The pandemic has proved to be a difficult experience for everyone. The lockdown, whose purpose was to save life, inevitably also limited our experience of life. As people of Faith we too felt this keenly. For long stretches praying communally was impossible and when public worship resumed distance, brevity, no singing and masks were the rule. And yet we were delighted to be back!
Naturally, we wonder what the effects of the pandemic will be on Faith and religious observance. Yes, we hope that family prayer and personal reflection will have been rediscovered but what effect will ‘loosing the good habit’ of attending Mass hold for many people? Time will tell. However, the Lord is still with us and he remains our source of hope.
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic Pope Francis encouraged us by insisting that every crisis also offers opportunities. I have found myself wondering what opportunities have unfolded for Inter Faith Dialogue. I became the Bishop President of the Inter Religious Dialogue Committee not long before the virus struck. I only managed to attend a few events before lockdown began. Certainly online Meetings followed but these, although beneficial, were somewhat awkward as I am not technology minded but, more importantly, had never met the other Faith leaders in person. A certain frustration endured. What opportunities could possibly rise from this crisis?
During May 2020 Pope Francis had called for people of all Faiths to pray and fast for the end of the pandemic. Our Committee got together with Ahl-alBayt Scotland for a short time of prayer on Zoom. The invitation for prayer during this global crisis was certainly well received and the attendance was much higher than typical in-person Inter Faith gatherings. It was an uplifting experience but I presumed that would be the end of it.
Our Muslim friends would celebrate Eid ten days later. By then they had been fasting for thirty days. As we know, Muslims break their Ramadan fast each night at sunset in family groups and within friendship circles. Communal prayers may also be offered. The concept of being with others is integral.
Meanwhile, the Festival of Eid which closes Ramadan also involves great family and communal celebrating. Festive meals are enjoyed together. However, none of these communal celebrations could take place during lockdown. The isolation of lockdown would be felt very deeply by everyone. Even those living in families would still miss their wider family and friends.
What happened next was very beautiful. Many within Ahl-alBayt had felt genuine bonds of warmth and friendship with us as we turned to God for an end to the pandemic. Painfully aware of the isolation they were feeling at this special time of the year they asked if we would join them online! That they would ask us to share in their special day was a great privilege. Once again a healthy number of Catholics and Muslims joined together. Although I had not met of the participants it was still good to support others at that challenging time.
There followed very pointed criticism levelled at our committee for participating in the occasion. To be honest, even at the time, I did think that we rushed a little into the event and more thought and planning would have been beneficial beforehand. Nevertheless, the criticism, although more emotive than based on fact, did make us stop and think. Our committee consists of good, solid and enthusiastic people. We did not want to be doing anything wrong and causing anxiety for our fellow Catholics. We studied relevant parts of Vatican II, more recent Papal and Church documents as well as the example of the Popes. We shared the text with a previous President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. We concluded that we had not done anything wrong but that more preparation should be used in the future. The Committee further discussed our findings and drew up a protocol so that we could participate in future events with confidence. The criticism pushed us to learn for the future and that was a good outcome.
What was more interesting that during Advent the Ahl-alBayt Society wanted to reciprocate our kindness. They knew that Christmas is a special festival for Christians which we celebrate in families and with friends. The restrictions, although lighter than in May, still prevented our usual gatherings. Our Muslim friends wanted to reach out to us. This time we invited two scholars – one Catholic and one Muslim - to share our respective understanding of the person of Jesus. Friendship, a genuine care for those of another Faith and sharing of beliefs. Surely this was true Inter Religious dialogue. After discussion we finished with a prayer composed by Pope Francis to be used by those who believe in One God.
Covid-19 has been so detrimental to human contact in so many ways. In Scotland it has opened new paths in Catholic- Ahl-alBayt dialogue. I wonder where it might lead next?
Bishop Brian McGee
Bishop of Argyll and the Isles