Tuesday, April 7, 2015

An Easter Reflection on What Christians and Atheists have in Common

In light of our dialogue work with Atheists and Humanists, we found this article by John L. Allen, Jr. in Crux to be quite thought provoking.  We re-present his article for you here with the one caveat. Mr. Allen seems to naively equate Atheists with  Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchins, not realizing perhaps these two do not represent many Humanists and Atheists who are not so negative about religious persons. As much diversity and division there is among Christians, you can find similar differences among Atheists and Humanists. For more information about our work in this area click here.

This week, Holy Week no less, two stories broke that together illustrate a towering irony about the rise of violent Islamic extremism: In a growing number of places these days, nobody has more in common than Christians and atheists.

In Kenya, the militant Islamic group Al-Shabaab launched an assault on Garissa University College, beginning by shooting up a Christian prayer service. The gunmen then moved on, leaving Muslims unharmed while killing or abducting Christians. All told, 147 people are believed to have died.

It’s not clear if the militants deliberately chose one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar for the assault, though Christmas and Easter tend to be periods of special risk for Christian minorities in many parts of the world.

In Bangladesh, a blogger passionately opposed to religious fundamentalism named Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death in Dhaka by two men wielding knives and meat cleavers. It followed the eerily similar murder of Bangladeshi-American atheist blogger Avijit Roy in late February. Roy was assaulted by two men with machetes.

Reports out of Bangladesh assert that over the past two years, several other atheist bloggers have either been murdered or died under mysterious circumstances.

Both these Kenyan and Bangladeshi victims were targeted not just for being non-Muslims, but a specific kind of non-Muslim.

Among Islamic radicals incensed with the West, no two groups stir rage like Christians and atheists. Christians symbolize the perceived sins of the Western past, while atheists embody what Islamists see as the decadence and apostasy of the Western present.

In Europe and North America, we tend to think the primary cultural fault line pits liberals against conservatives, with religious believers often concentrated on one side. American pollsters, for instance, say one good predictor of whether someone will vote Republican or Democrat is how often that person goes to church.

In much of the rest of the world, that’s just not how things align.

Instead, the clash that matters is between those who support a secular state and those seeking to impose theocracy by force. Radical Islam tends to be the most lethal version of the latter option, but it takes other forms, too, including Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Hindu extremism in India, and even forms of Christian militancy in conflict zones such as the Central African Republic.

When the question is framed as pluralism vs. intolerance, the result is to put religious minorities, non-fundamentalist followers of the majority religion, and non-believers in the same boat, with Christians and atheists often at special risk should intolerance prevail.

That’s why no voice in the Catholic Church has emerged as a more eloquent advocate of secular governance than the bishops of the Middle East, for whom separation of religion from the state isn’t a theoretical concept, but a survival strategy.

When the Middle Eastern bishops gathered in Rome for a 2010 summit called a “synod,” they issued a strong call for “a sound democracy, positively secular in nature … completely respecting the distinction between the religious and civic orders.”

It’s a platform even the most ardent atheists ought to be able to embrace.

Given those dynamics, one unintended consequence of the threat posed by religious fanatics may be to recalibrate the relationship between non-believers and religious moderates.

Bangladesh, for instance, is a country of 156 million people that’s 86 percent Muslim; Christians form just 0.4 percent of the population. It’s hard to imagine any two groups there with more to gain from making citizenship, not religious affiliation, the basis of civil rights than Christians and atheists.

For such a coalition to emerge, each side will have to give.

Non-believers will have to move beyond the conceit that religion itself is the problem, acknowledging that one can be both a person of faith and also committed to pluralism and equality. That’s not just a theory, but the lived reality of untold millions of religious believers all around the world.

Believers, including Christians, will have to acknowledge that they’re not the only ones suffering. They’ll also need courage to say to fundamentalists that a secular society makes room not only for different religious traditions, but also for the Avijit Roys of the world.

If that kind of partnership is to become a global force, Pope Francis may be well positioned to help put it together.

The pontiff has already carved out a good relationship with some atheists, including a series of conversations with a leftist Italian journalist named Eugenio Scalfari, a man with a demonstrated knack for attracting admiration in secular circles.

