Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Nine (April 21): Reporting in at Head Office

An old familiar frustration has reoccurred: my internet connection, the one I purchased here in Rome only a week and half ago, isn’t working. I have no idea what is wrong. And their help number only tells me that I have dialed an invalid number… Welcome back to Rome!

Many of us – including myself – are coming down with quite a nasty cold, which includes a short bout of fever. This is putting a bit of a damper on things, but the show must go on. Also putting a bit of a damper on things is the weather. For the first time on our pilgrimage it is raining. So much for our plans to visit the Forum and the Colosseum this morning.

A group of the boys braved the weather, however, to have a coffee with me at one of the bars on the Viale Aventino. When Maria Pinto (our guide from the Focolare Movement’s Incontrini Romani) arrived, we made and executive decision to go underground for the morning by visiting the basilica of San Clemente just a short walk away to the East of the Colosseum. San Clemente’s is a most significant building – Fr Denis reckons it is THE most significant building in Rome – because (like much of Rome) it comes in layers. Here is how their website describes it:

The Basilica of San Clemente is not just another church in Rome, it is unique! Its magnificent frescoes and its twelfth-century mosaic of the Cross as the Tree of Life will engage your mind and heart. You can travel back in time and visit a fourth-century basilica before exploring what was once a pagan temple! Centuries of Christian faith, art and history wait to be discovered!

The “fourth century basilica” and the “pagan temple” (to be exact, a 1st Century shrine for the mystery cult of Mithras) are underneath the basilica itself. There are many possible “underground” experiences in Rome that take you down to the level of the streets in the first centuries AD – another one is the Roman House underneath the Church of Ss. John and Paul which Cathy and I visited in our week in Rome – and sometimes even further down, as for instance with the Catacombs. But since the Catacombs were out of town a little and the Roman House a little more complex to explain, Maria wisely chose St Clement’s.

As the group was heading off, I took a quick detour to the Colosseo station to buy weekly metro/bus/tram tickets for the whole group. I was told that if I wanted to use my credit card to pay for these, I would have to go to the Termini. This is a frustrating aspect of Rome. Unlike Australia, it still has a lively cash economy, and many things you would expect to be able to pay for with the card can only be paid for with cash. Never mind, I still made it to the Termini and back to St Clement’s in the time that it took the rest of the group to walk there. This should have been a bit of a warning to me: the group was slower moving than I had planned. We had people from their late twenties to their seventies in the group, and I hadn’t bargained on the fact that the group as a whole would not move as fast as I did. Someone asked if I had allowed for stragglers in my time-table, and I jokingly replied that Cathy and I practiced this in our first week in Rome: I played the one striding out in front, and Cathy played the straggler!

Again, I struck the cash problem at San Clemente’s, when I attempted to use my card to pay for the tour tickets. Again, they wanted cash for twenty-three tickets. I didn’t have that sort of cash on me, and so had to go to the nearest “bancomat” (= ATM). I had to ring Cathy in Australia to arrange for more cash to be transferred into my account. While doing so, I explained the series of setbacks we had faced in the last twenty four hours – the stolen camera, the missing laptop, the missing passport, the missing luggage, arriving late last night, everyone’s colds, the rain, the change of itinerary, the lack of internet connection etc. etc. When I had hung up, a small Italian man in the line to use the ATM in front of me exclaimed “It sounds like a disaster!” I had to smile. “Un poco disaster”, I replied.

Back at the basilica, the group were oohing and aahing over the ancient relics and works of art, and indeed at the building itself. Istanbul is a city with an ancient past, but Rome is even more ancient still, and every corner just drips with history. One aspect not often remembered is that the celebrated “apostle to the Slavs”, St Cyril, is entombed in the Church. Maria gave this Saint his due and paid close attention to his significance for the history of the Church. The group were beginning to realise that Maria was not an ordinary run of the mill guide, but someone who had deep faith and deep knowledge of history in equal measure.

While we were underground in the fourth century basilica, Cathy phoned back to say that the money had been transferred, and I had an opportunity of talking to the girls also. I was surprised when I hung up to find that tears were streaming down my face – a combination, I think, of missing my family and feeling the weight of responsibility for the success of this pilgrimage in such unfamiliar surroundings so far from home.

