Pawlikowski, OSM were the two Roman Catholic representatives that signed
Religions for Peace USA
Statement Regarding Recent Terrorist Attack and Upsurge in Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Muslim Rhetoric on December 12, 2015. However,
there has been a considerable increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Immigrant prejudice expressed by some business and political leaders
since the statement.
In your opinion, what could Catholic parishes and Catholics in general do to combat this expression of fear and prejudice?
There’s now an annual
World Interfaith Harmony Week
in our global calendar. It was originally proposed at the UN General
Assembly in 2010,
and unanimously adopted for the first week in February (1-7) every year. The World Interfaith Harmony Week is based on the pioneering work of
The Common Word initiative. This initiative, which started in 2000, called for Muslim and Christian leaders to engage in a dialogue based on two
common fundamental religious Commandments: Love of God, and Love of Neighbor. The Two commandments are at the heart of the three
monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam--and therefore provide the most solid theological ground possible.
At the end of the day, faith should lead one to do good to others. As the saying
goes: ‘Actions speak louder than words.’ What better way is there
to show the positive force of faith than by joining together to do good to one's neighbors. This can take many expressions, such as activities like these:
a community cleanup of a river or park; feeding the homeless; blood-donation drives; health fairs; planting of a community garden; fixing of a run-down
playground; painting and sprucing up community centers; painting an interfaith mural, spending some time in prayer together (see my book
Interreligious Prayer: A Christian Guide).
Gordon: Could you comment on the Vatican's leadership on addressing anti-Muslim attitudes in the Second Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium?
Father Tom: In the Declaration on the Relation of the Catholic Church to
Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), a basis was provided for
interreligious relations in the
oneness of the human family, the common search for God, and the Gospel values to preserve and foster what is true and good in other religions. With
regard to Muslims in particular, the Declaration exhorted cooperation and respect, “social justice, moral values, as well as peace and freedom for all people (NA 3)”
despite the history of hostilities. It also noted that Muslims worship the God of Abraham in prayer, almsgiving and fasting; that they venerate Jesus as a
prophet and honor his virgin mother Mary; and that they await the day of judgment when God will bring all back to life. “The Church looks upon Muslims with
respect” says the Declaration, and it “rejects nothing of what is true and holy” in this religion. And so it counsels us to engage in dialogue and collaboration with
Muslims as well as members of other religions, and “to acknowledge preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral good, as well as the socio-cultural values
found among them “(2).
Pope Francis has used dramatic words and gestures to show his desire for closer
relations with the Islamic world. He has said that authentic Islam and the
proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence, and invited both Muslim and Jewish leaders to gather in the Vatican gardens and pray for
peace. And we all remember the photo of his washing the feet of two Muslims during a Holy Thursday liturgy at a juvenile detention center in Rome just a few
weeks after becoming pope.
Gordon: Please explain to our readers the difference between the jihadists and the true followers of Islam.
Father Tom: Jihad is an inclusive word with
two meanings. Its primary meaning is inner striving for self-control and
betterment. Its secondary meaning is armed battle to
protect the faith against others. This latter meaning involves use of legal, diplomatic, economic, political, as well as military means, but innocents--such as
women, children, invalids--must never be harmed. This secondary concept of jihad has been hijacked and mis-applied by Islamist extremists to justify various
f orms of violence. Violent Islamist extremists have unfortunately taken over the word’s secondary meaning in the minds of most people. Such extremists,
however, are the exception in an otherwise peaceful religion. While it is true that the Quran has passages advocating violence against sinners and nonbelievers,
so does the Bible. In fact, every religion throughout history has suffered the effects of extremists who distort and corrupt the core values of their traditions.
One need only take a brief glance backwards at the 12th c. Crusades or the 16th c Post-Protestant Reformation Inquisition to remember that Muslims are
not the only people capable of committing atrocities in the name of religion. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of Christians
never participated in those atrocities, nor do those conflicts in any way represent what they hold to be the life-giving facets of their religious traditions. Similarly,
the vast majority of Muslims today hold no part with the actions of ISIS.
The vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are peaceful and tolerant.
So judging Islam on the actions of a tiny, violent minority is both wrong
Lumping all Muslims together is like claiming that the opinions of the most conservative areas of the U.S. are representative of the whole nation. That’s not to deny
that in the Middle East there are blood-thirsty extremists who are gleefully beheading hundreds of nonbelievers and terrorizing whole nations, or that individual
extremists are popping up in Western world countries. But as we noted, Christianity has also been through similar periods of intolerance and bloodshed in the past.
