Father Maher presented the keynote address during an interreligious conference held in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 9, 2014.
Good afternoon. Let me first thank our gracious hosts, Fatih University and Nazareth College. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to address this very impressive body of scholars and educators. Your commitment to interfaith dialogue, poverty alleviation, scholarship and service hold great hope for the future of our world. I hope my simple address will strengthen you in your belief in the Divine essence of your work.
In his book, The Holy Longing, priest, educator and scholar, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, notes that on the journey of life, there are two signs of soulfulness.
First, a soulful life is marked by a life committed to creating unity and oneness. Second, the penultimate human task is to dedicate our lives to a cause and purpose that lies beyond our individual lives (Rohlheiser, pp. 14).
When we, as members of the human family, witness men and women who embody these attributes, we come to envisage what it means to live a life in God’s spirit. Recently, I believe we encountered such an experience of Rohlheiser’s notion of soulfulness.
In his visit to the Holy Land, the sacred home for Jews, Muslims and Christians, Pope Francis did a marvelous thing. He invited two friends two join him, Rabbi Abraham Stork and Sheik Omar Abbudd, both widely respected leaders within faith communities and beyond. Pope Francis invited them to pray with him in Jerusalem.
While I would not presume to speak for Pope Francis, I believe his actions are intending to send us a message. The critical and vexing issues which challenge the human family – poverty among the most challenging of them all – will only be solved by leaders who bring others together to pray, study, serve and work. His actions stand as a challenge to all of us, with footing grounded in our own blessed traditions, we are challenged to leave our “comfort zones” and form relationships with other blessed religious traditions to serve people who live in poverty and the margins of life. It is my fundamental belief that that very approach is evidenced in God’s inspiration, which is the living and beating heart of all sacred texts that deal with poverty and God’s poor.
It is my belief that all of us, as educators and scholars, must challenge ourselves with the following question: What is our spirituality?
Again, I think Fr. Rolheiser offers great insight into a spirituality which empowers us as Jews, Christians and Muslims. For Rohlheiser, authentic spirituality must deal with issues which lay at the heart of our lives, if you will pardon the North American phrase, those that are the bread and butter issues of life (pp. 6).
In addition, authentic spirituality channels human desire toward a life-giving energy and force for elevating the human family. I submit to you, scholarship, service and teaching in an interfaith context holds great possibility to deal with one of the most critical issues of human life, our brothers and sisters in the cage of poverty. In addition, our spirituality must lead us to see poverty as a death-dealing dynamic, challenging us to bring life and dignity to the dark ignominious life of those trapped in poverty.
We see the light within our own traditions. Within Islam, the Koran envisions “the world as God’s unveiling of himself,” seeing the world flush with God’s signs, messages and presence (Armstrong, pp. 172). In Judaism, we know the Great Prayer of Israel, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” Within Christianity, the first Christians lived Koininia, each living in conscious need of one another, in a dynamic community, lives bound together as members of the Body of Christ.
In Mr. Fethullah Gulen, we observe the life of an ascetic, while at the same time reaching out with love to the needy. Gulen admires those who choose to live a simple and humble life while they share the wealth they have access to. Beyond the realm of the physical comfort, it is this sincere care and sacrifice that we must all take to alleviate poverty.
Ignorance, intolerance and lack of unity create a roadblock to peace. Gulen’s ideas and living example promotes a universal message, based on the common ground of humanity. Through critical dialogues, Gulen spreads acceptance and understanding. Education serves not only in eradicating ignorance and prejudices, but also provides opportunities to bring people out of poverty. Dialogue and education serve to understand our commonalities and as much important to value our differences.
Coming together from different corners of the world, with shared experiences, mutual interests, the struggles within our own communities and the challenges of the modern society, we commit ourselves to propagate a message of common responsibility. Beyond pronouncing peace, we must exercise care to the needs of our communities and devote our commitment to maintaining social justice. Just like Rohlheiser, Mr. Gulen promotes living for others and dedicating our life to the wellbeing of others. We are brothers and sisters in unique communities. We take up the challenges altogether. When one community suffers, we all suffer and support each other.
I would like to share a simple story of a religious leader, the founder of my own religious community and inspiration for Niagara University, St. Vincent de Paul. St. Vincent was a 17th century Roman Catholic priest in Paris, France. By all accounts, for the first decade and a half of his priesthood, he was a good priest. It must also be said, he was a priest who found his identity and treasure in securing benefices, in connecting himself with the most powerful in the Church, in government, high society and nobility.
Something happened along the way, while hearing confession of a gravely ill peasant, he encountered the poor and vulnerable Christ, removing the curtain of his superficiality. From that point, he pivoted on the path of conversion, redirecting the life energy that previously went into self-promotion and status. His lasting treasure was found in serving the poor, inspiring rich, poor, women, men, nobility and government officials, priests and nuns, to come together as one to serve the poor.
It was a divine spark in that encounter with a gravely ill peasant that changed the fundamental direction of Vincent’s life. I believe as we grapple with the complexity of poverty in an interfaith context, dealing with questions of spirituality, social and economic justice, we must be in personal relationship with the poor, seeking that divine spark.
At the time of his death in 1660, St. Vincent’s body was carried through Paris in a beautiful procession. As you would expect, nobility, government officials and people of financial means came out in droves. Another group came out and lined the streets in numbers beyond compare: the poor of Paris, just to catch a glimpse of the man they considered their patron and advocate. There can be no greater acknowledgement of our lives than having God’s poor regard us as a dear friend.
In closing, the purpose that we are here today is to herald in a new vision for peace through interfaith dialogue. I thank Nazareth College and Fatih University for putting this grand vision into action by initiating this dialogue in the last few years, through its scholars, researchers and religious leaders to speak with one voice, to embrace each other as one community of the One God.
We must stand united together to build a future of peace, where we shoulder the responsibility for the wellbeing of each other. It is through this act of love and care that we can find true peace and justice among our communities.
May God bless us in our endeavors in search of peace and may He bestow upon us His wisdom so that we may have the strength to dedicate our lives to mirror God’s love on to others. With this, may we humbly submit ourselves as His instrument of peace.