By: Kenneth Marrs
Last week, Georgetown University was declared the winner of the White House’s Interfaith Community Service Award. The university was recognized for “fostering meaningful relationships among its community members of differing faiths and backgrounds.” I think many of us Hoyas can take the opportunity we have to engage in interreligious dialogue for granted—not every university, after all, is fortunate enough to have a Center for Social Justice or a Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
Georgetown created and continues to invest effort into these organizations and initiatives because as a Catholic institution it takes its interreligious responsibilities seriously. One of the greatest current examples of a Catholic fulfilling this responsibility has been Pope Francis. As he was visiting Kenya in 2015, he spoke about the Muslim-Christian relationship, saying: “This relationship is challenging, it makes demands of us.” The Pope added: “It is not something extra or optional, but essential—something which our world, wounded by conflict and division increasingly needs.”
This statement gets to the heart of why interreligious conversations can be so challenging, but also why they are necessary and can be so powerful.
Some of the earliest memories that I have of my childhood are being at mass with my parents. I clearly remember my First Communion, First Reconciliation, and Confirmation. When I step into a Catholic Church it feels familiar, and that is helpful after a long and chaotic week.
That familiarity also has a downside, though. It can be hard to motivate oneself to embrace and learn the unfamiliar. After learning all the rules and traditions of a single faith, it can be hard to voluntarily go where everything is new and has to be explained. It is definitely demanding, but the effort it requires is what gives interfaith dialogue such power. If people are willing to get out of their comfort zone, then they can be, according to Pope Francis, “peacemakers who invite others to live in peace, harmony and mutual respect.”
The announcement of the Presidential Interfaith award occurred during the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus Interfaith Weeks event series. As part of the events that were organized, I was fortunate enough to attend many of the religious services offered at Georgetown from the Jewish Shabbat to Orthodox Vespers, and Protestant services. Walking into each new service, I had the same nervous feeling. Walking out, though, I had the same absolute amazement at once again how kind and welcoming my fellow Georgetown students were, as well as how much I had learned by attending just a single religious service in a tradition that was not my own.
Other Knights came to some services with me, and sought out others that they could fit into their schedules to broaden their experience. Another highlight of the week was the interreligious discussion where representatives from the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths met together over a pizza dinner and chatted about the similarities and differences amongst their faiths with moments of serious reflection accompanied by more light-hearted talk.
Interfaith Weeks, was, then, in my view, a success and a true showing that Georgetown offers an incredibly welcoming and supportive interfaith environment to its students. However, the fact that this environment exists does not mean much if no one takes advantage of it. For Catholics, interfaith dialogue is not just something we are called to participate in during our college years. Rather, it is a lifelong mission, and it only gets more difficult the longer a person waits to take part in it.
My advice to you reading this is to seek to expand your mental horizons by bringing your faith into the context of others. The exchange is enlightening in teaching you to better understand your peers from other traditions. It is also enriching as your own faith is, in a sense, presented before you and defined in differences that strengthen your own belief. Doing so can be somewhat of a shock—a bit like jumping into bracing water—but the result is refreshing and offers renewal to the spirit.
So, it’s up to you to start interfaith conversations with friends you see every day in class. Ask questions and learn from the chaplains who are committed to helping and supporting every student on the Hilltop.
The world today is divided in so many ways that working for interreligious understanding sometimes seems impossible; but I think a quote from Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, can help us all take that challenging first step.
“Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”