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:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Challenge of World Mission Sunday 2014

With the persecution of Christian, Muslim and religious minorities in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and the scourge of Ebola in West Africa where our men work, there is much to pray for, ponder and learn, and do in the name of the mercy and compassion of  Jesus Christ. The Pope provides hope and encouragement during these troubling times. 

Read the World Mission Day Celebration of Pope Francis and download the reflection questions and prayers that offer us an opportunity to deepen the Pope's message.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, vast numbers of people still do not know Jesus Christ. For this reason, the mission ad gentes continues to be most urgent. All the members of the Church are called to participate in this mission, for the Church is missionary by her very nature: she was born “to go forth.” World Mission Day is a privileged moment when the faithful of various continents engage in prayer and concrete gestures of solidarity in support of the young Churches in mission lands. It is a celebration of grace and joy. A celebration of grace, because the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, offers wisdom and strength to those who are obedient to his action. A celebration of joy, because Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, sent to evangelize the world, supports and accompanies our missionary efforts. This joy of Jesus and missionary disciples leads me to propose a biblical icon, which we find in the Gospel of Luke (cf. 10:21-23).

1. The Evangelist tells us that the Lord sent the seventy-two disciples two by two into cities and villages to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was near, and to prepare people to meet Jesus. After carrying out this mission of preaching, the disciples returned full of joy: joy is a dominant theme of this first and unforgettable missionary experience. Yet the divine Master told them: “Do not rejoice because the demons are subject to you; but rejoice because your names are written in heaven. At that very moment Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said: ‘I give you praise, Father...’ And, turning to the disciples in private he said, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see’” (Lk 10:20-21, 23).


World Mission Day 2014

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Srs. Olga Rachietti, Lucia Puliti, and Bernadetta Boggian.
After days of outpouring prayer and support from so many people the murder of our three Xaverian Missionary of Mary Sisters is starting to hit home and the grief of such a barbaric and unexpected act cuts deep. For months now we have all been following the atrocities of Islamic State toward Christians and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria and having this hit so close to home adds to that unmistakable overwhelming helplessness. All three sisters, who spent much of their religious missionary lives in Africa, were killed in two separate incidences in their residence at Blessed Guido Maria Conforti Parish, Kamenge, Bujumbura, Burundi.

Perhaps our hearts need to break in the face of great cruelty in order to allow the light of hope and courage to shine through the cracks. It is a time of prophetic mourning. "Mourn, my people, mourn. Let your pain rise up in your heart and burst forth in you with sobs and cries. Mourn for the silence between (perpetrator and victim)...Think of it as the dark force of evil that has penetrated every human heart, every family, every community, every nation and keeps you imprisoned. Cry for freedom, for salvation, for redemption.Cry loudly and deeply, and trust that your tears will make your eyes see that the Kingdom is close at hand, yes, at your fingertips. (Henry Nouwen, New Oxford Review, June 1992).

We must mourn so we do not accept as normal the hell that so often makes up our world. To properly cry is to see injustice, indifference, lack of love, and hardness of heart for what they are: evil living in the world and in us, in need of redemption. It is in the death and resurrection of Christ that this prayer arises, understanding that even these atrocities cannot overcome Christ's hope. It is stronger than death itself. Because if this I can imagine a different world, the dream of God, and are we not here to en-flesh that dream?

We pray for a new order...May your kingdom come that all people of sincere will become one community of heart. Breathe into your, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long suffering, fidelity, mildness, chastity, so that war among us becomes unthinkable. Give us what we in our helplessness cannot give ourselves and help us in our helplessness to remember that the true weapons against war are faith, prayer, fasting, and love.(Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI)

Press release of the Xaverian Missionaries USA on the Murder of the Xaverian Missionary of Mary Sisters

Xaverian Missionaries

St. Francis Xavier Foreign Mission Society
12 Helene Court, Wayne, NJ 07470-2813
Phone: 973-942-2975      Fax: 973-942-5012

News Release
Contact: Mary Aktay                                                

Wayne: Fr. Carl Chudy SX US Provincial Superior of the Xaverian Missionaries has issued a statement on the killing of the three Xaverian Missionary Sisters of Mary in two separate incidences in their convent at Blessed Guido Maria Conforti Parish in Kamenge, Bujumbura, Burundi.
“We deeply mourn the loss of these three women dedicated to living, serving and spreading the Gospel of Jesus in Africa,” states Fr. Carl.

