On Sunday 3 February Pope Francis made history, when he began a three-day visit to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and became the first pope to visit the overwhelmingly Muslim Arabian Peninsula. The visit coincided with an interfaith meeting of religious leaders and theologians which was taking place.
The pope was greeted by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed al Nahyan. The U.A.E. are home to a large number of Christians from south Asia who are working there. For several years the government has had a Ministry of Tolerance; Christians for the most part are able to worship freely, although not publicly. The U.A.E. is one of the more tolerant and open countries in the region.
While words like “unprecedented” are often used in the context of what Pope Francis does — and while such words tend to get overused and with inflation comes devaluation — one result of the visit, nevertheless, stands out in a special way. Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad al Tayyeb, the head of Al Azhar University, arguably the premier Sunni Muslim university in the world, produced a common document entitled Human Fraternity. It is a landmark document in many ways. While popes and Muslim leaders have made similar calls for peace and justice, this is unique in that it is a joint call, signed by the two men.
People familiar with reading statements of religious leaders recognize a certain “style” of writing peculiar to different traditions. Human Fraternity, however, is unique in that it evidences not only a “Catholic” style of writing but also a “Muslim” style of writing. It was and is intended to be both a Muslim and Catholic statement.
And this is especially significant: there is something new happening in the ecumenical and interreligious movements that can be seen at work in Human Fraternity. The Ecumenical and interreligious movements have been part of the central mission of the Catholic Church since Vatican II (1962-1965). In the decades following the council, there was tremendous progress made in the official dialogues between the Catholic Church and other churches and religions. Several “convergence” documents have been agreed upon, and in 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church published A Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. (old/broken link: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html) The Doctrine of Justification was the primary theological point of difference between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Reformers in the 16th century.
Yet for all the tremendous progress made on the theological level, by the 1990’s one began to hear of an “ecumenical winter” — or at the very least, ecumenical doldrums. It seemed to many that the incredible progress made through dialogue had not been translated into a change of attitudes. To many, it seemed that something was missing; on so many levels, it appeared that little had really changed.
But Pope Francis, merely by his presence and his approach, appears to be causing a noticeable shift.
One of the outstanding things about Francis’ various encounters is that there is — though it may be overlooked — a genuine sense of friendship and affection between the pope and his dialogue partners. This is most evident in the relationship between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It is very obvious that they like and trust each other; they are friends. This has led to extraordinary cooperation between the two leaders and their churches in areas of ecology, human rights, refugees and immigration. Both are very smart men. They realize that friendship and trust alone will not overcome the divisions between the churches.
They also realize, however, that all the convergence statements and joint declarations remain merely pieces of paper if trust and affection are lacking between the churches and their leaders.
This brings us to this week’s historic meeting. One can see a similar phenomenon between Pope Francis and Sheikh al Tayyeb. Al Azhar University broke off relations with the Holy See in 2011 after Pope Benedict XVI’s statement on the situation of Coptic Christians. Relations between the Holy See and Al Azhar were resumed under Pope Francis. The pope and the sheikh have met several times and it is clear that a warm and cordial relationship has developed between them.
Neither man, of course, is naïve about issues dividing Catholics and Muslims. However, both have achieved a level of trust that allows them to cooperate on a document which is at once truly Catholic — and truly Muslim.
Much of CNEWA’s work, of course, involves work among Muslims, especially in the Middle East. Witnessing this historic moment, with its spirit of cooperation and collaboration, is both an inspiration and a beacon of hope.
And it should serve as a sign to us all. Pope Francis has shown that theological ecumenism is not dead, but that it needs the human components of trust and friendship to transform theological papers into living documents that can change lives and help make our world a better, safer place.