After a long period of painful self-examination, it ultimately left behind its anti-Semitism and its contempt for other faiths. What we tend to forget is that religion is
often embedded in culture We are generally not guided by religious scripture alone. Believers of all faiths interpret their texts through the lens of their own cultural,
ethnic, nationalistic and political perspectives. The struggle to reform Islam in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and other countries is as much cultural and political
as it is theological. That’s why reforms are most likely to come from people who are Muslims themselves.
As important as it is for Christians to learn about Islam in general, it is even
more important for us to come to personally know individual Muslims. Pastors and
workers might work with their congregations to build relationships with local Mosques and Islamic Centers. Individuals can beencouraged to look for opportunities to
become better acquainted with their Muslim neighbors and co-workers. Personal encounter humanizes theother who has to some extent been stereotyped in our minds
by media impressions. Terrorism exists wherever religious ideology—be it Christian Jewish, or Islamic—succeeds in denying humanity to one’s opponents. Whenever
and wherever religion becomes ideology, we can be certain that it will be used in the pursuit of cruel and inhuman projects.
A few years ago I attended the annual conference of the
Islamic Society of North America at the Rosemont Convention Center in
Chicago. There were over 30,000
Muslim participants. The weekend afforded me the opportunity to listen to Muslims talk with one another about things that are on their minds and converse with them
over meals as well as before and after sessions. The Conference theme was Achieving Balance in Faith, Family, and Community. How normal does that sound?
That theme effectively summarizes the preoccupation of believers of every stripe in North America today. In the end, what left the deepest impression was simply this:
There is a community of people with a strong faith in the God of Abraham and a strong track record in community service and charity (the city of Chicago’s foodbank
that year said that the Muslim contribution was larger than any it had ever received in its history.)
In an era of secularization where faith is increasingly being air-brushed from
the public square, I felt grateful for the witness of these believers
and a desire to strengthen our relationships as “people of the Book”.
Gordon: When and why did you become a member of Religions for Peace USA?
Father Tom: Interreligious dialogue and
collaboration are fundamental to the mission of the Catholic Church. As Swiss
theologian Hans Kung once wrote, “There can be no peace
among nations without peace among religions.” Thus I made the Paulists a “member” soon after founding ourNorth American office at the beginning of the new millennium.
The Catholic commitment to interreligious collaboration isn’t an option; it’s a necessity.
The second theological principle is the universal action of God’s Spirit in the
world. One of Pope John Paul II’s particular contributions was to
further develop in his
encyclical Redemptoris Missio the active presence of God’s Spirit in the religious traditions of other peoples. God’s Spirit is at work in the world before, during,
and after the life of Jesus. And the Spirit’s universal work affects “not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures, and religions” (28). And the
third principle flows from this: the universality of God’s reign.
If that’s the picture, then it makes complete sense that all religions join hands to work together for peace in our world.
Could you provide our
readers with some background on why and how
Understanding Islam: Guide for Catholic Educators
Father Tom: There are three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues in the U.S.—Mid-Atlantic, Midwest; and West Coast. All are supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. The Mid-Atlantic dialogue, on which I’ve served since 2002, took on the task in 2008 of developing an educational
resource—a profile of Catholics and a profile of Muslims—that could be used by teachers in educational settings. The sense was that some of the perspectives
Muslim teachers present to Muslim students about Catholics would not be acceptable to Catholics, and vice versa. We wanted to provide a new resource or profile of
one another that would be mutually acceptable.
Gordon: What are some of the plans for the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in 2016?
First of all, the Paulist
North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations serves as a
concrete expression of the Paulist Community's commitment to work for
unity among the followers of Christ (Ecumenism) and to build bridges of understanding, respect, and collaboration with members of other world religions (Interfaith Relations).
The work can be summarized in three words: Information, Representation, Action.
Information and Education: The Office was established to first of all
provide ongoing and updated information and education to the members of the
about the issues involved, and to serve as a motivating agent for constructive and creative initiatives on the part of Paulist ministry centers in their local context. The
quarterly online newsletter, Koinonia (Greek: participation, sharing, partnership, communion)—free subscription, open to all, by the way -- is one of the ways this is done,
as well as through the sharing of information and resources via the internet.
Representation: As the office's director, I represent the Paulists at
various regional, national and international ecumenical and interreligious
conferences, assuring a
Paulist presence and voice at events such as the National Workshop on Christian Unity, the North American Academy of Ecumenists, and the Parliament of World
Religions, as well as by presently serving on various dialogues such as the Catholic-Muslim Mid-Atlantic and National Dialogues; the Catholic-Hindu and the Catholic-
Buddhist Dialogues. Earlier on in my ecumenical ministry, I served ontwo national intra-Christian dialogues.
In addition, I lead ecumenical and interfaith retreats, workshops and seminars
for clergy and laity; give talks; write books and articles; and network with
individuals and organizations. I’m on the road about 65% of the time. There’s never enough time for all that I’d like to read or do, but I believe one person can still make
a positive contribution with judicious use of his time and energy.
