JANUARY 22, 2004
Reconciliation and Peace
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
Reconciliation and peace. This is the banner under which the Catholic Church and its leadership have been marching this week.
First, in New York. A group of Catholic Cardinals including Chicago's Francis George and other notables from around the world descended upon the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Yeshiva University in Lower Manhattan. Their mission: to exchange speeches, observe, discuss, and stir up ecumenical goodwill between the religious groups. Catholic and Jewish leaders, including the World Jewish Congress, made it happen with the hope of continuing the legacy of reconciliation soon to be left by the aging pontiff, Pope John Paul II. Although not an official Vatican delegation or diplomatic envoy, the meeting was remarkable in terms of the number and international representation of the Cardinals attending. The trip, coming right on the heels of the Pope's meeting with two of Israel's chief rabbis at the Vatican, reveals a concerted effort on the part of the church to strengthen ecumenical ties and promote peace.
This effort was also seen at the Islamic-Catholic liaison committee meeting where the Pope called upon believers everywhere to promote peace through dialogue. The Pope also urged the committee members "and all leaders of religions, to promote a culture of dialogue, mutual understanding and respect."
The Pope made good on this charge the week before by stepping into the ongoing dispute in France regarding the ban on head coverings and other religious attire. The New York Times reports that, "[The Pope] told Vatican diplomats last week that religious freedom in Europe was endangered by people seeking to ban religion from the public sphere." Although he made no mention of France, the timing of the announcement and France's "bandana" ban seem to suggest that the Pope seeks to defend the interests of all believers, Catholic and non-Catholic, and, in this case, Muslim women in particular.
The Pope also showed a tacit commitment to ease tensions between Christians and Jews regarding Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of Christ" by not endorsing the film or at least denying an endorsement that was attributed to him widely in the press. The Vatican is also seeking to settle disputes and build dialogue with Anglican and Eastern Orthodox groups and even advising peace and unity with regard to divisive issues in other traditions such as the gay bishop Anglican divide.
The Roman Catholic Church is increasingly being called upon to act as a builder of inter-religious peace and concord, which from the perspective of just a few generations ago is truly remarkable. Indeed in the New York Times article on the Cardinal-Yeshiva event, Rabbi Henry I. Sobel, Brazil's chief rabbi, is quoted as proposing, "that Catholic leaders serve as intermediaries between Jews and Muslims in order to bring the Muslims into the dialogue. 'We need to convert the dialogue into a trialogue,' he said."
Trialogue between Muslims, Jews, and Catholics? In this ever smaller world in which religious conflict and religiously-motivated conflict are swirling, nothing could be more essential. In the Zenit News Service report on the Islamic-Catholic liaison meeting, the Pope was quoted as saying "in face of the tragedies which continue to afflict humanity, it is all the more necessary to convince people that peace is possible. Indeed, it is a duty."
Onward Christian peacemakers.
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is the managing editor of Sightings. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.