Bridging the Gap: Christmas Eve 2019

Photo Credit: Justin Merriman

Our Holy Father’s newest encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti, is a call for all human beings to live together as sisters and brothers, sharing with and caring for each other.  Its many pages offer us much to reflect on, and each reader will likely find one message or another particularly meaningful or urgent.

An aspect of Fratelli Tutti that struck me immediately was its genesis in a relationship between Pope Francis and an important Islamic leader, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, with whom he had issued a joint statement last year on human fraternity.  Through their shared work, the Holy Father envisioned a world where people with different beliefs and experiences live as sisters and brothers who honor each other’s human dignity as they build a better world.

“Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers, sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all,” he wrote in Fratelli Tutti.

This struck my heart because at Christmas last year I had my own eye-opening experience with brothers and sisters from our local Islamic community.  That newborn friendship has been much on my mind during the COVID-19 lockdown.

It began with an email from a gentleman, Eftakhar Alam—Efty, for short—who was eager to develop a relationship between the Muslim community and the Catholic Church in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  He told me he would attend Midnight Mass at Saint Paul Cathedral, which indeed he did.  It was a joy to introduce him to all those gathered.

After breakfast a few weeks later, he invited me to a Friday afternoon service at a Monroeville mosque.  This was a first for me.  I went accompanied by Monsignor Ronald Lengwin and Father David Poecking, who represent me at ecumenical and interfaith events.

On arrival, I followed the Islamic custom of removing my shoes for worship, an act that echoes God’s command to Moses to remove his shoes as he approached the burning bush of God’s presence.  I witnessed the men doing the customary washing of their hands, face, neck, arms and feet before coming into the worship space.  I was awestruck at the devotion of the mosque full of men who were in attendance replicated by the mosque full of women on the second floor.  I was inspired by the ceremonial bows which all the Muslims in attendance made toward Mecca.  I was blown away by the palpable warmth of all the worshippers as they greeted us as part of their worship.

Following the service, we had the opportunity to have a late lunch of middle eastern foods.  I gained a much deeper appreciation of the Muslim community and of their beautiful culture. 

More importantly, I came away from that blessed afternoon excited about what we—Muslims and Catholics—can do together to tear down walls of prejudice and to build bridges of peace.

Being with the Muslims gave me a much deeper insight into their faith, their love and their impressive desire to do good.

I also came away from my mosque experience even more aware of how divisive our culture can be to ascribe negative, sometimes even hateful, feelings to and about a whole group of individuals because of the ugly behavior of a few.

While several months have passed, because of the impact of COVID-19, I am not only looking forward to but am excited by what we, Muslims and Catholics, can do together to build a better world in this part of God’s good earth.

My friendship with Efty and the recent letter from Pope Francis have inspired me to seek new ways for people of all faiths—and of no faith—to work together.  We have to look within our souls and unlock the possibilities of joining hearts and hands with others to build a better world out of love for God.

But even more important than looking ahead, this opportunity provided for me (and hopefully for you by my retelling the story) the opportunity of how we have to look within our hearts and unlock so many more possibilities of joining hands and hearts with others to build a better world out of love for God.

Yes, as I witnessed the men gathered in the mosque “bowing toward Mecca,” I again dreamt of the good things that we can and must do for the honor and glory of God and for the service and salvation of each other.

As I share this marvelous memory with you, I go back to last Christmas Eve Mass at our Cathedral.  I smile when I recapture the joy of being with Efty.  I thrill remembering the joy of introducing an impressive Muslim to my sister and brother Catholics.  And as I muse on that sacred night, I appreciate even more the song of the angels in the Little Town of Bethlehem: “Peace on Earth—Good Will to All!”

Come to think of it, those same angels were with us too on Christmas Eve 2019.  They were singing the same message.

“Peace on Earth—Good Will to All!”

A good thing to remember as we search for the new normal born out of COVID-19.

“Peace on Earth—Good Will to All!”