A while ago now, Pope Francis wrote a, to my mind, very important message to Muslims at the end of Ramadan (on the feast of Eid al-Fitr), and, I believe, I, as a Christian, need to read it too, as if it were addressed to me personally. Aside from the gesture of Francis himself1 sending the message “as an expression of esteem and friendship for all Muslims,” his choice of theme itself is of great importance, as is the way in which he introduces himself.
First, he ties himself closely to St. Francis, who had very close links with the Muslim world of his day and who - with Jesus and Mary - is revered also among Muslims and who, after speaking with Sheikh al-Malik al-Kamel (the Sultan of Egypt) told his followers: “[You] are not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake.” Then, Francis underlines a number of themes close to the hearts of Muslims: alms giving, a reverence for creation and the family:
“[W]hen the Cardinals elected me as Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor of the Catholic Church, I chose the name of “Francis”, a very famous saint who loved God and every human being deeply, to the point of being called “universal brother”. He loved, helped and served the needy, the sick and the poor; he also cared greatly for creation. I am aware that family and social dimensions enjoy a particular prominence for Muslims during this period, and it is worth noting that there are certain parallels in each of these areas with Christian faith and practice.”Next we arrive at the theme chosen for this year’s Ramadan message: “Promoting Mutual Respect through Education,” which Francis lays out as follows:
““Respect” means an attitude of kindness towards people for whom we have consideration and esteem. “Mutual” means that this is not a one-way process, but something shared by both sides. What we are called to respect in each person is first of all his life, his physical integrity, his dignity and the rights deriving from that dignity, his reputation, his property, his ethnic and cultural identity, his ideas and his political choices. We are therefore called to think, speak and write respectfully of the other, not only in his presence, but always and everywhere, avoiding unfair criticism or defamation.”So far Francis’ message is universal and, I believe, applies to all human relationships and not only those between Christians and Muslims. Kindness, esteem, reciprocity, respect and refraining from gossip are all basics that prepare the ground for the “sincere and lasting friendship” that Francis speaks about later.
Then, Francis’ focus shifts to the aspect of religious belief in this context of human relationships:
“Turning to mutual respect in interreligious relations, especially between Christians and Muslims, we are called to respect the religion of the other, its teachings, its symbols, its values. Particular respect is due to religious leaders and to places of worship. How painful are attacks on one or other of these! It is clear that, when we show respect for the religion of our neighbours or when we offer them our good wishes on the occasion of a religious celebration, we simply seek to share their joy, without making reference to the content of their religious convictions.”I believe the above is a key move by Francis, in that it explicitly calls for mutual respect of the religious expressions of others while placing the emphasis on the joy and wishing for the good of others that accompany them and that are universally human. No buy-in with regard to the content of religious expression is inferred from being kind and participating in the other’s joy. There is neither proselytizing or attempting to convert the other here nor the suggestion of syncretism.
All of the above is very consistent with what I have heard from Francis so far - we have to realize that we are all brothers and sisters before anything else can happen. In the context of speaking about the poor, his emphasis is always on “touch[ing] the flesh of Christ,” on looking into the eyes of those in need when they are being helped. Just like helping the poor is about building human relationships with them and not only about material assistance, so interreligious dialogue too - and the very essence of the Christian life - is about the exact same thing.
How is this to be achieved though? While the answer here is pretty obvious (education), it is nonetheless worth seeing how Francis puts it:
“Regarding the education of Muslim and Christian youth, we have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers, and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices.”It is impossible to respect and esteem caricatures - if that is how we get used to referring to others (whether they be of a different religion, or none, or of other convictions to our own) we are putting up barriers that prevent us from ever discovering what lives in the hearts and minds of our neighbors.
To conclude, Francis puts his own teaching into practice and concludes his message a follows: “Finally, I send you my prayerful good wishes, that your lives may glorify the Almighty and give joy to those around you. Happy Feast to you all!”
No pomp and circumstance, just sincere simplicity.
1 Instead of having the message sent by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who normally do so.