Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Fratelli tutti’ and Catholic-Muslim relations

My commentary about Fratelli tutti’s relevance for Catholic-Muslim relations was recently published in National Catholic Reporter. It is entitled, “Catholic encounters with Muslims frame Fratelli tutti” and you can read an excerpt below. Here is a link to the full piece.

. . . . . .

“In the encyclical, Francis also wants to draw our attention to a lesser-known episode from St. Francis’ life. As Christian and Muslim armies were fighting in Egypt in 1219, St. Francis went to the camp of the Muslim sultan in a bid to make peace. The pope calls it an “extraordinary” encounter, writing that St. Francis “did not seek did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God.” Though Francis may have come with the goal to convert the sultan, he did not succeed, and his later writings show him committed to a different interreligious approach: not trying to convert Muslims through argumentation and denunciation, but rather living alongside them in a spirit of loving presence, hospitality and humble service…

“It is not only significant that Francis presented the encounter between the saint and the sultan, but also how he portrayed this encounter. As contemporary Franciscan scholars have observed, the 1219 meeting between Francis and al-Kamil has often been invoked for triumphalist ends and seen as an encouragement to proselytize to Muslims. St. Francis is often depicted in artwork and later renditions of this story as a commanding preacher, rather than as the humble servant of others. Even today, there are debates among Catholics as to which version of St. Francis should be our model for relations with Muslims. With this encyclical, Francis has let us know where he stands in that debate.”

Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic

At the end of 2017, I published a book with Liturgical Press entitled Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic. Written for a Catholic and broader Christian audience, the book shows how interreligious dialogue with Muslims can deepen Christians’ relationship with God. In this post, I share a bit about the book, which you can learn more about at findingjesusamongmuslims.com.

FJAM cover

In many ways, the book grew out of my own experiences of dialogue with Muslims, both in the United States and in the Middle East. In it I draw on church teaching, statements from popes, and the stories of Catholic saints and martyrs. Woven throughout the book are also quotations from the Qur’an, references to Islamic history and scholarship, and excerpts of Islamic mystical poetry.

The book is available for purchase online through the publisher and major booksellers, including AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Target. The e-book version is available here and here. You can also ask your local Catholic bookstore to carry it.

Finding Jesus among Muslims has received endorsements from Christian leaders from various denominations, including Bishop Mitchell Rozanski and Gov. Martin O’Malley, and from a range of Muslim scholars and religious leaders including Eboo Patel, Omid Safi, and Omar Suleiman.

Appropriate for those with little prior exposure to or knowledge of Islam, Finding Jesus among Muslims includes an extensive glossary and discussion questions for each chapter, making it suitable for individual reading as well as study groups and high school and college classroom discussions. Written primarily for a Catholic Christian audience, its educational message can be enriching for readers from any faith (or no faith) background.

At the end of the book, I provide an interfaith prayer for use in Muslim-Christian dialogue, as well as thorough guidelines for organizing events with Muslims and a list of resources for further reading and study. This book endeavors to be the first step on readers’ journey of the “dialogue of life” with Muslims and those of other faiths. For more resources related to the book, check out the Resources page on the book website.

Over the past several months, I have spoken to diverse audiences about Finding Jesus among Muslims at universities and parishes across the United States. I have also met with groups over Skype to discuss the book. If you are interested in setting up a speaking engagement, please reach out through the contact page on this website or at findingjesusamongmuslims.com.

The $200,000 Conversation

This afternoon, while wandering the garden of my favorite, secluded hangout on an otherwise crowded hillside in Amman, I discovered the ruins of a Christian church and Islamic shrine. The site, which is still strewn with stone columns and pebbled with pale mosaic tiles, was home to an ancient church, built in the 500s and dedicated to St. George. Though the church was abandoned two hundred years later, the place remained a shrine to the saint until the 20th century. St. George—who is also revered in Islam as al-Khidr, meaning “the green one”—is a towering mythical figure in the Middle Eastern spirituality, and countless churches and holy sites in the region purport to be the location of his miracles and appearances.

An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.
An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.

