Chasing the darkness
Lighting a candle is something shared and enjoyed across the world’s cultures. The candles on a birthday cake create an atmosphere which remains even when the candles are blown out. When we light a candle in Church, its flame continues to flicker after we have gone, bearing witness to a relationship between God and ourselves. The Easter Vigil with its Paschal candle proclaims the triumph of light over darkness, and we share in that proclamation as our small candles are kindled and held up.
Other faiths also express God’s triumph over darkness through the symbol of light. Probably most familiar to us will be the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, whose symbol is the familiar seven branched candlestick called the menorah. This feast is celebrated in late November or early December. However I received a copy of a letter this week which was being sent from Archbishop Emeritus Mario Conti to the Hindus of Scotland for the feast of Diwali, another great festival of light. Before I came back to Scotland a few years ago, I spent a number of years in Southall, a part of West London near Heathrow, which is well-known for its multi-religious and multi-ethnic population. Our own Neerday celebrations usually involve about fifteen minutes of light putting darkness to flight, but on the feast of Diwali in Southall, darkness is chased by light for virtually the whole night!
Between Diwali and Hanukkah, we find ourselves in Scottish Interfaith Week 24th November-1st December. We will all be receiving a letter from Archbishop Conti and encouraged to take the opportunity to follow the example set by our Holy Father Pope Francis to reach out to our neighbours and to recognise all people of faith as our brothers and sisters. We will be asked to pray that people of faith might work together for peace in our world and in our country.
You might wonder why Archbishop Conti is writing so many letters on this subject. The first answer is that he is the Chair of the Scottish Bishops Committee for Interfaith Dialogue (www.interreligiousdialogue.weebly.com). The second answer is that he is writing a covering letter to accompany the letters of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. After the Second Vatican Council’s document Nostra Aetate (In our time), Pope Paul VI delegated this council to write on his behalf the greetings to people of other faiths on the occasion of their major feasts.
It is probably no surprise that Pope Francis has taken a bit of a lead in this area himself. He decided he would write the letter to Muslims on the occasion of ‘Id al-Fitr (the end of the fast of Ramadan). In this letter he referred to what he had already said in March to the Vatican diplomatic corps: “It is not possible to establish true links with God, while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam. At the Mass marking the beginning of my ministry, I greatly appreciated the presence of so many civil and religious leaders from the Islamic world.” Then addressing directly his Muslim audience “With these words, I wished to emphasize once more the great importance of dialogue and cooperation among believers, in particular Christians and Muslims, and the need for it to be enhanced.”
It is fairly well known that Pope Francis has a good friend who is a Rabbi. They are good enough friends to have written a book together. In fact the only book written by the Pope was when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires with Rabbi Abraham Skorka. The Pope didn’t write him a letter to celebrate to celebrate the great autumn Jewish feasts but invited him to come to Rome.
Rabbi Skorka has described the experience of visiting Francis:
“I eat with him at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. He cares for me, and controls everything regarding my food to make sure it is all kosher, and according to my religious tradition. These are festive days, and I have to say certain prayers at meals and, I expand the last prayer and translate it. He accompanies me together with the others at table -his secretaries and a bishop, and they all say ‘Amen’ at the end”.
"We are dreaming of travelling together to Israel soon, and the Pope is working on this subject”, the Rabbi said. “I dream of embracing him at the Kotel, or Wailing Wall, and I will accompany him to Bethlehem, in the Palestinian territories. His presence can help a lot at this moment when the peace talks are starting again”.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities have invited Pope Francis, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew , wants the Pope to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting of his predecessor, Athenagoras, with Paul VI in Jerusalem. The Vatican has now announced that this visit will take place in March 2014.
Conversations in Faith are something we are being encouraged to pursue. We know that sometimes it is difficult to start up a conversation with people we don’t know. As it happens the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow (www.iscglasgow.co.uk) is currently offering a series with this title where Sister Isabel Smyth SND has a series of six conversations with people of different faiths. Conversations like this help chase the darkness.
Jim Crampsey SJ