In 2016 I will be moving the office to the Paulist Center in downtown Boston, a
move occasioned by the sale of St. Paul’s College and the Paulist North American
Center in Washington, DC, where the office has been located since 2007.
have been a leader in Communications which is at
the core of your mission. Most of our readers are aware of the
Paulist Press, but the Paulists
also have pioneered the use of video and podcasts in their communications. I am a big fan of Busted Halo. Communications technology is a rapidly changing
field. Are their any other communications technologies that that Paulists may be considering using in the future?
Well, you didn’t mention
Paulist-Productions, our film-making
company in Hollywood, CA which has produced some memorable big-screen
films like Entertaining
The Dorothy Day Story; Romero , the bishop of El Salvador who was martyred; as well as some TV movies like The Lost Valentine It has won many awards for its films
and television shows, including five Emmy Awards, the Humanitas Award, the Christopher Award and five Gabriel Awards. And as for Busted Halo, in terms of new
communications technologies, SiriusXM does broadcast The Busted Halo show on satellite radio, as well as stream it on-demand to their mobile app. Additionally,
Busted Halo keeps up with all the current social media including Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Snapchat, and periscope.
You are a prolific writer
with 15 books to your credit
and over 250 articles in a wide variety of periodicals and journals. Did you
formally study writing or
what has prompted you to become a writer?
I had a double major in college
of English Literature and Philosophy, and I would have to say those courses
fertilized the seeds that had already been planted
in high school English classes. Writing, both prose and poetry, seemed to come from within as a natural inclination. One of the expressions that takes for me
on a regular basis is keeping a journal. Trying to give concrete expression to abstract thoughts has over the years become a near-daily exercise. A few of its
benefits are that it requires reflection, cultivates conscious decision-making, keeps memory active, provides me on my annual retreat with a helpful perspective
of the year past, and cultivates gratitude, the heart of prayer.
Your interest in spirituality,
meditation, and yoga is remarkable. What initially interested you in exploring
the multiple dimensions of spirituality especially
from an eastern perspective?
After engaging full time in the
work for Christian unity over ten years at the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in
Montreal and working in all 10 provinces of Canada,
it was becoming apparent to me that there was a rising tide of religious pluralism in North America and that I needed to become more conversant, not just about
other traditions of Christian faith, but about other world religions. So after the World Council of Churches General Assembly in Canberra, Australia in 1991, I took
a three month sabbatical in India to have a more direct experience of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I spent my first month at the Christian ashram of Shantivanam
directed by Benedictine Fr. Bede Griffiths, a pioneer in interreligious dialogue.
At this ashram, there was a daily session of yoga, followed by quiet sitting in
meditation. I had already been practicing Christian meditation/Centering Prayer
17 years, and within the first few sessions of yoga at the ashram, when it came time to sit in quiet meditation, I could feel a palpable difference in both my body and mind.
I was able to sit more comfortably, and my mind was quieter and more focused. What’s going on here, I wondered? And when I learned that hatha yoga—movements
and postures with a focused mind—were originally designed to help people meditate better, I was motivated to learn more about yoga. Two of the greatest challenges for
any meditator are the restless mind in the fidgety body! And here was a practice the objective of which was formally defined in the tradition as “calming the thought waves
of the mind.” And it did!
Another factor that inclined me to engage with the physical postures and
breathing exercises of hatha yoga is our own Christian incarnational theology.
We have the
highest theology of the body among all the religions of the world. That said, we also have one of the lowest levels of actually attributing to our bodies any significant
role in our spiritual lives. We need some help here! There’s no other religion in the world that claims God chose to become one of us, and did so in an actual, historical
person (Jesus), choosing to call these embodied spirits of ours “home”. The few practices we have that attributed a role to our bodies in our spiritual practice—like a
weekly fast day and keeping a day a week for rest and renewal on the Sabbath—have by and large both fallen off our screens in this era. Yoga is just one way to remind
us that our bodies have an important role to play in our spiritual lives, and if they’ve been “sitting on the bench,” we need to bring them onto the playing field.
Gordon: I know that some Christians—clergy and lay—do not consider Yoga as a helpful spiritual exercise. What may they fail to see in the practice?
There is a lot of misunderstanding of yoga out there. The primary one is that
yoga is a religion. The consequence of having that framework for it is that if
you’re a Christian
and you’re engaging with yoga, you’re practicing another religion and that’s apostasy. The fact, however, is that yoga is not a religion. It’s a philosophy, a science, a physical
and a spiritual practice. But it’s not a religion. All you have to do to realize that is to look at who practices it. I know of classes for Orthodox Jews in New York City and Muslim
instructors in Washington, DC. Across the country there are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and people of no faith, who participate in it. That clearly indicates that one should think
of it more like a software that you plug into the hardware of your own faith understanding and work with accordingly.
