Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST
QUESTION: In his interview, Pope Francis narrated Al Sistani as a “beacon of light.” And he added; “these wise men are everywhere because God’s wisdom has been scattered all over the world. It is the same with the saints who are not just those on the altars.” What would be its theological implications? How do you understand its relevance to the present world? Xavier Paul
ANSWER: In his on-board press conference from Iraq, Pope Francis answers to the question concerning his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani, the head of the Shia community, at his home in the holy city of Najaf. For Pope Francis, his visit to Iraq, especially his meeting with Al Sistani, has a universal message, a message to the entire world which is surrounded by ‘dark clouds.’ This visit is narrated as ‘a silver lining in the cloudy dark sky of suspicion, misunderstanding, hate and resultant violence.’ The most important orientation of the visit was to overcome the sectarian divisions by creating a culture of dialogue. A country that has been traumatized by war, bloodshed, and discriminations has been consoled and smoothened by the presence and spiritual power of a person with great wisdom and authenticity and the message of fraternity, forgiveness and peace is communicated to the entire humanity.
FRATERNITY- THE HEART OF RELIGION
Throughout his visit, Pope Francis focused on human fraternity and solidarity. By this visit, amidst the threat of Covid-19, Pope proved that Fratelli Tutti is not mere superfluous words, rather it is to be practised in one’s everyday life. The visit aimed to promote cultural dialogue and a culture of convergence and inclusiveness so that everyone in our society can enjoy peace in his life regardless of his race, culture or religion (Cardinal Miguel Ayuso Guixot). As the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity affirmed, it is “an important moment for the world and a true promotion of the values advocated by the document on human fraternity.”
Some have observed that by cementing ties with Ayatollah Sistani, Pope Francis has become a peacemaker among the two antagonist factions of Islam-Shia and Sunni. It is evident that his statement at the press conference is not just an outcome of a spontaneous reaction, rather it is a well-reflected theological assertion deeply rooted in the insights of the Second Vatican council. It is also a continuation of the joint statement on ‘human fraternity,’ signed on 04 February 2019, by Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmed Al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, a leading authority for many Sunni Muslims. The document insisted that both Muslims and Christians should not only tolerate the religious faith of the other but also recognise the other’s faith as something “willed by God,” based on the human right to freedom of religion. To recognise the ‘anonymous saints’ next to our doors, one needs a pearl of extra wisdom and courage truly inspired by the Holy Spirit.
UNITY- THE TASK OF RELIGION
The Catholic Church has taken a radical leap in the Second Vatican Council, especially in its relationship with other religions, when it accepted the authentic human and spiritual values in them (Nostra Aetate 1, 2; Ad Gentes 9, 11). As per the doctrine, “whatever truth and grace are to be found among the nations is a sort of secret presence of God” (AG, 9). To be able to witness to Christ fruitfully, Christians must be united to those nations (gentes) in esteem and love. They must take part in their cultural and social life through the various dealings and occupations of human life. They must be familiar with their national and religious traditions; with joy and reverence, they must discover the seeds of the word hidden in these traditions(AG,11). The Council makes such an open vision on other religions in a broader context of the common origin and destiny of humanity. In the document, humans are presented as co-carriers of human fate and are therefore bound in unity. Here the document speaks about ‘nations’(gentes) instead of persons and thus emphasises the role of the community than the individual. It manifests that apart from the individualist dimensions, the role of nations in the formulation of a common identity is relevant in any discussion on the role of religion in society. This collective perspective is related to the unity of humankind.
Nostra Aetate presents the unity of humankind based on three arguments; First, the unity of humankind as an empirical fact in the modern world; second, this unity is based on the fact that God is the creator of humankind and he is the ultimate goal of humanity; and third, the human search for the great truths of lifeis another basis for this unity (NA, 1). In a deeper sense, all religious traditions find out answers to some of the ultimate questions concerning the meaning and existence of human life. For the council, ‘the task of the church is to promote unity and love among all people,’ which is common among all and what brings them together (NA, 1). The council thus presents the increasing unification of humankind and nations as the most prominent characteristic of modern time. Religiosity is a phenomenon directly related to God’s salvific plan for humankind. Moreover, the council also pleads the members of the church ‘to acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral good, as well as the socio-cultural values’ found in other religious traditions through dialogue and collaboration with their followers (NA, 2).It opens up a new approach to other religious traditions, their customs and teachings and thus welcomes to view all religious traditions in a wider spectrum.
Later on, Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio, explains the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, working in the heart of every person everywhere in the world. The works of the Holy Spirit “affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions.” For him, it is human beings’ efforts “to attain truth, goodness and God himself” (RM, 28). More than a mere attempt of humanity to reach out to God, the different religions are genuine expressions of God’s outreach to human beings. Though it is in ‘different kinds and degrees,’ the different religions are ‘participated forms of mediation’ (RM, 5).
