How Mary Holds Muslims andChristians in Conversation

By Cardinal William Keeler With permissionfrom the Cardinal himself

Summery; Virgin Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Quran more thanthe whole New Testament. Venerated by Christians and Muslims, Mary holdsus to work together for Justice and peace, sharing and love.

1- Recent high points of Catholic-Muslim relations

It is very much an honor for me, following the completion of my termas president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, to be withyou this evening. My presence here is essentially symbolic, a sign of yourappreciation for what Dr. John Borelli and others are doing, a tributeto the many who work with us and to the people of faith I am privilegedto serve. I have had the grace to witness even before my term as presidentof the conference a growing relationship between Catholics and Muslims.In 1989, as Cardinal O'Connor, Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles and I wereassigned to develop the draft of a pastoral message on the search for peacein the Middle East, we met with many Muslim leaders here in the UnitedStates and, at your suggestion, with Muslim religious and civic leadersin Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

In addition, during our visit to the camps on the West Bank and Gaza,we listened to local Palestinian leaders as well as to civic and religiousleaders representing other points of view throughout the Middle East. Itwas there I had seen in the early 1960s the unique and uniquely difficultsituation of the Christians in the region. By 1989 the sense of pressurethey experienced had been heightened, and many whole families were leavingthe Holy Land. From the 1989 trip I treasure very especially the memoryof our meeting in Damascus with Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro, the grand mufti ofSyria. With that meeting began a friendship which continued on this sideof the ocean; in successive years he came to Baltimore, and each time wewere able to discuss a number of issues of common interest.

Last year, through the goodness of Imam Bashar Arafat, I was a guestin a Muslim home for a dinner with him. I intend to recall later one otherincident involving the grand mufti of Syria, whose own key role in therelationships between Catholics and Muslims was underscored by his participationat Assisi at the interfaith service for peace led there by Pope John PaulII, on Oct. 27, 1986. As to our own working together in the United States,I think also of the interfaith pilgrimage in Baltimore coinciding withthe special day of prayer for peace in Assisi on Jan. 9, 1993, when thesituation in the former Yugoslavia had become so tense several years ago.

At that time I was so pleased that we could visit a mosque in Baltimoreand then conclude our evening with a Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption,the historic first Catholic cathedral of this land, with the imam presentwith us and later to join us at the supper which broke the day-long fast.That supper was characterized in a special way by the dialogue betweenthe imam and the other guests as he explained graciously and with greatclarity some of the Muslim practices and beliefs with which Christian andJew alike were unfamiliar.

More recently, it was a joy to see some of you at World Youth Day inDenver with Pope John Paul, to tell him at supper what you had told meat the reception in the afternoon and then to introduce you to him andlet you tell him of your own appreciation of the message he brought toyoung people and their response to it. Of course, the award this eveningis in fact a recognition of the cooperative spirit of trust and of friendshipwhich has developed between many connected to our two organizations. Dr.Cheema and I have rejoiced at the labors of others who assisted in developingthe agreed statement which we were happy to sign with respect to the Cairoconference last year, and what a positive impact that statement had! Wecould stand before the American public as Muslims and Catholics expressingour principles on the issues of population and development and, preciselybecause we stood together, we were able to attract attention and seriousconsideration from those who might otherwise be inclined to ignore ourmessage.

Much more awaits us in the future. We need to keep looking for waysfor our formal dialogue to continue so that we can move along, especiallytheologically, in our understanding of one another. Some of you here tonightcame to Baltimore Aug. 9,1995 to participate in a session of dialogue atthe headquarters of Catholic Relief Services, where we all learned a greatdeal from our guest-speaker, Cardinal Francis Arinze. I must say that weCatholics were honored that you came to Baltimore to hear one of us speakand to engage in dialogue. Also, we did have a dialogue, and we touchedon religious and social questions.

2- Mary Holds us in coversation

Tonight I want to take a few moments to move our theological discussionalong a little more and to underscore publicly some ways for possible cooperationthat I raised on the occasion of our meeting in Baltimore. Today RomanCatholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, themother of Jesus. We recall that at the moment of the annunciation, whenthe angel Gabriel informed her that she was to be the mother of Jesus,he saluted her as "full of grace" (Lk. 1 :28). Christians forcenturies have called her "the All Holy One' (Panagia).

