In a year that has seen so many beloved friends, family and colleagues depart this world one great loss was the former Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey, Timothy Wright OSB. For some years I worked closely with Abbot Timothy at the Beda College in Rome and when we ran an exciting conference in 2014 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pope St Paul VI's first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, he was an obvious choice for a speaker. In an extraordinary talk he surveyed the present state of Muslim-Catholic dialogue before introducing the powerful film Of Gods and Men, depicting the final days of the Tibhirine monastic martyrs of Algeria - many of whom he knew personally and of whom he spoke so movingly. My good friend, Prof Jose Nandhikkara CMI, editor of the Journal of Dharma in Bengaluru, http://www.dharmaramjournals.in/JournalOfDharma/Default.aspx has kindly agreed to publish the address in the latest issue of Journal of Dharma. I reproduce a short extract here as a tribute to Abbot Timothy with the kind permission of the community of Ampleforth Abbey and the English Benedictine Congregation. May Abbot Timothy, that great pilgrim for peace, rest in peace.
Paul VI: Ecclesiam Suam and Nostra Aetate - Sowing the Seed
Pope Paul VI with his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam made a dialogical turn in Catholic Church’s relations with the rest of the world with the call for dialogue with religions, cultures and all people of good will, promoting mutual fellowship and harmony of life. The term dialogue was used seventy-seven times in the encyclical and two-thirds of the document was devoted to its meaning and application. He wanted “to demonstrate with increasing clarity how vital it is for the world, and how greatly desired by the Catholic Church, that the two should meet together, and get to know and love one another” and suggested dialogue as the preferred and natural means for such an encounter and living together in harmony. The encyclical speaks about dialogue in four concentric circles, beginning with the whole human race in the outermost circle and the members of the Catholic Church in the innermost circle. The second circle consists of people who believe in God, including Judaism, Islam and Afro-Asian religions. Ecclesiam Suam shows a characteristic change of language towards Islam: “worthy of our affection and respect… the adorers of God according to the conception of monotheism, the Moslem religion especially, deserving of our admiration for all that is true and good in their worship of God.” (107).
Learning from Ecclesiam Suam Vatican II made a paradigm shift in Catholic Church’s relations with the rest of the world, especially with the followers of other religions, with the call for dialogue with religions, cultures and all people of good will, promoting mutual fellowship and harmony of life. Nostra Aetate of Vatican II confirmed the positive attitude to Muslims:
Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to His inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion. In addition they await the Day of Judgment when God will give each man his due after raising him up.
Significant here are the remarks of Paul VI relating to ‘prayer’ and ‘worship’, repeated again saying that the Muslims “enjoy special spiritual kinship with our faith,” then elaborating this ‘spirituality’ by linking it to the moral order. “All those who worship the one and only God are called to establish an order of justice and of peace on earth.” A couple of years later he takes another line, saying “we feel sure …. you join in Our prayer to the Almighty, that he may grant all African believers the desire for pardon and reconciliation so often commanded in the Gospels and the Koran.” This invitation to become one in prayer was a step forward from Nostra Aetate.
3. John Paul II: Fertilizing the Seed so that it Grows into a Large Tree
St John Paul II developed this teaching; changing the language and using his personal charisma. To the Catholic Community of Ankara, Turkey he said on 29th November 1979:
As a result of this faith in God the Creator and transcendent, one man finds himself at the summit of creation. He was created, the Bible teaches, ‘in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27); for the Koran, the sacred book of the Muslims, although man is made of dust, “God breathed into him his spirit and endowed him with hearing, sight and heart,” that is intelligence (Surah 32:8).
By placing the two Scriptures alongside each other John Paul II was suggesting an equality of value arising from the deep commitment of each community to their own revelation from the One God. A bridge was built, mutual recognition raised and a step to sharing spirituality had been taken. Many Muslims felt affirmed.
A similar affirmation was offered to Muslim Leaders in Kenya. The Pope said on 7h May 1980: "The Catholic Church realizes that the element of worship given to the one, living, subsistent, merciful and almighty Creator of heaven and earth is common to Islam and herself and that it is a great link uniting all Christians and Muslims," adding that the “the honor attributed to Jesus Christ and his Virgin Mother" strengthened the link and reveals a desire for greater intimacy, derived not so much from doctrine but from sharing in the experience of God through prayer, received as gift from the One God, the ‘life’ of the spirituality.
This shows the language and experience of spirituality builds a relationship of ‘love’ with the One God, Creator, Guide, Merciful Forgiver and Host to Eternal Life in Resurrection. This is the path for a journey into the holiness of God, a holiness available respectively to each community, for both are walking in faith side by side to the One God, using different modes of transport.
The following year on 20 February 1981 in the Philippines Pope St John Paul II went further suggesting that the two were travelling alongside each other:
Is it not right to think that, in the Philippines, the Muslims and Christians are really travelling on the same ship, for better or worse, and that in the storms that sweep across the world the safety of each individual depends upon the effort and cooperation of all? … We Christians, just like you [Muslims], seek the basis and model of mercy in God himself, the God to whom your Book gives the very beautiful name of ‘al-Rahman’, while the Bible calls him ‘al-Rahum,’ the Merciful One.
Within the framework of mercy both see the necessity of prayer. The next day he laid the foundation for closer relationship by focusing on the necessity of prayer:
Muslims adore the one God and associate themselves with Abraham, revering Christ and honour Mary, professing esteem for moral living, prayer and fasting. …. What seems to bring together and unite, … [is] the need for prayer as an expression of man’s spirituality directed towards the Absolute.
Later that year to the Bishops of North Africa on 23 November he said, “Not infrequently a grace of prayer and contemplation is attached to life. For many Muslims the Church is the sister: they are happy to see the holiness of the Church in their features."
A Symposium on "Holiness in Christianity and Islam," he said 9 May 1985:
All true holiness comes from God, who is called ‘The Holy One’ in the sacred books of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. Your Holy Koran calls God ‘Al Quddus’, as in the verse: “He is God, besides whom there is no other, the Sovereign, the Holy, the [source of] Peace” (Q 59:23). The prophet Hosea links God’s holiness with his forgiving love for mankind, a love which surpasses our ability to comprehend: ‘I am God, not man: I am the holy One in your midst and have no wish to destroy” (Hosea 11:9).
In a second parallel he states: “Be holy, even as your heavenly Father is holy” (Matthew 5:48) and compares it to Qur’an 2:177, which the Pope summarizes:
The Koran calls you to uprightness, to conscientious devotion, to goodness and to virtue which is described as believing in God, giving one’s wealth to the needy, freeing captives, being constant in prayer, and keeping one’s word and being patient in times of suffering, hardship and violence.
These paragraphs show a dramatic shift. It is through spirituality that Catholics and Muslims can come closer together. Their shared belief in the One Communicating God provides the path to holiness, shared by Muslims and Christians: not a skill to be acquired, but a gift to be accepted.
Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1964, 3 <http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/ hf_p-vi_enc_06081964_ecclesiam.html> (15 May 2014)
Jose Nandhikkara, CMI, “Vision and Mission of Dialogue in the Vatican II: Investigations after Wittgenstein,” Revisiting Vatican II: 50 Years of Renewal, Vol. II, ed. Shaji George Kochuthara, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2014, 322-334.
Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, 107.
Vatican II, “Nostra aetate, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” 3 <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_ councils/ ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html> (16 February, 2014).
Paul VI, To the Faithful at the Angelus, 17 October 1965.
Paul VI, To Representatives of Muslims in Turkey, 25 July 1967.
Paul VI, Address to Islamic Communities in Uganda, August 2nd 1969.