My interest in interfaith dialogue goes back to my childhood in Northern Ireland during what have become known as ‘The Troubles’ (1969-1994) – a time of political and religious conflict between the nationalist (Catholic) and unionist (Protestant) populations, and their respective paramilitary groups.
Unusual in Belfast, our neighbourhood was quite mixed, meaning I had friends from across the Christian divide. As a 5 year old, I felt sadness and confusion each day because my best friend Richard, a Protestant boy, after we walked together most of the way, each separated from me at the gates of our different schools.
Right on our street, we had the only synagogue in Northern Ireland, and every Saturday I was agog watching Jews walking to their service–men in front with long black coats, ladies behind. I was also aware of the long-standing Pakistani and Chinese communities in Belfast but generally we grew up in our religious ghettoes, knowing very little about others, except the prejudices faithfully passed down from many of our older peers and the media.
Basically my first foray into inter-religious dialogue happened when I went to Fiji in 1990 on my First Mission Assignment (FMA) as a Columban seminarian. I was sent to live with a Catholic Indian family, most of whose neighbours were either Hindu or Moslem. To be honest, my first reaction to Hindu temples, and to the altars present in most Hindu homes, was one of disgust. This was triggered largely by the contorted and usually naked gods and goddesses many of whom looked like ‘devils’ and who were often accompanied by monkeys, snakes and skeletons! I found all this very hard to square with my very friendly and hospitable Hindu neighbours who kept inviting me to their homes and offering me food.
While adapting to my missionary identity as a ‘brother’, I became aware that there was a controversy raging in the rural Indian Catholic communities about how much local adaptation should be allowed in the liturgy. Many Catholics were ambivalent about adopting Indian gestures such as applying the redsindhur spot to the priest’s forehead, waving a tray with diya lamps in front of the altar in salutation, or the priest wearing saffron vestments (the traditional colour for holy Hindu men). I found it confusing that some Catholics could be so vehemently against such gestures during Mass while socially being such good friends with Hindus.
My way into Hindu-Christian dialogue was largely through music. I had grown to love the hymns which had been crafted in India in tune with the traditional raagas (rhythm and tones) of Hinduism. They were very pleasing to the Indian ear, unlike the hymns used by other Christian churches in Fiji which were basically European melodies with Hindi words. Each Tuesday, I would visit the temple to listen to the chanting of the Ramayana, one of the great epics of Hinduism. While the chanting was in Sanskrit (and therefore largely unintelligible to most of us), the Hindu priest would explain it, verse by verse, in less formal Hindi. After about an hour, the Ramayan book was carefully wrapped up and the mandali(music group) would go into ‘free flow’ devotional singing which I found very uplifting and prayerful.
The best part for me, though, came at the end of the ceremony with the distribution of sweets and the mixing of traditional Fijian ‘grog’ (traditional herbal drink). While enjoying these snacks, the men would sit around with their musical instruments, and chat, laugh and continue to sing religious songs. I would take my turn, on invitation, and play the bajaa (small wind-powered harmonium) and blast out the Catholic bhajans (devotional songs) that seemed to match the lively style of the temple singing.
The men usually complimented me on the fact that I, a foreigner, knew their language and songs. But what really intrigued them was how ‘Indian’ the Catholic hymns sounded. Many of them had attended mission schools and had to learn Christian hymns which, as noted, were very European-sounding. So enthusiastic were they that I would be asked to the sing the same bhajan or kiirtan three or four times. They would sometimes write down the words so that they could add it to their repertoire. Occasionally they would ask me: ‘Where is the rest of your congregation? Do they not want to come too?’ My answer would be: “Hopefully next week” but neither my Indian Catholic friends nor my Fijian friends (many more of whom were Christians) showed any interest in visiting temples for prayer or music-making. They would ask me: “Are we allowed to go to pagan places?”
After ordination, I continued living in a rural Indian village, interacting interreligiously and continuing to attend the Ramayan recitals on Tuesday evenings. Because I was now a priest, I was often asked to give a short speech on the occasion of a Hindu wedding or funeral. I was now also expected to use formal Hindi, appropriate for a priest, so I had a number of these speeches up my sleeve. It was not so much what I said as the fact that I would agree to speak, and in Hindi, that lent prestige to the occasion. In a way I was being used by the host to enhance his izzat (‘self-respect in the community’) but these occasions were great dialogue opportunities and it would have been disrespectful and unevangelical to ignore them.
Hindus would frequently tell me how much they loved Jesus (along with Ram, Krishna, Vishnu, Shakti and even Mohammed and Princess Diana!), all of whose photos would often be displayed together in the temple or at the home altar. Many of my Hindu friends would rattle off Christian prayers they had learned at school. Some Hindus would claim that Christ and Krishna are really the same person, two incarnations of the one Supreme Atman. Fijian Hindus would also want to know the times of the Christmas or Easter ceremonies because they would like to go to church to touch the crucifix or crib.
To explain the connection between different religions, Fijian Hindus like to use metaphors such as many rivers coming from one source, or many rivers flowing into one sea, or many trees growing on one mountain. In these conversations I must be very subtle and careful in explaining Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
In Fiji, I meet fewer Muslims than Hindus. On a few occasions, especially on Mohammed’s Birthday (a public holiday in Fiji) and on the Feast of Eid ul-Fitr (at the end of the Ramadan fast), I go to the local mosque with a copy of the Vatican’s message of good will for that year. Mostly, I have been very well received and invited to eat and drink by the maulvi. However, whenever there was political tension in the Middle East or other part of the Islamic world, the local mosque community seemed confused about receiving these greetings.
Twice, when I was in charge of church building projects, I employed Muslim carpenters. On both occasions they waived the final payment when they realized I did not have enough money. Furthermore, they did not accept payment later, saying that they were building “God’s house” and that was privilege enough!
In spite of the many uplifting experiences I have had in interreligious dialogue, I still struggle with how to cope with the all-embracing tendency of folk Hinduism to swamp and absorb other religions. Yet, this pushes me to formulate more clearly the Catholic teaching about the uniqueness of Christ. Another learning curve for me is what to do when I am subject to sharp hostility from a member of another religion, particularly an official or cleric of that religion.
Now that I am assigned to Hong Kong and am involved in prison ministry, I find that my Fijian Hindi language comes in useful as I can make myself understood with the many Muslim Pakistani prisoners and Hindu Indian prisoners in Hong Kong jails. Almost all of them ask me for a blessing or a prayer.
All in all, interreligious dialogue has been a rewarding journey for me, and one which I am excited to continue!