Sister Lucia Pulici, 75, and Sister Olga Raschietti, 82, were found dead Sept. 7 in their mission residence in the capital of Bujumbura. Sister Bernadetta Boggian, 79, who had found the bodies, was killed the next night.

The three missionary sisters had been working in Burundi, helping the poor and the sick for the past seven years, prior to that they spent the majority of their lives working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sister Bernadette Boggian had been a superior of the congregation for many years. Sr. Olga Raschietti had spent the last fifty years of her life in Africa.  Xaverian sisters in Parma have told reporters that they are shocked by the killings and awed by the fact that the Kamenge mission is “full of people” who have come to mourn the nuns and express their solidarity.
The Superior of the Xaverians in the northern suburb of the capital, Bujumbura, Fr. Mario Pulcini, described the sisters as “loving caregivers…very well-loved by the people.” He says the murders appeared to be the tragic outcome of an armed robbery or a vendetta and that nothing can justify the killing.

Sister Delia Guadagnini, former Regional Superior of the Xaverian Missionary Sisters of Mary for Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi told Agenzia Fides News Service the sisters were “totally at the service of the people, making home visits, helping the poor the sisters were greatly loved by the people.” She continued: “This is why we cannot understand.  In Burundi there was never any misunderstanding and we cannot imagine who would want to hurt us in such an evil manner. What happed is a tragedy and a mystery…. The authorities in Burundi say investigations are underway and some people are being questioned. The local people are dismayed and find no explanation for such a cruel act.”

Sr. Delia, who is in Uvira (Democratic Republic of Congo) on the opposite side of Lake Tanganica to Bujumbura, went to the mission yesterday morning said the Xaverian Missionary Sisters of Mary will be going to Bujumbura for the funeral to take the sisters’ coffins to the Xaverian cemetery in Bukavu (east DRC) where on Thursday there will be a mass in the Cathedral. The bodies will not be brought back to Italy. She stated: “This was the wish of all three of our sister missionaries, and also the desire of the people they loved an served who want to keep them here in Africa: A mark of love to the end.”

His Holiness Pope Francis sent a telegram to the Superior General of the Missionary Sisters of Mary in Parma Italy saying he is “deeply saddened by the tragic death of the Xaverian Missionary Sisters killed in Burundi,” and “wishes to assure his heartfelt participation in the profound suffering of the congregation for the loss of such dedicated sisters and, in the hope that the blood they have shed may become the seed of hope to build true fraternity between peoples…”

Today, Xaverian Missionary Sisters live in some 40 communities and  are present in the United States, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Japan and Thailand. They live in small mission communities, often in areas of great poverty where they engage in evangelization, and provide health care and support to those in need.

Eight hundred Xaverian missionaries currently serve in: Bangladesh, Burundi, Brazil, Cameroon, Chad, Colombia, Dem. Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Mozambique, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Spain, Thailand, Taiwan, the UK and the USA

Mission: Inspired by St. Guido Conforti and St. Francis Xavier, we, Xaverian Missionaries, serve to keep the local Church aware of, engaged with and connected to the missionary mandate of the universal Church, principally by witnessing Jesus to those who have yet to know Him.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

“Diversity not as a threat, but as gift to be received with gratitude…”

The 26th Annual NAIN Connect Conference

by Fr. Michael Davitti SX, Director Interfaith Outreach USA Xaverian Missionaries specializing in Buddhism

The Inter-Faith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit hosted the 26th North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) Connect Conference: “Bridging Borders and Boundaries” on the Wayne State University campus from Sunday August 10 through Wednesday, August 13, 2014.

Participants listed 46 different religious affiliations, representing an impressive cross-section of North America’s religious thought and spiritual identity. I had the privilege of attending it as the representative of the Xaverian Missionaries, and it was quite a memorable experience.

