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from issue no. 03 - 2003

A meeting with Michael L. Fitzgerald

No one is a foreigner in Rome

“Often those who launch accusations of fundamentalism against Islam are the first ones guilty of fundamentalism. We need to exorcise the fear of Islam”. A meeting with Michael L. Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialog

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Michael L. Fitzgerald

Michael L. Fitzgerald

The news stories of 1916 recount that at the death of Charles de Foucauld, the ‘Tuareg’, his friends, fierce Moslems, crossed more than a thousand miles of desert to offer their last homage to the man who, in humility and friendship, had testified to Jesus in their midst. Musa ag Amastane, a Bedouin chief, remembered him as follows to his family: “Charles, our ‘marabout’ [a holy man in the Islamic vocabulary, ed.] has died for all of us. May God have mercy on him and may it befall us to meet him again in paradise”.
The words of Musa re-echo the delicacy which, eight hundred years before, had nurtured the relations between Gregory VII and the Algerian Sultan Al Nasir, who, in making him a gift of some of his freedmen, asked the Pope to send him a priest so that he could minister to the Christians present in his sultunate. And if Musa had ever heard of Saint Francis of Assisi and of his meeting in Egypt with one of the Saladin’s kinsman, he would have asked how it was possible that in the Church such compassionate men could coexist with others who wanted crusades.
Also in the wake of these examples of charity, the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, in the dogmatic Constitution ‘Lumen gentium’, makes explicit reference to the Muslims (“But the plan of salvation embraces also those who recognize the Creator, and among these particularly the Muslims, who, professing to have faith in Abraham, adore with us a single, merciful God, who will judge men on the last day”, LG 16). It was to be the later conciliar declaration ‘Nostra aetate’ that established the bases for contemporary Islamic-Christian dialog (“The church also regards the Muslims with respect [....]. If, in the course of the centuries, many disputes and enmities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, the Sacred Council exhorts all to forget the past and to exercise sincere mutual understanding, as well as to defend and promote together social justice for all men, moral values, peace and freedom”, NA 3).
What inter-religious dialog may mean for the Church today, in particular with the Muslims, we asked Michael L. Fitzgerald, a missionary of the White Fathers, archbishop, and since October 2002 President of the Papal Council for Inter-Religious Dialog (on which he has worked since 1972 as a consultant and of which he was Secretary since 1987).
Created by Paul VI in 1964 as the Secretariat for non-Christians, this body for dialog had, as Montini saw it, the same function as that “for the separated Christians”. It was as such that Paul VI presented it to the world in the Pentecost homily of that year: “no pilgrim, however far away, religiously and geographically, the country from which he comes may be, will be, any longer a foreigner in this Rome, still faithful today to the historical program that the Catholic Church preserves for it as ‘patria communis’ ”.

Christian charity towards all
There are two fundamental texts of this Pontifical Council: The attitude of the Church towards the followers of other religions. Reflections and orientations on dialog and mission, in 1984, on the twentieth anniversary of the department, and Dialog and Announcement, reflections and orientations on Inter-Religious Dialog and the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in 1991. In them the term “dialog” is combined with “mission” and “announcement”. There is not therefore a dialectical opposition between them. But is there not a risk in this way that both sides will engage in an irritating repetition of their principles. Our discussion with Monsignor Fitzgerald began like this.
“The two documents quoted place dialog at the center of the mission of the Church, mission understood in its entirety”, Fitzgerald immediately specifies. “As stated in the document of 1984, in no. 13, “the mission presents itself in the conscience of the Church as a unitary reality, but complex and linked”. According to five elements: presence; service; prayer and contemplation; dialog; announcement and catechesis. I always explain that mission is also fulfilled just by being present, a believer who testifies through his daily life is a missionary. But there is no mission if one doesn’t pray, if one doesn’t celebrate the Eucharist, if the poor are not served, who need not necessarily be Christians. Mother Teresa did not place any limit on her Christian charity towards the poor. To the dying whom she had taken from the streets and watched over in their last hours, she had religious comforts dispensed, to everyone according to their faith, which was not necessarily Christian. Did she love the Lord any less because of that? “I lived all my life like an animal, now I die like an angel”, said some poor man picked up in the farthest corner of Calcutta. Dialog does not purpose obligatory conversion, but the Church cannot not proclaim Christ and not invite people to become part of him in baptism. We want that, we know the bounty of the Lord, we are grateful, first of all. But the fullness of the grace of the Lord must be accepted freely”.
We ask Monsignor Fitzgerald whether the desire to give textual definition to the “right relationship” between dialog and the invitation to conversion may not have entailed many distinctions. “The text on Dialog and Announcement of 1991 was written by us along with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. For the answer to the query – what is dialog and when is it announcement – we can start from experience. I too, when I was in Sudan from 1978 until 1980, was able to proclaim Christ to some, and then through baptism I accompanied them into the Church. With others, the Muslims from north Sudan, I could simply dialog, and I did. It is not contradictory that the same person fulfills two different activities when faced with two different persons. The relationship between dialog and announcement cannot be completely resolved in theory, because they are two acts lived in the complexity of the individual, and are made real in his desire for something to happen. The exhortation in Paul VI ‘Evangelii nuntiandi’ sometimes speaks of evangelization in a very broad sense, as a penetration into society of the values of the Gospel. From this text we took the definition of evangelization in which dialog is included. In ‘Redemptoris missio’ John Paul II also confirms that inter-religious dialog is part of the evangelizing mission of the Church. There’s no doubt about it. To those who say: “we don’t want to dialog, we don’t have to dialog”, the Pope responds that it is instead part of the mission of the Church!”