There are essentially two approaches: the classical approach to the practice or
the contemporary approach. The latter is all about physical fitness, increased
strengthened muscles, etc, and meditation is not even part of the picture. Whereas in the former, the classical approach, the physical postures are about stretching and relaxing
the muscles, tissues and organs with concentrative attention so as to release tension and stress from the body and focus the mind—all to prepare you for coming to rest in God’s
presence more peaceably and comfortably with concentrative attention in quiet sitting meditation. And it works! And that’s why people keep coming back to the practice. I think
one of the contributions we Christians can make to the practice in our contemporary cultural context is to help restore the inherent linkage in the classical tradition between hatha
yoga and meditation. And a direct benefit for us is that doing so involves recovering our own rich tradition of contemplative prayer.
And that describes well what I do. I teach the practice in a distinctive way,
linking together individual postures into posture flows that give bodily
expression to the attitudes of
the heart embedded in the prayers people have been praying all their lives—but generally just from the shoulders up, that is, in their heads. And what’s more is that we pray
those prayers put to music, which has a wonderful capacity to engage one’s affectivity as well. The end result: praying with body, mind, heart, and spirit can open that rote
prayer up in fresh and powerful ways. As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, once said, "We must bring forth the old truths in fresh, new forms." The "old truth"
here is the enfleshment of God. We are embodied spirits who carry divine life within our bodies and we must care for them well because they will be with us for all eternity.
Gordon: Could you comment on our near pandemic of gun violence in the United States?
Father Tom: As one who has done both post-graduate studies in Europe and lived in Canada for
21 years, I have come to see gun violence as the dark side of the American
It doesn’t reflect well on us as a people that citizens can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill with brutal speed and efficiency. Nothing in the Constitution
prevents the government from adopting sensible gun regulations such as universal background checks, bans on military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines,
or laws prohibiting the sale of guns to violent offenders, the mentally ill, or terrorists. We pass laws requiring helmets for cyclists and seat belts for people in cars, but seem
unwilling to face the fact that guns kill over 32,000 people a year here. America has by far the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, with nine guns for every ten people.
We also have by far the highest level of gun violence among 23 advanced nations. Muslims in the United States have sometimes expressed to me their amazement at American
Christians’ high tolerance for violence in games, prime-time television programs, movies, and in-the-street shootings.
And the gun right’s solution to gun violence is more guns—always more
guns. The gun rights movement is in the process of creating a “shoot first”
society. And this profusion of
arms makes us instinctively wary of reaching out to others, even in acts of charity. The so-called stand-your-ground legislation now on the books in 20 states emboldens gun
owners to use their weapons in public. But such laws, in sowing and then validating mutual distrust, drive people apart. In the end, an armed society makes it difficult for us to
fulfill the Gospel and Catholic social teaching by working for the common good. It inclines us to live out of fear and defensiveness rather than a spirit of outreach and service.
Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of
Miami, chairman of the
Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops, said
following the announcement by President Obama of measures concerning regulation of firearms: “Violence in our society is a complex issue with many facets, taking many
forms. While no measure can eliminate all acts of violence which involve firearms, we welcome reasonable efforts aimed at saving lives and making communities safer.”
Gordon: Over the years, the work for Christian unity has been a major component of your ministry. What has motivated you to “stay in the saddle” on this?
Father Tom: The Church has a job to do: to play a
leading role in God’s work of healing a broken world. It is by its own nature
missionary, i.e., called and sent to witness in its own life to
that communion God intends for all humanity and for all creation in the Kingdom of God. So visible unity amongst ourselves as Christians is a critical dimension of our witness.
When, as a result of our divisions, we are not yet united at the Lord’s table and not yet able to bring prophetic witness together in the face of injustice, our witness is
compromised and drained of its compelling power. The Church has a job to do in the world. In its tasks of proclaiming the gospel, promoting social justice, and peacemaking,
one might say the world is too strong for a divided church. The problems are too vast for piecemeal responses.
As Pope Saint John Paul II said in his encyclical On Commitment to Ecumenism,
“it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity,
is not just
some sort of appendix which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all she is
and does (20).”
In my new book,
Christian Unity: How You Can Make a Difference, I harvest
the experience of 35 years of ecumenical ministry in giving very down-to-earth,
suggestions as to what parishes, interchurch couples and families, monastics, religious communities and lay movements, social action groups, teachers and students, and people
in professional life can do to help heal the wounds of division among the followers of Jesus for the sake of the Church’s mission in the world.
(Here is a discount coupon for the book)
Gordon: This has been an inspirational interview and will provide our readers with great insights into some of the most important challenges that are affecting all of our lives.