Interreligious relations in a post-9/11 world

I remember my mother saying that, when she heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she began looking to the sky for invading planes. Most of us remember a similarly eerie experience ten years ago on 9/11. The hateful and inexcusable acts of terrorists killed thousands of innocent people and aggrieved and traumatized many more. In Boston, it seemed hard to believe that the morning events had begun with flights out of our own Logan Airport.

On that same afternoon, I received a call from Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, asking if we should organize a public event to bring comfort to our fellow citizens. Several of us -- Christians, Muslims and Jews -- had already been working together on behalf of our respective religious communities. Within a few hours, a small committee representing the Archdiocese of Boston, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the Jewish agencies and rabbinate, and the Islamic Council of New England was on the phone, together with others representing the civic leadership, planning a vigil of prayer. I have always been grateful -- and it is an object lesson in the ongoing need to foster good interreligious relations -- that the members of our religious leadership group already knew one another, respected one another, and had worked together before the tragedy of 9/11 took place.

With the generous support of Mayor Tom Menino, we organized a vigil on Boston City Hall Plaza on the afternoon of September 13. To be honest, in those early hours of confusion, none of us realized the full scope of the trauma suffered by our nation. Our hope had been to invite perhaps a few hundred people passing by to join us for a time of prayer. Instead, when we organizers walked onto the stage with our religious leaders and elected officials, we saw thousands of people from every religion, and none, and from every walk and way of life, gathered together, waiting in solidarity for a word of comfort or a sign of hope. It was a need we all shared -- some 15,000 of us by a police estimate.

In the immediate aftermath of that day, the cardinal suggested that a broad coalition of religious leaders should continue to meet, to support one another, and to work together for the good of a confused and grieving nation. We were facing a new reality -- terrorism in the name of God had left our people wounded, bewildered and frightened. Would panic and anger rule the day? What should be the response of religious leaders at such at time and in such a climate?

Our small convening committee organized a meeting of a couple of dozen of leaders and representatives from numerous religious communities. In a public statement after that first meeting, they said, "At this painful moment in our history, we recognize more clearly that all of us are responsible to do our part in fashioning a world of justice and peace in accord with the will of God. We pledge to foster a culture of understanding, respect, and cooperation among people of all faith traditions. In this way, we will do our part in helping to make such a world. We call on all people of good will to join us in this holy work."

It seems entirely inadequate to say that the events of 9/11 changed our world. They did much more than that. But, if it is also true that no evil is beyond the power of God to draw out good, then Christians must also see a time of grace, even in disaster and loss. The story of our ongoing relationship and dialogue with the local Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities is good news of which many are unaware.

Interreligious relationships take place on many levels -- locally, nationally and internationally, within communities, among religious leaders, and among academic experts. It's always heartening to hear of the good work of religious relations taking place in local communities. In Needham, for example, where I am the pastor of St. Joseph Parish, we have an active interfaith clergy association. The same is true in many communities.

It has also been my particular privilege to represent the Archdiocese of Boston in the work of dialogue and sustaining relations with other religious communities. We are not alone in this work. The archdiocese has such a longstanding relationship with the Massachusetts Council of Churches that it would be unthinkable for us not to collaborate also in our relations with Jewish and Muslim leaders. Our principal partners in local interreligious relations have been the Jewish agencies and rabbinate and the Islamic Council of New England.

Is this always easy work? No. In fact, this dialogue and effort to work together is often complex and difficult. Sometimes we experience mutual frustration, disagreement and disappointment. But, and I am convinced of this, our world and we believers are better off for the effort. To paraphrase John Kennedy, some things are worth doing, even when -- and because -- they are not easy, but are hard.

On the day after his inaugural Mass, Pope Benedict told his interreligious guests: "I assure you that the Church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole." He has asserted that interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims is "a vital necessity on which our future depends." The pope reiterated these words after the controversy over his Regensburg speech, while also calling for a "frank and respectful dialogue" about the difficult issues confronting us.

Yet, despite the difficulties, complexities, and even set-backs, interreligious relations remains an essential aspect of the Church's life now and in the future. It is one of the great gifts of the Second Vatican Council to the Church and to the world.

Father David C. Michael is Associate Director of the Archdiocese's Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Needham.