy person come into contact with environments that have become contaminated with an Ebola patient’s infectious fluids such as soiled clothing, bed linen, or used needles.

When the Ebola outbreak reached Makeni City in the Northern part of Sierra Leone around the end of July 2014, some of my relatives, friends and confreres from other parts of the world  asked me about the situation and some were worried and suggested that I should go somewhere safer. The first time I heard about the virus was in January 2014. I was not worried at that time because I thought this was one of the many viruses that come and go quickly. Unfortunately, it is not the case, as at present the number of deaths for Ebola in Sierra Leone has reached 1, 000 plus.

Providing supplies to a quarantined family

The first person who contracted Ebola here in Makine City was from St. Conforti Parish where I am presently working as assistant Parish priest. When I heard that an Ebola case was just around the corner I began to panic to the point of having diarrhea for some days and sleepless nights for almost a month for fear of contracting the deadly virus. Sharing information among confreres helped us to grow in the knowledge of the virus.  Openness to others’ feelings like fears, anxieties and worries among our community members helped a lot to lessen the concern and uncertainties that all of us experienced. This moment of crisis has become an opportunity for our Xaverian communities to cultivate friendship and trust and to seek together a solution with love as Pope Francis encourages us to do.

The joyous fraternity among us, especially in the Religious House, helped me to come out of my “nest” and find the courage to go to people in quarantine. My first encounter with possible Ebola patients was on 17th August 2014. I remember the day very well because for the first time in my life I took a shower with Dettol after visiting quarantined houses. The first visit was dreadful for me. This is what I wrote on my journal on that day: “There are 12 people still alive and 13 were suspected to have  died of Ebola. People inside have been sleeping on the ground and only today did they receive mattresses. Soldiers and policemen armed with guns are there to ensure that people stay in their respective houses. I had the chance to talk to one member of the family who is in quarantine (for prudence the conversation was from a distance). He is traumatized by the situation because the 13 people who died were all relatives of his. He was crying while telling me that some of his relatives were taken by the medical people to the treatment center and never returned. They died of Ebola. Some members died in the house without confirmation from the medical doctors of whether they died of Ebola or not. He strongly believes that they died not of Ebola but of hunger. Three days ago, a two-year old boy died. They buried him on the following day. The lack of food and clean water adds more tension to the families in quarantine. This man believed some of his relatives would have been saved if there had been food to eat and water to drink. Their neighbors prohibited them to take water from the wells because they were afraid that they could contract the dreadful disease. They are depending on  rain water or on some generous friends who give them water to drink and to bathe.” Out of twelve people who were still alive during my visit, only five survived: three children, one grandmother and one  man. They are all safe now.

 How do we bring the embrace of God to families in quarantine? First of all, Fr. Jerome Pistoni and I visited first the families in quarantine.  The purpose of our visit was not to give goods  immediately but to pray with them and to see first their condition and ask what they have received from the government and NGO, in order to understand what are their real needs.  We involved the parishioners of St. Conforti Parish to be one with our suffering brothers and sisters in quarantine. A time of crisis like this is a time to help others, not just to think only of oneself.  It is a time to show a love that is stronger than the Ebola virus. Our parishioners have showed their “nearness” to those in quarantine by donating money, bags of rice, salt, onions, sugar, condiments, charcoal, and fruit. With these contributions our parishioners have become “partners with God” in consoling the people in quarantine.

Consecrated people are witnesses and sharers of the “joys and hope, the sorrows and anxieties of the men and women of our time especially of the poor and those in any way afflicted are the same hopes and joys, sorrows and anxieties of the disciples of Christ” (cf Gaudium et spes). My reason for remaining here in Sierra Leone is to be with our people,  to continue to give them hope, and to assure them that their fears and tears are just ephemeral. Soon the country will proclaim “Ebola don don!” For the meantime, we pray and we continue to bring the embrace (ang yakap ng Panginoon) of God to all. May God bless us all.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The African continent: humanity’s spiritual “lung”

Staff of the Africa Faith Justice Network, along with others

Pope Benedict XVI used these words to describe the great spiritual heritage of African peoples for themselves and all of the world. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were only two million Catholics in Africa. Today, the continent numbers 147 million, with an impressive number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and numerous conversions to Christianity. The first Synod on ‘The Church in Africa and her evangelizing mission’ and the second Synod of the continent on ‘The Church in Africa in service to reconciliation, justice and peace’ dealt in very serious manner and with great commitment with the fundamental questions that worry and torment the whole Church and the African peoples.

The Xaverian Missionaries are working in Africa since the early 1950's, beginning in Sierra Leone, and moving on to Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, and Mozambique. From the United States, along with our prayerful support of our work in Africa, we also take up the commitment lauded by the second African Synod for reconciliation, justice, and peace through an important organization called the  AFRICA FAITH AND JUSTICE NETWORK. We are organizational members and one of our priests, Fr. Rocco Puopolo, served as Executive Director and  now as board member.