In 1854 Pope Pius IX gave official voice to the belief of Catholicsthat "the Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception,by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God preserved free from allstain of original sin" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 491). Thepope's words expressed the Catholic view of the full extent of the holinesswhich by God's gift Mary enjoyed even in her mother's womb. The Qur'anrecalls that Mary's mother, before she gave birth to the daughter she hardlyexpected, had prayed: "O Lord, I dedicate to your service that whichis within my womb, one totally free; accept it from me" (The Imransm:35). Indeed, to Mary herself, according to the Qur'an, the angel said,"God has chosen you and made you pure (tahharaki) and he has chosenyou above the women of the universe" (The Imrans, III:42). For accordingto the Qur'an, Mary, "a saintly woman (siddigh) (The Table v:75) wasdestined, together with Jesus, her son, to be " a sign (ayyah) tothe universe" (The Prophets XXI:91), to play a unique role in thehistory of salvation.

"What a propitious moment it is, therefore, that finds Christiansand Muslims together on a major feast of the Virgin Mary, It is certainlytrue that in her very person there is a meeting point, or at least a steppingstone, between Christianity and Islam."

Catholics are delighted to learn that there are more verses in the Qur'an34 of them which name the Blessed Virgin Mary than there are in the wholeNew Testament! They speak of her presentation in the temple in Jerusalem,which Christian tradition also records, of her purification, of the annunciation,of her virginal conception of Jesus and of the birth of her son, the Messiah.It is no surprise then that just over 30 years ago the fathers of the SecondVatican Council, in their historic document Nostra Aetate (Oct. 28, 1965),wrote: "Upon the Muslims 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 humankind.... They also honorMary, his virgin mother; at times they call on her too with devotion"(No. 3). What a propitious moment it is, therefore, that finds Christiansand Muslims together on a major feast of the Virgin Mary to celebrate themutual esteem for one another which befits men and women in the faith traditionof Abraham, "God's friend" (Is. 41:8; las. 2:23; Women IV: 125).It is certainly true that in her very person there is a meeting point,or at least a stepping stone, between Christianity and Islam.

Indeed, as the Qur'an itself says: "To those who believe, God hasset an example (mathalan). In Mary, who preserved her chastity ..., whoput her trust in the words of her Lord and his scriptures and was one ofthe truly devout" (Prohibi tion LX~1:12). It was Sheikh Kaftaro, thegrand mufti of Syria, who first gave me an Arabic translation of the HailMary, our most familiar prayer to Our Lady. Last year Cardinal Lucas MoreiraNeves, the archbishop of Sao Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, went with me toSt. Joseph Hospital to visit the sheikh, who was convalescing from surgery.There I reminded the mufti of how he had given me the Arabic text of theHail Mary. Cardinal Neves was inspired to say to me, "Let us praytogether the Hail Mary for the speedy recovery of our friend, Sheikh Kaftaro."And this we did in a way which showed the deepest bonds of friendship andsupport.

3- Who is Mary for us

It is true, of course, that for all of the esteem and honor which Muslimsand Christians have for Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her role in our separateways of prayer, she is also the symbol of what radically divides us andwhat challenges us to dialogue. For Christians she is the all-holy Theotokos,the mother of God, the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate.For Muslims she is the mother of Jesus, the Messiah, "who was no morethan God's apostle and his Word, which he cast to Mary: a spirit from him"(Women IV:171). While this radical difference in faith forever separatesus, it paradoxically also holds us forever in conversation with one another.And this conversation can, and should be, as the Second Vatican Counciltaught Catholics, a jihad, a "striving for mutual understanding."And the council fathers went on to say of the Christians and Muslims together,"On behalf of all peoples, let them make common cause of safe guardingand fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom" (NostraAetate, 3).

4- Dialogue between Muslims and Catholics in USA

Here in the United States we have done just this. One thinks immediatelyof the fruitful collaboration of Muslims and Christians for the commongood in Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, not to mention the helpful andfriendly conversations between Muslim leaders and Catholic thinkers heldunder the auspices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops herein Washington, D.C., just a few years ago.