Towards the end of the tour, I headed out with Fr Denis to find a place where we could have lunch. We chose a restaurant called the “Pasqualine”, because it had a private room upstairs and a good variety of fish and vegetarian dishes and pasta. The food was very good, and about a half dozen of us decided to have the bass – a large fish that was sitting in the freezer downstairs as we came in. This was cooked whole and served up for us with vegetables at our table.

Also, by this stage some of the Muslims were curious about the Focolare Movement, so we asked Maria to tell us something of its history and her involvement in it. There was a significant point of comparison with the Gülen Movement, and the Muslims were very interested to hear that Catholicism, like Islam, also had groups within its structure that are described as “movements”.

We were due at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue by 4:30pm, and it was already 2pm, so Maria suggested that (as the weather had cleared) we make our way by Metro to the Vatican and that she would give a tour of the Piazza – no time today to actually go into the Basilica itself. While they were looking around the square, I went to the Bronze Doors to collect the tickets for the next day’s audience. There was quite a line up, so the tour was almost done by the time I rejoined them. It was very rewarding to see the looks of curious delight on the faces of the pilgrims at being present in this imposing and famous location. In one sense, the Piazza and Basilica are a visible parable of the vast and universal character of the Catholic Church. Just wait till tomorrow, I said, when you will find it filled with pilgrims from every part of the world.

Then it was on to the offices of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the other end of the Via della Conciliazione. Bishop Prowse “ducked into a nearby telephone box” and emerged in his episcopal finery, and then we went upstairs to meet Msgr. Khaled Akasheh, the chief of the Islam desk in the Pontifical Council. Fr Markus Solo was also present. The plan was that would spend about an half hour speaking with Msgr. Khaled and then we would see Archbishop Luigi Celata, the Secretary of PCID. We were looking forward to this, because Msgr. Celata had spent some time as Papal Nuncio to Turkey, and hence would have a good idea of the issues that we had discussed while on the first leg of our pilgrimage. However, after an hour of talking, Mgsr. Khaled told us that in fact we would not be meeting with the Secretary as he “had a fever” and was not coming into the office that day. This was a little disappointing, especially in light of the fact that we had originally hoped to meet both the President of the PCID, Cardinal Tauran, and the Secretary, and now both were unavailable due to illness. However, we consoled ourselves that in talking with Khaled, we were at least dealing with the “business end” of the PCID as far as Islam went.

Msgr. Khaled opened with a period of silent prayer – the usual protocol in Interfaith meetings where common prayer is deemed impossible. This was followed by introductions of the pilgrims, and then an explanation by Khaled of the workings of the PCID. He said that one of the graces of the curia in Rome is its ability to work on the universal level, listening to the experiences of bishops as they came to the Vatican for their regular ad limina visits. He stressed however, that when it comes to actual dialogue, local churches had priority over the universal level. He highlighted the fact that the PCID has now issued a “Letter to Muslims” at the end of every Ramadan since 1967. He spoke of the Church’s opposition to the war in Iraq, and of dialogue with local Muslim groups, including Iranians, and then went on to speak of the importance of the recognition of human dignity and religious freedom. He stressed this because the Church recognises that every human being is a person with rights, and that we can build a dialogue of truth and love upon this common recognition. He spoke of the way in which Pope Benedict is continuing the same policies of interreligious dialogue which were established by John Paul II. Fr Markus also introduced himself, saying that he has been working at PCID for two years, and is specifically responsible for the dialogue with Islam in South-East Asia and Australia. Above all, Msgr. Khaled stressed that the Church “eagerly seeks the opportunity to listen.”

Then was our opportunity to ask questions. Max asked a question on about the “Common Word” statement. Khaled answered that Cardinal Tauran sees this is yet another stage in the continuing dialogue – important, but not THE most important. But the form of the statement was significant because it wasn’t just an open letter, but actually addressed to Christian leaders seeking a response. The outcome as far as the curia was concerned was the formation of the Catholic-Muslim Forum, which had its first meeting in Rome late last year. He also commented on the large number of Muslim delegates directly involved in this meeting. Ikebal commented that the dialogue has been well received.

Osman took the opportunity to speak of the success of our pilgrimage so far, as it has served to draw us together and helping us to empathise with one another. In respect to the pilgrimage, Bishop Prowse expressed thanks for the efforts of the AIS and of Orhan in particular, and reported on our experience in Hagia Eirene the day before.

Professor Ismail commented that as yet there were not many Muslims involved in interfaith dialogue at the grass roots level, but that there was growing interest. He was interested to learn more about what the future directions might be.