The executive director of AFJN is Fr. Aniedi Okure, OP. The staff includes: Mr. Bahati Jacques, Fr. Barthelemy Bazemo M.Afr., and Mrs. Homan-Smith. The Board of Directors number 17 lay and religious missionaries from around the country. They invite interns to assist them throughout the year.

As Catholics, we are concerned about two fundamental ways in which we live in solidarity with the poor: through charity and justice. Charity attempts bring relief from great hardship, and justice gets at the reasons why that hardship exists and works to mitigate it terrible effects on others. In this way the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) is a community of advocates for responsible U.S. relations with Africa. AFJN stresses issues of peacebuilding, human rights and social justice that tie directly into Catholic social teaching. AFJN works closely with Catholic missionary congregations and numerous Africa-focused coalitions of all persuasions to advocate for U.S. economic and political policies that will benefit Africa’s poor majority, facilitate an end to armed conflict, establish equitable trade and investment with Africa and promote sustainable development. Download a brief history of AFJN here.

AFJN covers a number of important campaigns and we are all encouraged to join them, as well as to take advantage of the tools they offer that help bring more justice to Africa and allow us as Americans to live out our vocations as global Catholics. These campaigns include, just governance in the face of corruption, land grabbing from the poor, restorative justice, peace and reconciliation in the Central African Republic, among others. These efforts not only include advocacy work in Congress, but also organizing key groups on the ground in various parts of Africa. 

Here are some ways you can get involve: 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Complex and Interesting Landscape of Atheist/Theist Dialogue

The Xaverian Missionaries undertook a special project of dialogue between atheists and religious believers a couple of years ago called the COMMON GROUND PROJECT. It began with the organization of an international conference at our Conforti Institute in Coatbridge, Scotland in November 2013. Since then a number of interesting developments occurred with our work in the United States. The first was our desire to bring together a group of humanists, atheists, agnostics and religious believer of different traditions in the north New Jersey/New York area who would come together in a special MEETUP monthly seeking our "common ground" with each other. We are gathering regularly for almost one year now. Recently, working together with the American Humanist Association and the Humanist Department at Rutgers University,we plan to organize an atheist/theist dialogue conference for one day at the university in the fall of 2015.

The Desire to Connect in a Pluralistic World
In all of this is the deep desire among very diverse people to connect with each other in meaningful way that transcends surface stereotypes. In our  hyper-differentiated world where our diversity and pluralism seems threatening to so many, here we have a cadre of people who wish to honor that plurality by exploring its meaning through dialogue. Groups like this on the surface, who appear so different in how they view themselves and the world around them may seem to be unlikely dialogue partners, but the deep ardent need to bridge the chasms of divisions among us often wins out. It is the power of human love.

It should be mentioned that these religious and non-religious people are of course complex. Many atheists are indifferent to religion and others like Chris Stedman are doing excellent work to bridge this cultural divide. There are also lots of atheists within religious traditions such as Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. Furthermore, there are several terms that atheists and religious people use to describe themselves. In other words there is no simple "atheist" or "believer." Some religious people are theists while others reject a interventionist God and are panentheists. Many non-believers identify as agnostics, atheists and skeptics or a combination of these. It's a complex landscape for sure.

Changing our Minds about Each Other
Within this complexity is a fundamental issue: we know so little about each other in truth. Yet, in our walled off worlds of religious and non-religious persons, we think we know all we need to know about each other. Many religious believers fall under the false notion they understand the true nature of atheists and have assumed a battle between faith and secular culture is in order. In this "battle" most of the talk is among themselves. At the same time, the New Atheists and ardent religious fundamentalists fuel circles of hostility and animosity to say the least. Unfortunately, short slogans like "religion is evil," and "atheists are going to hell" still frame the discussion. It is time for a new frame.

In my personal experience as a Catholic missionary priest, immersed in this secular/religious dialogue, I have come to realize more and more that my values are not so different than the values of my atheist friends. Notwithstanding our differences and disagreements, we hold much in common. Ethics, morality and concerns for our common humanity, along with the many ways we all find hope, assurance, inspiration and wonder at the mystery of life bind us together in many important ways. Pluralism isn't relativism; it isn't the erasure of differences, or even its embrace. It is the recognition that differences exist, and that the resolve to engage them is a good thing, a necessary thing.

Chris Stedman and Reza Aslan in an article entitled, Violent' Muslims? 'Amoral' atheists? It's time to stop shouting and start talking to each other wrote: "Research shows that simply knowing someone from another religious or ethical group often leads to more positive views of that group. That’s why personal relationships are indispensable when it comes to changing how we talk about religion and atheism. When you know and admire a Muslim or an atheist (for example), it no longer makes much sense to make sweeping generalizations about either group as made up of fanatics or bigots. The logic of blanket statements falls apart when you’re confronted with the diversity of lived religious and nonreligious experience.

