April 25, 2008

Christ our Hope: Apostolic Journey to the United States 2008

Ecumenical, interfaith leaders with archdiocesan ties meet pope

By Sean Gallagher

Pope Benedict XVI made his apostolic journey to the United States in large part to strengthen the faith of Catholics in this country and to address the United Nations.

He also met with representatives of several world religions in an interfaith event on April 17 in Washington, and leaders of many Christian traditions in an ecumenical event on April 18 in New York.

Two people with ties to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis were participants in these gatherings.

Sayyid Syeed, the national director of the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, was one of only a handful of religious leaders to personally greet and briefly speak with the pope during the interfaith meeting in Washington.

“I told him that we are really celebrating today, in his presence, the achievements that we have in America in interfaith [dialogue],” Syeed said. “[It] has actually become a way of life here in this pluralist country.”

Syeed said he also told Pope Benedict that “we are particularly proud of the relationships that we have developed with the Catholic Church and the cooperation and dialogue that we have developed over the years.”

And in a sign of the importance that he places on Muslim-Catholic relations, Syeed also told the pope that “we need to be very careful, very cautious in keeping that legacy and in building on it. Sometimes certain expressions or gestures, misunderstood or misstated, could jeopardize that precious legacy that we have created.”

More than 10 years ago, Syeed helped created an annual dialogue between the leaders of the Islamic Society of North America and the U.S. bishops. This series of meetings, which started in Indianapolis, has expanded to yearly meetings on the west and east coasts and in the Midwest.

Syeed said he went away from the meeting with Pope Benedict knowing what interfaith dialogue means for him.

“He articulated the importance of interfaith dialogue for him in very clear and succinct language,” Syeed said. “This [meeting] was a symbolic affirmation of the fact that we are friends, that we have a common destiny, that even [the pope] fully understands the importance of this.”

At the end of his address at the interfaith meeting, Pope Benedict exhorted his listeners to persevere in their important task of dialogue.

“Dear friends, let our sincere dialogue and cooperation inspire all people to ponder the deeper questions of their origin and destiny,” the pope said. “May the followers of all religions stand together in defending and promoting life and religious freedom everywhere.

“By giving ourselves generously to this sacred task—through dialogue and countless small acts of love, understanding and compassion—we can be instruments of peace for the whole human family.”

As its general minister, Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins is leader of the Indianapolis-based Disciples of Christ, a Christian tradition that has a formal ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein is the Church’s main representative in that dialogue.

Watkins participated in the ecumenical prayer service on April 18 at St. Joseph Church in New York.

Like Syeed, Watkins came away from her experience with the conviction that Pope Benedict values ecumenical relationships.

“I think that the event itself was a witness to the value that Pope Benedict XVI places on Christian unity,” said Watkins. “The service was an experience of ecumenical hospitality—very much designed to help us all be at ease together.”

She also saw the pope’s power to gather leaders of so many Christian communities.

“I was impressed by the range of Christian traditions represented at the service,” Watkins said. “No Christian leader in the world other than the pope would be able to gather such a diverse group of leaders.

“Pat Robertson and James Forbes were there; Orthodox and Pentecostal and mainline Protestants and evangelicals. To come together in prayer, led by the Holy Father, was powerful.”

During the service, Pope Benedict spoke about the importance of a clear Christian witness in a culture where the value of the Gospel is placed in doubt.

“The very possibility of divine revelation, and therefore of Christian faith, is often placed into question by cultural trends widely present in academia, the mass media and public debate,” the pope said. “For these reasons, a faithful witness to the Gospel is as urgent as ever. Christians are challenged to give a clear account of the hope that they hold.”

Watkins thinks that ecumenical relationships can be important in communicating this witness.

“I think that as Christians, when we find those places that we can stand together we have found a plce of great witness,” she said. “If we can work togehter in the name and Spirit of Christ, we can have a powerful effect on the ordering of society.” †

(Click here to read the pope’s addresses at the interfaith and ecumenical meetings)

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