While recently visiting Rome, I had the opportunity to meet many fascinating people, including Marie, a bright young woman from Alaska. Our conversation turned to her studies at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies. With the state of our world often in flux, I was fascinated by Marie’s insights and requested her permission to conduct a follow up interview by email on a topic that is not only interesting, but truly imperative given today’s world developments. I thank Marie for her willingness to share on these matters and for her commitment to serving our Church in this important area.
Q: Marie, it was so terrific to meet you during my recent trip to Rome. Would you please introduce yourself to our readers and let them know a bit more about your background?
Well, I grew up back East in a large family before I moved to AK after graduating college. After teaching high school in AK for six years I felt God calling me to study about Islam and Interreligious Dialogue.
Q: I know that you are currently a student at the Pontifical Council for Islamic Relations in Rome. What is your educational background prior to this and what prompted you to pursue this particular area of advance studies?
After three years of study I finish my license from the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies this year. A license is essentially halfway between a Master’s and a Doctorate. If you were to continue for a doctorate in the same field after completing a license you would generally only need to your dissertation. My undergraduate degree is a B.A. in Classical Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College. Afterwards I completed a M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry.
I became interested in this field of advance studies while trying to make sense of the current world situation as well as from a comparative religious perspective.
Q: With the tremendous population of people around the globe who practice Islam, many Catholics are uniformed about the common roots of our faith and Islam. Could you say a few words about the commonalities of the two faiths?
Well we both look to Abraham as our Father in faith and acknowledge one true God who chose to reveal himself to us. He sends us messengers to call us to the righteous path to follow that allows us to fully live our human condition and to remind us that how we live our lives here on earth will determine how we live in eternity. The beliefs diverge on God’s nature and what exactly is the righteous path that we are called to followed, besides the more obvious ones of how we view Christ.
Q: Too many people equate Islam with fear and destruction. How can we, as people of faith, learn to build bridges of faith and create dialogue with Muslims?
One of the first things to remember is that Muslims are fellow humans created in God’s image and likeness and loved by him. We often tend to demonize and dehumanize those we disagree with. But they deserve the same respect that anyone does. We might not agree on many things but we can treat them as the Church teaches that all should be treated because of their inherent dignity. We also need to remember that generally speaking they are also very sincere in the faith. Nobody generally adheres to something that they don’t actually believe to be true.
The easiest way to get there is to get to know them thru dialogue. We need to have a clear idea of what we mean by dialogue and what its goal is. If we are referring to the dialogue of life, where we live side by side sharing our struggles and hope for our families, success at school, how to help out children, etc. than this is good and needed. If we are looking to arrive at on agreements on the underlying reasoning for theology it probably won’t happen. Just as many Catholics don’t actually know any Muslims and so we indulge in many preconceived notions and stereotypes, many Muslims also don’t know Catholics. Getting to know them and including them in our community can go a long way to building bridges. Carpool together. Drop of a dinner if she has just given birth or moved the area. Offer to exchange babysitting.
There is so much diversity in Islam. Speaking of “Islam” is like speaking of “Christians”. There are many divisions amongst us, while certain basic tenants go across the board. While there is violence in Islam there are also plenty of Muslims whose devoutness, charity, generosity and hospitality we can learn from.
Q: At this point in your studies, what have been some of your greatest learning experiences and some of the things that have most surprised you?
One of the things that I noticed is that while it seems at time that they have different ideas about things, such as the nature of man. Delving more deeply into the matter I have found that the Arab Christians also use the same terms about human nature. It really is more of difference in perspective than actual truth or falsehood. Culture and language greatly affect how one understands many concepts. It is difficult at times to remember that some things that are seen as right by us are just an enculturation of a particular truth that can just as validly be presented in another way.
Q: What are some of the Church’s teachings on this particular inter-religious dialogue?
Nostra Aetate and Dominus Iesus are two of the main documents that deal with Dialogue and its place in the Church. The Church recognizes that we worship the same God and that we both acknowledge that we will be judged on the last day.
Q: How can the average Catholic family learn more about the teachings of Islam and why should we make an effort to understand the faith and inform our children about the basic tenets?
Reading about the teachings of Islam and where they are similar and how they differ from Christianity. Islam will not be disappearing any time soon. It is important they we know what they actually believe and the nuances in their faith and the different views possible on the various subjects. We should also be including in such studies an understanding of how Christianity responds to Islam’s claims. One should always have studies and attempted to understand their own faith first before studying another. This will give you a frame of reference in studying the other. It also enables one to be able to respond to the criticisms that are proffered without blindly accepting them to be true.
Q: Are there any additional thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?
Two things: the importance of each person’s role in evangelization and the importance of knowing your own faith. I cannot stress enough the importance of studying and knowing your own faith before attempting to engage another one. It is too easy to think that because you go to Church on Sunday you know what Catholicism teaches and why the Church teaches what she does. But this cannot be further from the truth. Too often we cannot even clearly articulate what we are doing at Mass much less the reasons for it. As I was saying earlier our own faith should be our first study, then while studying other faiths we can study them in relation to our own faith. For instance, if we know what the Church teaches about fasting, the reasons why we do it as well as the timing of it. Then, when we study the Pillars of Islam, amongst which one is fasting, we can then recognize that while we both hold fasting to be important, we both fast in different ways and for different reasons.
The other point is about evangelization. By our baptism each one of us is called to be missionaries. One does not need to go to foreign lands in order to fulfill this command of Christ. Rather we are called to do it each moment in our daily life. We evangelize by the example of our lives. Could someone who sees how we interact with family, friends and neighbors see the love of God in our actions? Our lives our meant to radiate the love of God to those around us. We are also called, in the words of Peter to, “be ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you.” (1 Pt 3:15)