As I was reading the brief plaque explaining the history of the site, which was excavated by Americans in the 1990s, I began a conversation in Arabic with a young pharmacist named Osama. I anticipated the conversation would consist only of small talk, but we quickly launched into a conversation about…surprise, surprise: Muslim-Christian relations. But this conversation was different than my usual ones, which usually involve talking about interpersonal relations between the two groups here. We began discussing  big theological questions between Christianity and Islam. He pulled out his smart phone to show me that he has both the Qur’an app and the Arabic Bible app, and asked why the Bible is composed into separate books with separate authors. I expect this a common questions Muslims ask, since their text, the Qur’an, has a single voice and author: God’s. I explained the ‘what’ of the New Testament—that people after Jesus wrote about him—and then attempted to move to the ‘why.’ I began to feel giddy as I brought up my favorite Islam-Christianity comparison explanation, where I compare the functions of Mary and Muhammad, Jesus and the Qur’an, and the Bible and the Hadith. (For many of you students and scholars of Islam out there, you might disagree with those comparisons. They may be simplistic but they’re good starting points for dialogue I think.) I’m not sure Osama really followed what I was saying, but I was proud of myself for trying to explain it—in Arabic.

What made this half-hour encounter so thrilling was that it was 98% in Arabic. Osama doesn’t speak much English from what I could tell, so it challenged me to stick to colloquial Arabic. It made me grateful for and proud of my Arabic program and professors at Georgetown. Those nights during my freshman year when I slaved away for hours on my beginner Arabic homework paid off in this one conversation (not to mention the countless more basic ones I’ve already had here.)

Osama and I then moved on to other topics including Islamic beliefs about al-Khidr, what determines prophethood in Islam, and the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. He used very technical, theological terms like ‘aqida (“belief”), fiqh (“jurisprudence”), and wahy (“revelation”), and I could follow what he said and interject my thoughts because of my very strong education in Islam at Georgetown. Without my classes with Dan Madigan, Jonathan Brown, John Esposito, and without the many lessons and sermons from Imam Yahya Hendi, and without the many conversations with Muslim friends, I could never have dreamed to have such a meaningful, deep, and heady conversation with Osama.

As we swapped contact information, I was flying as high as the pigeons overhead. I was bowled over with gratitude at the education I received at Georgetown, realizing that so much of what I learned in classrooms there was put to use in this single conversation half the world away. I felt that my four years of study—and the thousands of dollars paid by my parents—were more than worth it. So many people feel like their undergraduate educations are barely useful, hardly relevant, in the real world. But for me, alhamdulilah (thank God), that is not the case. Every day my Hoya education informs my experiences, but today I was especially conscious of my education’s remarkable impact.

As Osama and I parted, I not only felt grateful to Georgetown, but also to St. George, who, on the crumbling ruins of once-holy ground, is still making miracles.

Ruins of the church.
Ruins of the church.

The Way, the Truth, and the Life: An exchange with a reader

Earlier this week, a reader posted the following comment on my blog. I wanted to share my response (and the potential exchange that may ensue) with the rest of my readers. Stay tuned to see if the discussion expands–I hope you will weigh in as well.

Reader:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)

Hi Reader,

I’m going to guess that you posted this quote from John’s Gospel to imply, “Muslims and non-Christians aren’t saved because they don’t believe in Jesus.” I don’t want to assume, but since you didn’t provide an explanation, this is what I have to guess you meant.

I used to have a lot of trouble with this passage. I, like many, though that this passage was saying that those who don’t consciously assent to a belief in Christ will not go to heaven. This troubled me, because there are many billions of people who don’t profess this belief. I couldn’t believe that our God of mercy would not allow them the opportunity of salvation.

But, over the past few years, I discovered what the Catholic Church, my denomination, says about the salvation of non-Christians and what salvation means in general. Salvation is about becoming unified, becoming a member of the corporate body of Christ. Salvation is about Christ drawing us into union with himself. Salvation is not simply arriving at place, and it is not achieved by a formulation of words, or by a structure. Conscious, rational belief doesn’t save, and neither does the Church. Jesus–a person!–saves. The Second Vatican Council clearly stated that if people are saved, it is through Christ, that Christ came to save all of humankind, and that salvation is thus offered to all, regardless of their particular stated beliefs.

So I have come to understand John 14:6 in a new way, the Catholic Church’s way. I can easily proclaim and believe in this line from John while still embracing my Muslim brothers and sisters and not wanting to convert them. I know that Jesus wants to bring all of us to his Father. We all have the potential to be saved by Christ.

How do you interpret this passage from John? Two of the Second Vatican Council documents, Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate may be informative for Catholics who are unaware of the Church’s teaching on salvation. Check out Lumen Gentium, sections 9, 13 – 17 and Nostra Aetate.

Lumen Gentium 17 reads: “…Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world.”

At a loss

When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”

As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.

I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.

How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th?  And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?

Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find.  Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass.  About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls.  The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.

“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free.  Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.

“But you are living in this new, troubled world.  And our world needs you.”  He was crying, and I began to cry, too.  On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.

Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.

And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me.  To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change.  I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few.  My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.

The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass.  He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.

“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace.  It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering.  Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.

The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown.  But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.

As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.

When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.