No superiority complex
In March of 1999 the then President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialog, Cardinal Francis Arinze, sent a Letter to the presidents of the episcopal conferences about the spirituality of dialog, which still today represents for men of dialog a small summa. From now on it will be the topic of our discussion with Monsignor Fitzgerald, not least because, evaluating the starting points of the Letter, and having heard the episcopal conferences, a new key document is about to be published this year, the drafts of which have been (and will be) scrutinized by the Doctrine of the Faith.
Cardinal Arinze wrote: “It is our firm conviction that God wishes that all be saved and that God makes a gift of his grace outside the visible confines of the Church. At the same time the Christian is aware that Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, is the unique and sole savior of all mankind, and that only in the Church founded by Christ can the means of salvation be found in all their fullness. This must not in any way induce Christians to assume a triumphalist attitude or to act with a superiority complex. On the contrary, it is with humility and with the desire for reciprocal enrichment that one will meet other believers, while remaining solidly anchored to the truth of the Christian faith”.
What do these words mean for Monsignor Fitzgerald?
“If we wish to seek a scriptural basis for dialog, we can read the first epistle of Peter when he says that he gives reason to our hope in all modesty and humility. In the epistle to the Philippians, Paul writes that Christ did not consider his divine nature a jealous treasure but humbled himself even unto death. The spirituality of dialog is contemplative, it does not fear to see God working in other people, even if they are of a different faith. How much less can we evade the question that such a fact poses to us. And we cannot repress compassion for people who do not know the Lord. This is the experience that I had for example with a Buddhist monk who came to Assisi in 1986. Small of stature, thin, almost ninety years old. His great goodness as a man struck me, open to Christianity, but not Christian. In 1999, to give testimony, a Hindu lady came to Rome, a disciple of Gandhi, tiny and humble. May I admit that I intuited in her an unusual delicacy, a sanctity? If there is, we attribute it to the Lord, who also works outside the visible confines of his Church.
And thus we can recognize that grace is not in our possession. We have received the vocation of living our faith, but we are weak. Many people do not have the advantage of the faith that we have and are morally better than us”.

Dialog between
poor sinners
From the Letter to the presidents of the episcopal conferences on the spirituality of dialog: “In dialog the Christian is called on to be a witness to Christ, to imitate the Lord in his announcement of the Kingdom, in his concern and compassion for everyone and in his respect for the freedom of the person”. Fitzgerald comments: “Jesus in the Gospels is always patient. He is patient with the apostles themselves, who do not always understand him. And he does not ask all of those he meets to follow him immediately. He heals, helps, responds, and then says: “Go to your own home”. He forgives sins and says: “Go back to your own home”. He doesn’t say: “You must become my disciple”. This is incredible; it’s a mystery. Such great compassion, a love of freedom so great. The majority of the people that Jesus met were Jewish people. Jesus did not practice inter-religious dialog as we mean it, because only rarely did he meet people who were not Jewish – we will say this in the next document from our Papal Council – but he gives us the example of the fundamental attitudes that come before any dialog. The Lord is patient, he knows the value of the implicit, now that today there is too much verbal explicitness. In the Gospel Jesus is always patient, except with hypocrites ....”.
Again from the Letter: “The announcement leads to conversion in the sense of the free acceptance of the Good News of Christ and in becoming a member of the Church. Dialog, on the other hand, presupposes conversion in the sense of a return of the heart to God in love and obedience to his will, in other words, the opening of the heart to the workings of God [....]. It is God who attracts people to Himself, sending His Spirit which is at work in the profundity of their hearts”. Fitzgerald comments: “This is a great liberation for everyone. It is God who decides, we are the instruments. In dialog my conversion also always enters, my desire to be close to the Lord. A sincere dialog on the faith, on one’s own faith, cannot but begin by recognizing one’s own personal limitations. Dialog is not “I have everything, you have nothing, you come to me and I will give you all the riches of the Christian faith”. Dialog reveals and re-reveals us again as sinners”.
On the matter of the relationship with other religions, the Letter stated: “One sees that there are many points of contact [...]. The differences however must not be underestimated [....]. Even though appreciating the work of the Spirit of God among people of other religions, not only in the hearts of individuals but also in certain of their religious rites [....], the uniqueness of the Christian faith must be respected”. Fitzgerald explains: “It is to say that in our adherence to our faith we have the freedom to be able to appreciate some spark, where it it is, wherever it may be. For example , the month of Ramadan for the Muslims is for them a way – fasting – of approaching God, taken from the practice of the Jews and of the Christians. Can we say that their rite is something bad? What’s bad about them prostrating themselves in prayer?
St. Francis beor the Sultan, The stories of saint Francis, Giotto, upper Basilica, Assisi

