This October marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, an event that had a dramatic impact not only on the Catholic Church but on the church’s relationship with other faiths. Someone who understands that very well is Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt.
Born in the United Kingdom 75 years ago, Archbishop Fitzgerald studied in the Netherlands and Tunisia. He went on to study theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in the early 1960’s. He taught at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic studies and has served as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him nuncio to Egypt and delegate to the League of Arab States.
Considered a leading expert on Islam and interreligious dialogue, he offers a few thoughts on Vatican II and the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East.
ONE: You were a student in Rome during Vatican II. What are your memories of that time?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: I have a vivid memory of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. At the time, I was a student priest at the generalate in Rome of our missionary society, the Society of Missionaries of Africa [White Fathers]. There was a feeling of great joy as the council began at last after several years of preparation. One of my confreres, a German, was appointed by a German missionary bishop as his peritus, or advisor, and so was able to attend the sessions. For the rest of us, we had to be content with meeting the bishops and also attending talks by some of the periti, such as Father Yves Congar and Father Karl Rahner. It was nevertheless an exciting time.
ONE: One of the most significant documents the council produced remains “Nostra Aetate,” which addressed the Catholic Church’s relations with non-Christian religions. How would you assess its meaning and impact?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: “Nostra Aetate” has been a very significant document. It has, of course, to be considered in relation to “Dignitatis Humanae,” the declaration which affirms the right to religious liberty, and also to “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the church. This constitution states that the nature of the church is comparable to that of a sacrament, in other words it is a sign and instrument of what God is doing to bring salvation to the whole of humanity. This is the basis for the church to reach out with great respect to the followers of different religions, conscious that the Holy Spirit is already active within their hearts and also within their religious traditions. This conviction leads to the statement that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (NA 2). This does not signify by any means that the church considers all religions to be equal, since it believes that the fullness of revelation has been given in Jesus Christ. Yet the attitude of respect provides the grounds for dialogue and cooperation at the service of all members of the human race. This teaching, repeated and put into practice by the recent popes — Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI — has radically changed relations between Christians, especially Catholics, and the followers of other religions.
ONE: Among other things, this declaration addressed the church’s relationship with Islam. Half a century later, what has changed in that relationship? What has not?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: “Nostra Aetate” has a full paragraph on Islam. Its opening words came perhaps as a surprise to many: “The church has also a high regard for the Muslims.” It notes their strong belief in one God, their veneration for Jesus — although stating clearly that they do not acknowledge Jesus as God — the honor they give to Mary, the valuable practices of prayer, alms-giving and fasting. The declaration does not overlook the fact that “over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims,” but makes a plea for the past to be forgotten and efforts to be made toward mutual understanding. If one looks back over the intervening years, it can be noticed that strong links have been established between Christian and Muslim groups. There are regular meetings both at the international and local levels.
The United States has benefited from three regional meetings which have each tackled different topics: the Word of God; marriage and the family; submission/obedience to God. Through these meetings, friendship has grown, and this has allowed for joint statements to be made when there has been need. The relationship between the followers of these two religions is always threatened by events, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which arouse distrust. There needs always to be a readiness to begin again, to allay suspicions and to show concretely that relations between Christians and Muslims can be fruitful.
ONE: Your corner of the world is undergoing historic change. How do you think the Arab Spring and regime change in Egypt will impact Christian-Muslim relations in that country?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: At the beginning, the revolution of 25 January created a strong national feeling, where Christians and Muslims stood together as Egyptians. With the passing of time, and the growing influence of Islamists, whether of the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi, the Christians have become more and more concerned about their future. One fruit of the revolution still remains — a greater freedom of speech. This gives those who want to see a civil society in Egypt, both Christians and Muslims, the opportunity to speak out. The future is still uncertain, and much remains to be done.
ONE: What are some of the challenges facing Christians in Egypt today?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: It would seem necessary to encourage Christians not to stand on the sidelines, nor to flee the country, but to become more and more engaged in society. There does need to be a strong alliance of those who are struggling for a civil society. What is interesting is that al-Azhar, the most important Islamic authority in the country, has produced a document that backs this idea. It is still to be hoped that the new Constitution will treat all Egyptians as equal citizens.
The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, which was held in October 2010, came at the right time. Its resolutions, voted on by the members of the synod, which the Holy Father will present [in September of 2012], are very appropriate, encouraging as they do both unity among all Christians and witness in society. It is to be hoped that all Christian communities in the Middle East will give careful consideration to these indications and will put them into practice. Their survival will depend on this.
Greg Kandra is CNEWA’s multimedia editor and serves as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.