As shocking as it may seem, one could almost imagine Francis inviting Richard Dawkins, the best-selling atheist pundit, to join him in denouncing the atrocities in Kenya and Bangladesh and defending “healthy secularism,” meaning a state that makes room for both religion and non-belief, but doesn’t impose either one.

Had Christopher Hitchins still been alive, perhaps the pontiff might have considered reaching out to him … and for the record, many of us would have paid real money to watch that exchange.

Whether such a dazzling gesture actually ensues is anybody’s guess. What’s certain is that as Christians observe Easter today, a growing number may have good reason to look on their atheist neighbors as their new best friends.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Urgency of Catholic Interfaith Advocacy

On March 30, 2015, the Xaverian Missionaries throughout the world, along with many lay people who collaborate with us globally, will celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of St. Guido Conforti, founder of the Xaverian Missionaries in 1895. His legacy lives on today in the the desire of the Church to reach beyond the borders of faith and culture to share the hope, mercy, and compassion of Jesus Christ. St. Conforti's spiritual journey shows us that the Xaverian Family has its roots in an intense spiritual experience, which sprung forth from the heart of a man who was passionate about life, humanity and creation as the fruit of his experience of God’s love. The great challenge of our times is to communicate this love in a fragmented world.

Spirit of Solidarity

One of the many aspects of St. Conforti's legacy lies in his spirit of solidarity across this
fragmentation. Even in his own times the divisiveness of society in Italy and throughout Europe influenced some of his own thinking.  We go to encounter God, the God of Jesus Christ, in the soul of every people, carrying only the cross of Christ – his love/giving – to do as He did and reveal to others our own experience of this love.We discover that the Spirit of God has gone before us.

In this consists “the challenge to understand and respect people who are different, to live alongside them and dialogue with them in a mutual enrichment in the evangelizing mission, apostolic relationships, formation to the religious life, relationships between cultures, generations and visions of the world, among the churches and faiths, as well as in the acceptance of diversities, different manifestations of faith and living together in a truly fraternal and human manner.We look for the God of Jesus Christ to learn from Him the ability to create spaces in which people have the right to “be”.

Catholic Interfaith Advocates

We live at a time when people of different faith backgrounds are interacting with greater frequency than ever before. We hear the stories of people who seek to make faith a barrier of division or a bomb of destruction all too often. Instead, we view religious and philosophical traditions as bridges of cooperation. Our interfaith commitment as Catholics, in honoring the pluralism around us, honors Christ present in all.

In particular, our Catholic tradition of dialogue is a gift to the world in a time when people within our nation and all of humanity use faith, race, and culture as a means to divide and segregate ourselves from each other. St. Conforti's legacy lifts up this great need and the balm of dialogue, exchange, and collaboration. Catholic individuals and communities proclaim the compassion of Christ in no uncertain terms.

We see Catholic interfaith advocacy as helping to create a world characterized by: 
  • Respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities, 
  • Mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and 
  • Common action for the common good.
We think that the Kingdom of God is enhanced enormously through the Catholic Church's desire to be in dialogue with the world, by creating positive, meaningful relationships across differences, and fostering appreciative knowledge of other traditions. This is traditionally called the mission ad gentes of the Church, developed since Vatican II. St. John Paul II reminds us that our relationship with those of others faiths, or no faith at all is dictated by two important assumptions: respect for humanity's profound search for answers to the most profound questions of life, and respect for the power of the Holy Spirit present in all of humanity. He states: "...the inter-religious meeting held in Assisi was meant to confirm my conviction that "every authentic prayer is prompted by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in every human heart." (Redemptoris Missio #29)

What Catholic Interfaith Advocates (CIA) Need

Three important elements are required of Catholic Interfaith Advocates in order to be equipped to be part of the mission of dialogue of the Church today. They include:
  •  Desire to make a difference in a divided world based on our Catholic faith
  • Acquaintance with the rich Catholic tradition of interfaith dialogue and collaboration
  • Interfaith literacy: discover the richness of other faiths and points of view
  • Get involve in the many interfaith initiatives going close to you

April 14, 2015 is Better Together Day

The Interfaith Youth Core of Chicago had organized a great way to get at this. April 14 is Better Together Day. We're disconnected. The divide between our religious and non-religious communities is huge, and that’s a problem. Consider this: 35% of people think Islam is more violent than other traditions. 43% of people wouldn't vote for a well qualified atheist for president. When people hear the word Mormon, 3 of the 4 words that come to mind are negative. On top of that, religious tension is globally at a six year high.