Bishop Prowse also asked Msgr. Khaled if he knew whether our pilgrimage was the first of its sort. Khaled said that he knew of two similar pilgrimages, one from the minority religious groups of Iraq, and one from Britain composed of Muslims, Catholics and Anglicans – but as far as he knew, this was the first time that there had been a joint pilgrimage with equal emphasis on visiting the holy places of both Muslims and Catholics. He also recalled a visit from Fethullah Gülen, and how he regarded our dialogue as “irreversable”. An ayatollah had once commented to him that “Jesus is the dialogue of God with human beings”, and he thought this was a good way for Christians to see our dialogue with Islam.

Heba asked about the involvement of grass roots organizations in the dialogue, to which Khaled responded that at the PCID they had to rely on their colleagues throughout the world. Nevertheless, he said, here in Rome there was a good relationship with the Roman mosque and its imam and other leaders. To this, Max responded that “grass roots” dialogue is specifically what our Commission in Melbourne is about, bringing a real structure to the task of reaching the grass roots. Ikebal acknowledged that the Church has an advantage over Islam in that it has a universal hierarchical structure, but that nevertheless movement toward dialogue it is still happening within Islam.

Stewart asked how local commissions such as ours could work together with the PCID on specific projects. Khaled responded by referring to the document on Interreligious dialogue which the PCID is currently working on, which will have a specifically local and practical focus. This document is taking some time because they want to get it right. He said that Cardinal Arinze had commented “If critics do not arrive before we publish, they will arrive afterwards”, so the drafting committee is working hard to anticipate criticism.

Stewat raised the question of whether we are talking about “relations” or “dialogue”, given that the two commissions for Jewish and Muslim dialogue are respectively called “Commissions for religious relations with Jews/Islam”. Khaled responded by pointing to our pilgrimage: “You are all travelling together, you are taking risks together, you are eating together, you are interceding for your families together.” This is relationship.

Heba was concerned about how social justice found expression through interreligious relations, especially in reference to speaking out on the Gaza crisis without appearing to be anti-Semitic? Markus responded that justice and peace are related to religion but interreligious dialogue deals mainly with religious issues rather than political issues. “We cannot use interreligious dialogue for political purposes”, he said.

Anne Hunt asked the question of the role of a faculty of Theology in a Catholic University. Msgr. Khaled responded that the task was to bring order into the elements which were not yet clear, for instance, in defining precise and appropriate terminology (eg. is the term ‘people of the book’ acceptable or appropriate?). The function of a theological faculty in a university is to study what are and are not acceptable ways of speaking, while avoiding syncretism etc.

Bishop Christopher and Orhan and Ikebal gave closing words of thanks and the meeting concluded with photographs.

On leaving the PCID office, we split into 2 groups – one going back to the monastery and the other going “out on the town”. Anne, John Pearce, Albert, Heba, Osman, Mehmet, Fatih, Mustafa and Ikebal all chose to come with me. We decided to make the Trevi Fountain our goal by the end of the evening, and to catch dinner on the way. So I led them along the route that Fr Paul Chandler had taken Cathy and I on Easter Evening: along the Tiber, crossing the Ponte Sant’Angelo, to the Piazza Orrologia, through to the Piazza Navona. By this stage the group had become even more split up as people stopped to take photographs and listen to the many musical items that were in process in the Piazza. We then regrouped and headed past the Pantheon, stopping at the Rotonda Restaurant just before the Trevi Fountain. The food took almost an hour to come, but was very good – at least in the main. Heba thought her pizza showed signs of having been pre-cooked and warmed up in the oven. We then split up again, and Anne, John, Albert, Osman and I went on to the Fountain. The Trevi Fountain was very crowded (as usual) but beautiful. The night is really the best time to see this attraction. I was surprised and disappointed to see that all the padlocks which had been placed on the fence of the Church of SS Cyril and Methodosius when Cathy and I were here a week ago had been removed. I don’t know what that was all about.

On way back to catch the bus we caught up again with the others at the same restaurant that Cathy and I had eaten at the previous week. This time we all had gelati and coffee before heading back home on the 175 bus. Since it was already about 11pm, and I would have to be up before dawn again in the morning to go shopping for food for breakfast, I reluctantly realised that I would not have time to write up my notes for the blog, and went to bed like any sensible fellow would.

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