St. Francis beor the Sultan, The stories of saint Francis, Giotto, upper Basilica, Assisi

Fructus dabit tempore suo
In the Letter too it is written that «the spirituality which animates and sustains inter-religious dialog is that lived in faith, hope and charity». And the President of the Papal Council for Inter-Religious Dialog responds: “ It could be affirmed that inter-religious dialog is the Christian life lived close to people who are not Christian. Charity creates bonds of friendship among men. My colleagues who have lived for a long time in Muslim countries did not have the opportunity to celebrate many baptisms, but they had from the charity of the Lord a certain fruit in the friendship of many men of different faith”.
A last excerpt from the Letter: “Hope characterizes a dialog which does not require the seeing of immediate results, but holds firm in the belief that dialog is a journey towards the Kingdom and that it will certainly bear fruit, even if the time and the season are known only to the Father. The charity which comes from God and which is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit, urges the Christian to share the love of God with other believers in a gratuitous manner”.
“One mustn’t require results. For that reason, as a Bishop I chose the motto “Fructum dabit”, quoting the first Psalm, “fructum dabit tempore suo”: the just man is like the tree which is planted next to a stream and which will yield fruit in its own time. Things must grow, harvests must grow, friendship must grow. Saint-Exuperéry said that we must gain the other person through sweetness. Those who put pressure on to see the results of dialog immediately are enemies of dialog, because you don’t weigh them on the scale, even if they are sometimes there. It is simply the lack of conflict where there is war elsewhere. I know a couple of Muslims in Macedonia. Unlike others of their religion they long resisted the idea of having to give up everything and leave, driven out by pressure from Orthodox extremists. One day they give in to the fear and decide to put their house up for sale, in order to have the wherewithal to live else where. Their neighbors, of Orthodox belief, all came to their door one morning: “We wanted to tell you that we’ll protect you”. The couple remained in their own home. Some might say that it’s an insignificant episode, that nothing happened, that it’s not a “result”. But whoever says that is unaware that daily life is made up of these small signs”.

Authentic Muslims and not
Between the 9th and the 10th centuries in Baghdad classical studies flourished; Christians and Muslims sought to discover the points of convergence between their faiths. Today, on the verge of the pre-emptive war on Iraq, one couldn’t but ask the President of the Papal Council for Inter-Religious Dialog if the Council is having to mark time in its relations with Islam. Monsignor Fitzgerald thinks as follows: “Since September 11 Islamic fundamentalism has been constantly blamed. It’s a simplification, in which certain things are underlined and others hidden. And often those who launch accusations of fundamentalism are the first ones guilty of fundamentalism. We need to make distinctions, and this I believe is the task of our body. Being a realist, and seeing the difficulties of the moment, I admit that some of those who carry out terrorist acts do so in the name of Islam. But those who try to exploit Islam oughtn’t to be considered true Muslims. In fact, our Muslim partners in the Papal Council also condemned September 11. We need to exorcise the fear of Islam, which prevents us from encountering each other. For dialog trust is needed. As the president of the Papal Council, I must be prudent, be a man of the Church, understand all the circumstances of the meeting between Christians and Muslims and know that there are Christians who suffer greatly in Muslim countries. I try to take all of these aspects into account”.

As we are parting my eye falls on the many books and papers on the table. There is also the photo of the meeting of Paul VI with the Saudi Ulemas in Rome, in October 1976, when, thanking his guests for the gift of a prayer mat, Pope Montini said: “So, let us pray”. And the best dialog was the minute of silence that followed. q

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