The Catholic Perspective
St. John Paul II shared: Since the beginning of my Pontificate, accepting the wealth of stimulating ideas offered by the Second Vatican Council, I have wanted to develop the church's dialogue with the contemporary world. In particular, I have sought to foster the encounter with non-believers in the privileged area of culture, a fundamental dimension of the spirit, which places people in a relationship with one another and unites them in what is most truly theirs, namely, their common humanity. To this end, convinced that the synthesis between culture and faith is not just a demand of culture, but also of faith, in 1982 I created the Pontifical Council for Culture with the intention of strengthening the Church's pastoral presence in this specific, vital area, in which the world's destiny is at stake at the approach of the third millennium; at the same time, I wanted to promote dialogue with non-Christian religions and with individuals and groups not claiming any religion, in the common search for a cultural communication with all people of good will (Letter to Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Secretary of State, 20 May 1982; Insegnamenti, vol. V/2, 1982, pp. 1777 ff.).

This concern finds it roots in the desire of Pope Paul VI who in wrote of the necessity of dialogue with the world around us (Ecclesiam Suam 72, 77, 78, 79, 93) and who set up the "Secretariat for non-Believers". Recently Pope Francis adds in the Joy of the Gospel: "As believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation." (257)

The common rhetoric in Catholic circles has been about apologetics and "defending" ourselves against the onslaught of secular culture. Imagining this "battle" as if we needed to justify the existence of God (God can take care of himself I believe) or that our values based in our faith are in complete contradiction to the values of humanists and atheists says more of what we do not know about each other than what we do. Framing our religious/non-religious relationship as a forum to disprove deeply felt convictions of each other are not only a complete waste of time but squandered precious time where friendship, connection, and collaboration are not only much more possible but the most meaningful mandate of the gospel we profess.

The Evangelical Challenge
It is in this light that we engage ourselves in the important conversations that need to take place between religious and non-religious. In the last 40 years or more, where dialogue is understood as crucial in universal church teaching, our ability as leaders to bring these important assumptions of contemporary mission into the hands of local church leadership, families and mandated organizations in the pews have been less than stellar. It is in these local family and community realities where the “rubber meets the road” as it were and where guidance and resource for individuals navigating our diverse world is most needed. It is on the local level where culture is transformed. The gap that still exists often between universal teaching and what occurs in local parishes and communities has handicapped efforts enormously in the real needs of the mission of the church in many places worldwide and perpetuated outdated notions of what mission is today in the minds of ordinary Catholics that have hampered zeal and new creative outlets.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Dialogue: a Catholic Response to Violence and Fear

by Bishop Denis Maden

This summer saw heartbreaking acts of violence throughout the world, especially in the Middle East,
with the near eradication of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the execution of American journalist James Foley. Atrocities can shock us into silence and feelings of helplessness, but, as Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl recently insisted, these events intensify our duty to speak out. Last month, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue spoke out with a statement reaffirming our commitment to dialogue with Muslims.

For many, this might seem counterintuitive. Dialogue in the face of savage, unreasoning violence? Engagement with the religion many people automatically (and wrongly) blame for this violence? But the bishops insist that “the most efficient way to work toward ending or at least curtailing such violence and prejudice is through building networks of dialogue that can overcome ignorance, extremism, and discrimination and so lead to friendship and trust with Muslims.”

This is not only about countering the violent extremism of a group like ISIS, but building a future in which the seeds of such extremism wither and die rather than take root. Pope Francis has repeatedly urged dialogue among all people as a way of leading to understanding and friendship and as “the only way to peace.”

The quest for understanding, friendship and peace must also take place in our communities and in our parishes. In July, Newsweek reported that Islamophobia in America is on the rise. This is tragic, especially since one lesson we should take from these recent horrors is the danger posed to the whole human family whenever any minority, religious or otherwise, is perceived as an evil or a threat. It’s crucial that Catholics understand and espouse what was articulated at the Second Vatican Council and reiterated by popes ever since, our respect and affection for our Muslim brothers and sisters.

The official dialogues the U.S. bishops have pursued over the years with Muslim organizations in the United States have reinforced this bond. And Muslim leaders in the United States, including the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, have been resolute in their condemnation of the violence in Iraq and Syria. For them, the violence in these countries carries the added twinge of pain that Christians should feel when we see people, in this country or elsewhere, using our religion as an excuse for slander, bigotry or other inhospitable acts.

Unjust aggressors must be stopped, as Pope Francis has recently asserted. And especially in these moments of global turmoil and trauma, the bishops are convinced that dialogue with people different than ourselves “offers the best opportunity for fraternal growth, enrichment, witness, and ultimately peace.” On a large scale, Pope Francis calls this process building a culture of encounter. Our response to evil and violence cannot be fear of others. Fear destroys everything it touches. By continually strengthening relationships with those of differing cultural, social and religious heritage, fear is overcome.

Bishop Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, is chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Some important links: