Pope Francis recently completed an apostolic visit to Iraq. Any papal trip is worthy of interest, but this trip has captured the hearts and imaginations of many. It was the first visit of a pope to Iraq.
Iraq is a country that has been the center of the world’s attention for decades, having witnessed several recent wars. This is the country where the biblical city of Ur is located, the ancestral home of Patriarch Abraham, who is revered by three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Pope Francis, like his predecessors Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, each embraced the moral imperative to reach out to people of goodwill across religious divisions and to work for understanding and peace.
During these three papacies there have been people who are skeptical of such awareness, mainly because of the fear of “syncretism”. It is the amalgamation of different religions which can appear as a kind of “melting pot” of religions. Each faith tradition that engages in syncretism adds to the mix, and a new synthesis emerges, related to the still changed and different constituent parts. There is a legitimate fear that this could happen in interfaith dialogue.
Vatican II in the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) recognized the pluralistic world of today and reflects that the Church “in her task of promoting unity and love […] consider in this declaration above all what men have in common and what attracts them to communion ”(NA §1).
The misperception between dialogue and syncretism gave rise to a clarifying message 35 years later with Dominus Iesus, who made it clear that engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing the truth of the Gospel. He particularly warned against relativism, which some had deduced from the dialogue that all religions are the same or are simply alternative paths to achieve salvation.
For example, Dominus Iesus states that such a misconception could include “relativistic attitudes towards the truth itself, according to which what is true for some is not true for others” (DI §4).
The clarity and precision of the vocabulary should help prevent interfaith prayer from being seen as syncretistic and relativistic. When we say, “we pray together,” there is an inference that we are praying to the same God with the same understanding of who God is. It does not imply that we agree on everything, but it does imply that we pray to the same God.
Christians, united in a common baptism, recognize the same God. We may disagree on points of theology, or of praxis, but we are in the same “family” of Christianity. Likewise, from a Christian perspective, we can pray with The Jews. We share belief in the same God, and we know from the Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures that the prayers of the prophets are also our prayers.
How to manage interfaith prayer? What about when Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus (and others) come together? Genuine interfaith prayer – prayer true to the religious traditions of all participants – does not begin with “we pray together”. How can he? How can a Christian who believes in the God of Abraham and Moses pray with a person who prays to another deity? Yet we respect their right to pray as they believe.
A clearer way to do this is to present prayer time as “we come together to pray”. As a Catholic, I respectfully stand next to a believer who offers a prayer, faithful to his tradition, to his notion of God. It is not my prayer, but I respect their right to pray as they see fit. As a result, they stand with respect as I offer my prayer in a Catholic context.
I have been in gatherings where people from various religious traditions offer their prayers imploring God to bless the world and its people with peace and understanding. For some, I say “Amen” with them. For the others, I pray alongside them.
This is the formula used by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. They did not pray as if all of the participants shared the same beliefs. No syncretism, just respect.
In Ur, Pope Francis reflected on Abraham, stating that “Today we Jews, Christians and Muslims, along with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our father Abraham by doing as he did: we roll our eyes and we travel Earth. “
At the end of his address, Pope Francis offered his prayer in the presence of those gathered, including in part: “As children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, with other believers and all. people of good will, we thank you for giving us Abraham, a distinguished son of this noble and beloved land, to be our common father in the faith.
He concluded his prayer with “Guide our hands in the work of rebuilding this country and grant us the strength to help those who are being forced to leave their homes and lands, allowing them to return in safety and dignity, and to embark on a new, serene and prosperous life. Amen.”
I say: Amen.
Mgr. Gregory J. Fairbanks is a former ddirector of the Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (2005-2008) and former official of the Pontifical Vatican Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity (2008-2015). He is currently abboard member of Interfaith Philadelphia (since 2015) and dean of the Deacon Training School of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.