 We can do our part to change that. Research shows that just having one friend of a different religious or non-religious background can build understanding and combat ignorance. That’s why, on April 14th, we want you talk to an actual human of another religious or non-religious background about the values you both share. Then come back and post the experience online.

Still confused? Let's break it down. By signing the pledge, you’re saying that on April 14th you’re going to...

1. Meet someone of a different religious or non-religious background.
2. Talk about something that inspires them.
3. Share your story here.

Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a Catholic Interfaith Advocate, contact us. We would be happy to help.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Does Cardinal Turkson Hint to the Upcoming Human Ecology Encyclical of Pope Francis?

Recently Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace spoke to the Irish Bishops at the Trocaire 2015 Lenten Lecture. The Irish Bishops had just issued their "The Cry of the Earth" and the Irish development agency, Trocaire (Mercy in Irish), has been resolute in their Drop in the Ocean Campaign.

In this backdrop we also know that Cardinal Turkson helped work on the first draft of the Holy Father's encyclical on human ecology. Here the Cardinal points out that global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related. The promotion of integral ecology is the relationship between development, concern for the poor and responsibility for the environment.

He outlines four principles of integral ecology reflected in the ministry and teaching of Pope Francis. They are:

  • The call of all people to be protectors is integral and all embracing
  • Care for creation is a virtue in its own right (relationship between nature and humanity)
  • There is a necessity to care for what we cherish and revere (religious voice and sustainable development and environmental care)
  • The call to dialogue and a new global solidarity based on the fundamental pillars that govern a nation. (Everyone has a part to play)
In light of this there is speculation that the Cardinal's talk could provide a sneak peek in outline form to Pope Francis will issue in his next encyclical letter. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lent is not only a time for personal conversion...

“Dear friends, Lent is not only a time for personal conversion. It’s not about becoming ‘better', but it’s about overcoming the 'noonday devil' that wants to keep us from believing and living in the certainty that we are one Church, one human family and one Body of Christ with many members, all of whom are necessary. Lenten conversion is an invitation to believe that it is possible to re-build unity in the family, at work, and among the different generations, many cultures and different faiths. Even if we are unable to throw open all the doors of the fortress in which we are enclosed, we can make a little crack, a small opening, a tiny gap where we can begin to enjoy the sky, the fresh air, the sea and, above all, the beauty of the faces of those who enrich us and the history we are creating together.”
Fr. Pietro (Sigurani), Rector of the Basilica of Sant’Eustachio in Rome (Quaderno no. 8 per Quaresima 2015)

Lent is a time to turn away from all that mitigates and damages the power of a love that shown through the darkness of Golgotha, the piercing light of the cross of Christ. As Fr. Sigurani states: "Lenten conversion is an invitation to believe that is possible to re-build unity..." Turning away from sin involves the moment of turning toward new possibilities and a hope that can never die. New possibilities require us to re-imagine who we are as Catholics in a very diverse and pluralistic world, drawing lines of meaningful exchange and solidarity across cultural and religious boundaries. I share Fizzah's fear and hope. For us non-Muslims, fear can also blind us from the transformation the cross calls us all to. CC

Fizzah Abbasi, Freshman at George Mason University
I've lived in America my entire life. I identify as an American. I watch fireworks on the Fourth of July; I have said the Pledge of Allegiance my entire public school career, and I strongly believe in the First Amendment, which includes freedom of religion.

Neither my parents nor I have ever experienced much racism, but as I got older, I began to see that ignorance is all around, in different forms. People make terrorist jokes without glancing around the room to see who might be listening. I didn't give it much thought before, but now? It angers me.

I find myself defending my religion and my beliefs more than ever. When I started wearing the hijab a few months ago, I put my faith on display for everyone to see. I'm lucky to go to a university where there are many Muslims, but it still doesn't change the fact that we get treated differently at airports, or that our religion is constantly put on blast by the media. 

Last week, while sitting in the student center, I was approached by two older women who tried to strike up a conversation with me. I didn't think anything of it until I was later told that those women had approached me intending to "convert" me, and they had zeroed in on me because I was wearing a hijab. (I may as well have stamped "I'M A MUSLIM" on my forehead, right?)

