Photo: Felix Carroll
Personal experiences with representatives of other religions punctuated Philippe Cardinal Barbarin's address at the Mercy Congress.
Love at Its Deepest Level
Cardinal Barbarin Addresses the Urgency of Intereligious Dialogue
By Dan Valenti (Apr 3, 2008)
Since the first strategic planning session of the World Mercy Congress began, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue have loomed large on the agenda. On Day Two of the Congress, April 3, one of the Church's most passionate advocates of interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of France, acknowledged the immense difficulties but held out hope of a breakthrough.
If it is to come, the thrust forward will be provided by a reliance on mercy as common ground.
In an exclusive interview conducted after his talk to a packed St. John Lateran Basilica, Cardinal Barbarin said that mercy is "the next step forward in interreligious dialogue. Mercy is [something] all people share. This is God's greatest gift to us, and it provides a realistic hope that we can begin to work more closely together. But it won't be easy. There are significant differences that can't be ignored. Speaking for the Church, we must work harder to reduce our ignorance of other faiths."
When asked how religious leaders can come together to move forward and avoid an impasse or even a step backward, Cardinal Barbarin said, "We must realize that in mercy, we can converse in a common language. Mercy is spirituality's 'universal translator.' Who does not want to be loved or forgiven? This is common to all people, because we all experience our brokenness in life. Sooner or later, we realize our helplessness without God. So those of us who are serious about reaching accord with our brothers and sisters of other faiths must proceed from there."
Speaking to this correspondent and otherwise standing alone at the center of the ancient basilica's reflectory, Cardinal Barbarin warmed to the topic, speaking with deliberation and passion. A few yards away, within the walls of the former Seat of Peter and now Basilica of Rome — the Pope's "Church" — about 8,000 pilgrims and congressional attendees milled about. The Cardinal had just given his formal presentation on the topic, "Interreligious dialogues drawn by The Divine Mercy."
Reliance on mercy as the basis for interreligious communication, Cardinal Barbarin said, is "how we can progress together. We must have the honesty and openness to share our stories and realize that no matter what our differences, they are greater in our eyes than in God's. Despite the things that keep us apart, the truth is that we have only one God, the God of all who is in all. Really, we all experience the same God, though often in far different ways. These differences are caused by the consequences of human living, factors such as culture, societal moirés, separate histories, and so forth.
"But if we stop reverting to history, which often contains the source of deep hostility toward one another, we can change our focus. As we do this, though, we must not get too far ahead of ourselves, for that throws us into the future, which we cannot know and for us does not exist. Our focus should be on the 'now.' The moment — that is where we find God. Whoever finds the true God finds the secret to the mystery of our commonality as His spiritual sons and daughters."
Cardinal Barbarin said he had great hope that the "mutual reality of Divine Mercy" would unlock our hearts. If this happens, he said, people would first come to respect one another. Respect, he said, must happen before anything else in trying to establish communication.
"Without respect, there is inhumanity," Cardinal Barbarin said. "With inhumanity, we begin to objectify the 'other.' That presents too great a temptation to exploit others through our selfishness, greed, and a desire for things like money and power. That is what history teaches. But once we can reach mutual respect, this condition changes. From respect, we can progress to caring interest in each other and from there to love. Actually, we don't do this at all, but it is God who works through us."
Once love enters the picture, the Cardinal asked, "What is not possible? Regarding those who are on a different path than us, it may seem that we are trying to do the impossible. This is not so, and even if it were, what is the problem? Why should we fear this? We are with God, and with God, everything is possible."
In his formal remarks to the Congress, Cardinal Barbarin talked about a journey he made in February 2007 with his Muslim counterparts to the Monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria to visit the site where seven Catholic monks were martyred in 1997 by radical Muslims. Their severed heads were put in plastic bags and hung from trees.
The Cardinal accepted the invitation from the Islamic community to participate in a healing service ten years after the grisly event. He said, "We went not to seek mercy for the dead, for they were with God. We wanted to invoke mercy for the killers, who were all still alive."
Cardinal Barbarin said that "after we returned from that trip, I found that I was praying in a different way. Why? I think it was because I had experienced the deeper truth of God."
Cardinal Barbarin noted that in his country, France, people often seem afraid to use the word "mercy." "That word is avoided," he said. "It is not employed. [My country] uses the word 'love.' The Jewish people and Islam, on the other hand, speak freely of God's mercy. Muslims center on Allah's great mercy. In fact, a Muslim invokes God's mercy 17 times in daily prayer.
The Cardinal said that in proceeding along the road to greater interreligious dialogue, bumps even hazards invariably occur. These take the form of tough questions. "One question I advanced to my Muslim brothers, I asked on behalf of many. It was a question I had never dared to ask. I asked why does the Koran seem to require the death of someone who converts to Christianity?"
There was no easy answer forthcoming, Cardinal Barbarin said, for there are never easy answers to the difficult questions that arise in such dialogue. He said his Muslim friends responded that the Koran does not teach killing but first mercy. The contradiction, they said, could only be explained by an inaccurate interpretation of Islam's holiest book.
Two of the questions his Muslims brothers asked him dealt with "disconnects" between official teaching and actual practice. They asked him, for example, why so many Catholics ignore the Church's teaching on contraception. They also asked him to explain the Trinity. Again, he offered no easy answers.
"I told them, 'I cannot explain the Trinity' ... but then I tried to explain. I told them that we [Christians] believe in one God and that the Holy Spirit is the circulation of love between the Father and the Son. [I also said that] God is not monolithic and unchangeable, like a huge block of concrete, but that God is fluid and dynamic. God is love, and love is dynamic. The different Persons of God represent His qualities as they manifest themselves through human experience and perception. I said we can sum up God as love, mercy, and compassion, in other words, goodness."
Cardinal Barbarin said he is committed to keeping strong lines of communication open to other faiths and said that in his visit to the Monastery in Tibhirine, "We started a dialogue, which we consciously based in God's mercy." That dialogue has and will continue, he promised, regardless of what twists and turns politics and world events might throw in the way.
"We often have feelings which disturb us," the Cardinal said, "because we are not doing what God is asking of us. This happens to all peoples of all faiths. Today, God is asking us to come together as brothers and sisters in love."
What is the alternative, he asked? Basically, Cardinal Barbarin said, we have two choices: we can run away because the road is too difficult, or we can move forward as best we can. He said he and the Church have chosen to move forward.
"Who is going to be the one to take the initiative? How are we going to implement all of [the ideas that come forth from interreligious dialogue]? It is true we will encounter difficulty, but we have no choice but to continue along on the path. This is the only way we can be witnesses of mercy, which is the true presence of God in the heart of man.
"It is not enough to tolerate the present situation," the Cardinal said. "That which separates us from our brothers and sisters of other faiths can be removed only by experiencing the one, true, living God."
To move forward in this "courageous" undertaking, Cardinal Barbarin said, "is to engage in love at its deepest level. We cannot be afraid of life. We cannot be afraid to love."