In today’s world, when fundamentalistic ideologies conquer the essence of religion, it foments hatred, division, terrorism, and discrimination. During his visit to Iraq, Pope Francis wanted to correct these destructive elements of religious exclusivism and to emphasise the authenticity of religion. In his speech at Ur, the subject was the ill of religion: “hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.” True religiosity helps one to worship God and love one’s neighbour. He also condemned the use of the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression. According to him, when terrorism abuse religion, we cannot be silent. The abuse in all religion is a harm to society. As true believers, we have the responsibility to overcome the fundamentalist and sectarian traits. Instead, what is needed is mutual acceptance and peaceful coexistence. While speaking to Iraqi government authorities Pope Francis underlined that “religion, by its very nature, must be at the service of peace and fraternity…. God, who created human beings equal in dignity and rights, calls us to spread the values of love, goodwill and concord.”And at Mosul, he continued, “if God is the God of life – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to kill our brothers and sisters in his name. If God is the God of peace – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to wage war in his name.”In Baku, while meeting with different religious leaders, the Pope urged ‘to discern the good and put it into practice through deeds, prayer and diligent cultivation of the inner life’ as the great task of religions. As believers, we are called to “build a culture of encounter and peace, based on patience, understanding, and humble, tangible steps.” He repeatedly asserted that as members of the same human family we have to learn from our differences and to look beyond them, to build a better and more humane world.
MOVING BEYOND THE RELIGIOUS CONSTRAINTS
In the interview, Pope Francis requested to study deeply two of his recent documents, ‘The Abu Dhabi Document,’ and Fratelli Tutti, to understand his concept of fraternity and religious freedom. Then quoting one of the statements of Al Sistani, “men are either brothers by religion or equal by creation,” he continued, “fraternity is equality, but beneath equality, we cannot go.” Later on, the Pope tweeted that “fraternity is more durable than fratricide, hope is more powerful than hatred, peace more powerful than war. This conviction can never be silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert by the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.” In the Abu Dhabi document, it is declared that “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters.” It has emphasised the responsibility of all believers to work for unity by spreading the culture of tolerance, mutual respect and acceptance, and thus to attain peace and coexistence. The different antagonisms of today like war, hatred, hostility, extremism etc on behalf of God or religion have nothing to do with the truth of religion. Rather, they are the deviation from the authentic religious teachings and are mere political or manipulations of certain groups or sects to exploit the sentiments of the people.
Fratelli Tutti enlarges and expands the idea of fraternity and solidarity wherein Pope Francis asserts that as a single human family, as fellow travellers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth, each of us brings the richness of our own beliefs and convictions to the wider horizon of the universe (FT, 9). The differences existing in the world are creative and it may generate some kind of tensions. Through such kind of creative tensions, the human community move towards a new arena of wisdom. However, as one enters into dialogue with the other, they should stand firm on their foundations, because it is based on these foundations that one can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer him/herself as an authentic gift (FT 143). To understand this richness, we should learn to respect the other, to listen and learn from them. By respecting the other’s point of view, we will be able to admit their legitimate convictions and concerns.’ Everyone has a contribution to make and our admiration for it may help us to broaden our vision. “In a true spirit of dialogue, we grow in our ability to grasp the significance of what others say and do, even if we cannot accept it as our own conviction. In this way, it becomes possible to be frank and open about our beliefs, while continuing to discuss, to seek points of contact, and above all, to work and struggle together” (FT, 203).
Pope Francis’ visit and different interventions in Iraq is a clear manifestation of this attitude. For him the visit was also a ‘cultural journey’ that demands some kind of change in our mentality, “because our faith makes us discover that this is it, the revelation of Jesus is love and charity and leads us to this.” He admits that many centuries have taken to implement it. Then he asserts; “this is important, human fraternity, that as men we are all brothers, and we must move forward with other religions.” The visit to Ayatollah Sistani was also a part of it, to prepare a way forward and to move ahead with full of hope and enthusiasm; as he says, “to go and see a great, a wise man, a man of God” and to listen to him, a person with wisdom and prudence. “He was very respectful, very respectful in the meeting. I felt honoured. … it did good to my soul this meeting.”
For Pope Francis, “the pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings” (Abu Dhabi Document). ‘The wise men next to our door’ indeed participate in this same wisdom. It is a deep theological statement on God’s wisdom that is beyond human comprehension. While accepting the limitations of our articulation of gospel values, Pope brings the incomprehensibility of the divine mystery. It is also an invitation to rethink the confrontational cultural theory of a “clash of civilizations” and to shut down the fear of Islamophobia, growing in different parts of the world. In this movement, Pope Francis is well aware of the different criticisms within the Catholic Church, especially the accusation about heresy. But he is well convinced and acknowledges that when it comes to interreligious dialogue and human fraternity, he takes certain risks, and this risk is necessary for the wellbeing of humanity. He continues, “these decisions are always made in prayer, in dialogue, in asking for advice, in reflection. They are not a whim and also path set forth by the Second Vatican Council.”