I was shocked. This hadn't happened to me before.

I thought, is this what I have to deal with now... strangers trying to convert me to another religion because mine apparently isn't good enough?

The recent events in Chapel Hill have caused me to take a closer look at my faith and how other people view my faith. I have to admit I was disappointed with the results. Whenever there's a social injustice, I can expect my Twitter timeline to blow up. Everyone I know voices his or her opinions, loud and clear. However, when the shooting at Chapel Hill occurred, my Twitter timeline was silent. Very few people had anything to say about the three innocent Muslims that had been shot.

I began to question my place as a Muslim here in America. I started to think, would my religion put me in danger? Also, I realized, the fact that I wear hijab doesn't help much either; actually, it makes matters worse. For a fleeting moment, I considered the decision to take it off, for good. As it turns out, I wasn't the only one thinking this -- several young Muslim women voiced a similar concern. We are scared to walk outside with the very thing that helps define who we are.

It's not fair. Everybody deserves the right to express him or herself, without the fear that someone will treat you differently because of it. It's not fair that I have to convince people that no, my religion does not, in fact, support Al-Qaeda, or their more formidable successor, ISIS.

It also isn't fair that when the shooting at Chapel Hill occurred, the media was silent for a full 15 hours after it happened.

However, living as a Muslim teen in America means taking all these unfair things and dealing with them. It means that whenever I walk outside with that scarf around my head, I am representing every Muslim in the world, and that everything I do reflects on an entire race of people. It also means not exploding with hate and anger every time Bill Maher speaks, which believe me, is easier said than done.

None of this is simple, but I am willing to do anything for my faith and my beliefs, because without them, I have no idea who I am.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Newest Mission in Sierra Leone, West Africa

The Xaverian Missionaries have been working in Sierra Leone, West Africa since the early 1950's. In recent times we have moved to the peripheral area of Mongo Bodugu. The mission of Mongo Bendugu is settled by the Koranko Tribe, traditional Muslims who migrated from the nearby borders of Guinea in the last century. Fr. Carlo Di Sopra shared the fourth anniversary of our presence there.

On Sunday, 22nd February 2015, Mongo Parish reached the age of 4 years. We celebrated the fourth anniversary of its establishment by Bishop George Biguzzi in 2011. Looking at the better situation of the country, we agreed to have a simple feast on this occasion. It is also a kind of compensation for the ban of Christmas celebration last year because of ebola. The presence of Fr. Carlo di Sopra and Fr. Louis Birabaluge, who just arrived in Sierra Leone from Republic Democratic of Congo on January this year, was also a blessing for the community.

In this anniversary we tried to strengthen the family spirit of the parish. Sometimes we feel that we have not been familiar enough to each other, especially with the communities in the surrounding villages. This unfamiliar relationship is a barrier for building a Church as a family. So we invited some members and prayer leaders of the outstations in the surrounding villages which have started building their small Christian communities. They came not just to join the celebration, but also to experience living together with the Mongo community as their mother Church. They came on Saturday, joined the preparation of songs and penitential service in the evening, watched film of Jesus, then stayed together with the Christian families of Mongo town in their houses. This was an effort to develop our parish to be “really in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or self-absorbed cluster made up of a chosen few.” (EG no. 28.)

During the mass, Fr. Carlo reminded us that when Bishop George Biguzzi opened Mongo Parish he
said in a parable that he was like throwing a ball so that the parishioners of Mongo could start playing it. Therefore, like a game, parishioners of Mongo with the fathers and brothers have been playing the ball for 4 years. Some fathers could come and go, even the parishioners could come and go, but the game continues. As in any kind of games, success and failure, happiness and sorrow are inevitable, so in the life of Mongo parish.

The game is going on and will go on continuously, because, as Fr. Carlo  reminded us, the establishment of a parish in Mongo means that Jesus is here present in the parish permanently. The activity of mission in this parish is based on that presence of Jesus. As God the Father said about Jesus, ‘This is my own dear Son, listen to him’ (Mark 9:7), so the parishioners have to listen to Jesus through the fathers, brothers and the community who are present here to work in the parish.