There were two mornings of interactive workshops which included topics such as: “Exploring values that bridge boundaries”; “Spirituality and meditation”; “Welcoming the stranger.”
In the afternoon we had site visits showcasing the city of Detroit and its rich tapestry of faith communities. It was good to see how our shared values, and interesting differences, can become means to build vibrant communities where people of different religions and creeds can live in friendship, side by side. Detroit’s interfaith community had much to share with us by way of experiences and best practices.

Focusing in particular on the area of education, Prof. Robert Bruttell, of Religious Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy and Chair of Interfaith Leadership of Metropolitan Detroit, noticed how very few people know much about other people’s religions, and more lamentable, how most people in the United States know so little about their own religious traditions. This “religious illiteracy,” as he calls this phenomenon, “is making it difficult for us to live together.” (Message from the IFLC Chair).

The Conference looked like more of a reunion of old friends than of a formal Symposium. A bit nervous and hesitant at the beginning, since I was new to the group, I become more confident and at ease as we were progressing, and found myself among friends and at home at the end.

Thumbing through the booklet and the various messages of welcome and the conference sponsors, I noticed that, seemingly, leaders of the great historical religions were missing at the Conference. It was regretful since events of this kind are a golden opportunity to gain a better knowledge and understanding of each other. The patient weaving of connections that made the Conference possible was done at grass root level, by the so -called “laity.” It turned out to be a “blessing in disguise” since the discussions became more informal and cordial.

Desks in the Atrium Hallway displayed flyers and hand-outs about the religious beliefs of participants, showcasing the variety of religious groups and creeds.

In the course of the conversations there were no attempts of proselyting, only the witness to the personal faith-beliefs and the desire to clarify and dispel possible misrepresentations and prejudices.

Talks over a cup of coffee during breaks became a precious way of collecting information and beginning new friendships.

There were moments of silent prayer: I especially liked the one led by Bill Secrest at the end of the Conference. In the deep silence which enveloped us, we came to realize how silent-prayer can help people to connect at a very deep level, deeper than any verbal discussion.

This powerful experience made me wish that, alongside with the time dedicated to “sharing” and “bonding,” equal amount of time should be given to “listening” and “silence.” (Silence in this context to be understood not only as the absence of noise, but, most so as the absence of the chatter of the “ego.”)

Failure to listen leads to judgment, prejudice and fear. 

Also the reality, God/divine, we try to describe defies words. Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about this reality is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.
We are aware how between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and concerning God, we cannot grasp what he/she is, but rather only what he/she is not.
Believers can only point at, not describe this reality. The best way to honor it is silence; at this stage it is no longer a silence of ignorance, but a silence of fullness. Similar to the one between lovers, when the simple holding of hands tells more than words. It is like wanting to “describe the fragrance of a rose,” in the words of late Fr. Anthony De Mello. It is simply impossible.

The various speakers also tried to dispel prejudices emphasizing what unites us as far more than that which could divide us, recommitting themselves to the pursuit of peace.  

With so much violence in our current headlines, it is important that people of all faith orientations support peace and justice. It is necessary that all factions in the bloody conflicts across our globe should be urged by believers to work out peaceable and just solutions.

In this context, I was impressed by a statement which came at this time from Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. It called on all religious leaders, especially Muslims to directly condemn the attacks and take a stance against jihadists and their “unspeakable criminal acts.” Failing to do so, reads the statement, would undermine the credibility of religion, its followers and its leaders. 

The Vatican documents states clearly that “no cause and no religion can justify such barbarity such as the killing of people based on their religion,” including beheadings and crucifixion, forced conversion to Islam or paying a tax for not converting, abductions of girls and women and the occupation or destruction of places of worship. (See for further reading

The Vatican document described in a more articulated manner, what was the common feeling among the NAIN participants: namely that all war is a crime, but “religious war” is a blasphemy, in the awareness that the only “holy” war that a believer can wage is the one against his/her own ‘ego’ in order to surrender in silent adoration to God/divine.

The well-known prayer of St. Francis makes it clear:

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is despair, hope;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

At the end of the Conference we realized how two full days are too short a time to tackle problems of this caliber, nevertheless we had taken one more baby steps in the journey towards that peace which is the aim of all religions.

The journey ahead of us is long and it can be covered only one step at a time.

Fr. Michael Davitti SX