I recall also very distinctly how when word first came to us that PopeJohn Paul II would be visiting the United States in 1987, I suggested atthe meeting of the Administrative Committee of our National Conferenceof Catholic Bishops that there should be an interfaith service, preferablyat Los Angeles, at which the Holy Father might participate and thus demonstratewhat had already begun to happen in that city. And it came to pass, a servicein which Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists joined with local Catholicsin listening to sacred readings, each in turn offering reflections. TheMuslim speaker was Dr. Maher Hathout, who in time became a member of theAmerican Muslim Council board of directors when it was established. PopeJohn Paul spoke last of all to underscore his deep appreciation for whatwas being accomplished.

At an academic level we are blessed by the faculty and programs at ourgreat universities represented here tonight, The Catholic University ofAmerica, Georgetown University, Howard University. You and your programshave aided us much in our formal dialogue. Now the times call for renewedefforts on our part to foster a climate of mutual respect and tolerance,not only in a world grown largely impervious to faith, but sadly ever moreready to think in terms of racial and cultural stereo types. There arethose commentators who at the close of the 20th century envision a comingclash of civilizations which they are ever more ready to see as a confrontationbetween Islam and the West. But here in America, Muslims and Christiansare factually in a position to show that the circumstances of democracycan just as well foster a dialogue among the believers in the one God.

5- Catholics and Muslims together

Cardinal Francis Arinze put the point well in his "Message on theOccasion of Id al Fitr" at the end of Ramadan 1423/1993. He said:"A challenge which faces us in this increasingly pluralist world isto show that genuine religion, based on belief in God and the desire todo his will, is not a divisive and disruptive element in society, but itis rather the firmest foundation for love of others, for justice and fora more fraternal and free society. To those who believe God is one, Creatorof all, it follows that the human family is one. We share a common historyand common hopes for the future. We who believe that God's will is sovereignover all humankind know that it is the will of God that every human personbe treated with respect.'

This fall I had the privilege of hosting His Holiness Pope John PaulII in Baltimore. One of the events we planned was a prayer service at theCathedral of Mary Our Queen, which included guests from various Christianchurches and our friends in the Muslim and Jewish communities. The HolyFather chose to speak on religious freedom: "Today religious toleranceand cooperation among Americans cannot simply be a pragmatic or utilitarianunderstanding, a mere accommodation to the fact of diversity. No, the sourceof your commitment to religious freedom is itself a deep religious conviction.

Religious tolerance is based on the conviction that God wishes to beadored by people who are free: a conviction which requires us to respectand honor the inner sanctuary of conscience in which each person meetsGod" (Origins, 25:18 [Oct. 19, 1995]: 316). Pope John Paul went onto speak to the very interests which brings us together now: "To allbelievers in the one true God, I express the respect and esteem of theCatholic Church.

As I said at the United Nations, the world must learn to live with 'difference'if a century of coercion is to be followed by a century of persuasion.I assure you, dear friends, that the Catholic Church is committed to thepath of dialogue in her relations with Judaism and Islam, and I pray thatthrough that dialogue new understanding capable of securing peace for thenew world may be forged. "You have shown in this community how dialogueand cooperation can lead to improvements in civic life: in the work youhave done together to promote the teaching of moral values in the publicschools and in providing housing for the poor. May that work be blessedand may it increase as your dialogue of faith deepens in the years ahead."The times call for a new dedication to dialogue and cooperation betweenour faith communities.

6-What we can do together

In my final presidential address to the National Conference of CatholicBishops, I built on our conversations with Muslim representatives in Baltimoreand on my discussions in which I had participated with other Christiansand with Jewish leaders to propose several ways in which the Catholic Churchin the United States should cooperate to address areas where there is broadagreement on what we ought to do together:

7- Conclusion

Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Messiah, was ever ready to do the willof God. In Catholic spirituality, believers recall the words she spoketo the angel who brought the news of God's plan for her. She responded,"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me accordingto your word" (Lk. 1:38). This is the attitude of every true believerin the living God, the Lord of the universe. May God be with us as we seekto discover his holy will for us and to do it.