During the reception in the Parish Hall, we were reminded that Mongo parish is not just for the Christian community. It is also for the society in general. Especially in this Muslim dominated area, we are obliged to nurture a good religious tolerance with Islam. The presence of the Paramount Chief and elders of the town also reminded us about the important of this religious tolerance. Fr. Carlo even asked us not only to practice the religious tolerance, but have to go beyond it by building a sincere and honest friendship where we can love each other and work together. With this attitude, we can avoid bad experience in other places where there is conflict between Christian and Muslim, even killing each other. Furthermore, we even should practice the mission through interreligious dialogue.

Beside speeches, the parishioners and guests also enjoyed the entertainment from our youth who performed cultural dance and songs. Their beautiful performance was a reminder that it is part of our responsibility to keep the local culture, to learn and develop it as our precious heritage with whom we need to open ourselves for dialogue.

We could see how enthusiastic we were when Mr. John K Kamara offered quiz which helped the parishioners to be aware of some practical knowledge about our church, the xaverian and the environment of Mongo society. At the end, with Salon music accompaniment, we had lunch together with a delicious local menu, namely rice produced by Mongo farmers with soup of goat beef also reared by them.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Healing the Divisions Among Us

A time will come for singing
when all your tears are shed,
when sorrows chains are broken,
and broken hearts will mend.
The deaf will hear your singing
when silent tongues are freed.
The lame will join your dancing
when blind eyes learn to see.

A time will come for singing
when trees will raise their boughs,
when men lay down their armor
and hammer their swords into plows,
when beggars live as princes,
and orphans find their homes,
when prison cells are emptied
and hatred has grown old.

A time will come for singing
a hymn by hearts foretold,
that kings have sought for ages
and treasured more than gold.
Its lyrics turn to silver
when sung in harmony.
The Lord of Love
will teach us to sing its melody.

© 1977, Daniel L. Schutte. Published by OCP. All rights reserved.

"When blind eyes learn to see." In these weeks the Gospel of Mark reveals the initial experiences of the ministry of Jesus healing those afflicted with disease and illness with no hope of any cure. In the biblical context healing was not merely a matter of curing physical illnesses, but one's relationship with God and with the community. As we often fear what we do not understand, the sick were often segregated from family and community. The real power of the healing of Jesus is a paradigm for the healing of separation and division and reuniting ill loved ones with family and the community at large.

Christ heals our humanity, body, heart, and spirit through the charisms of religious life and the mission of families,  parishes, and dioceses. Healing allows our Catholic embrace to be wide across the deep divisions that keep us distant from each other, across our cultural and faith boundaries. We are cognizant of this balm of unity in our desire to build bridges of dialogue and collaboration, to connect with people we ordinarily don't connect with. Leaving our comfort zone behind, we begin to understand each other in a new and life giving light as an effect of this dialogue, the boundaries of our hearts transcend the limits our fear places upon it. Blind eyes learn to see.

Jesus not only confronts illness but he also confronts evil itself, the unclean spirit. The word for devil comes from the ancient Greek word, "diabolos." It literally means to "tear apart," according to one of its many meanings. Jesus' curative and mending powers literally brings together  what has been divided by fear and hatred. Our hearts, like our bodies, journey toward a greater wholeness through this healing.

In many ways interfaith dialogue is a way of  sharing the healing power of Christ through the transformative relationships between people of different faiths and life convictions. The desire to seek common ground together helps to slowly mend relationships that were once estranged. In this age of religious extremism and violent fundamentalism this healing power of Christ is needed more than ever. The world awaits our testimony.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Civil Conversations Project: Kwame Anthony Appiah — Sidling Up to Difference

One of the more remarkable projects out there today is one called: Civil Conversations Project: A Public Forum Providing Ideas and Tools for Healing our Fractured Civic Spaces. It is hosted by Krista Tippet. Each week, those who listen to her show ‘On Being’ have the opportunity of listening to Tippett in conversation with some of the most interesting people in the world. No matter what the subject, by the end of the program listeners have had their assumptions challenged, awareness expanded, and new questions formed.

In this particular conversation, how can unimaginable social change happen in a world of strangers? Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher who studies ethics and his parents' marriage helped inspire the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In a tense moment in American life, he has refreshing advice on simply living with difference.

We as Catholics need to listen to many voices and the wisdom of God shared through the many rivers of faith and reason that flow throughout the world in many different ways. Our embrace needs to be wide and Mr. Appiah offers some interesting advice. Listen to this podcast from Krista Tippet.