Catholic World News News Feature
Evangelization in an Age of Conflict October 01, 2004
Back in May, a group of about 60 Hindu pilgrims descended on the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. Welcomed by the rector of the shrine, and with explicit permission from the Bishop of Leiria-Fatima, they held their own service there. Thanks to a Portuguese television report, we have a videotape record of a Hindu priest praying at the altar, in the chapel built on the site of the Virgin Mary's apparitions.
The performance of Hindu rites at a famous Catholic shrine shocked many Catholics. In November 2003, the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue had assured a British newspaper: "There is no question of the Fatima sanctuary becoming an interfaith pilgrimage center." Six months later, there was indeed "no question;" it was an undeniable fact.
At Fatima in May, a helpful young Hindu woman told the Portuguese television audience that her group had come to pay homage to Our Lady of Fatima. That might have been reassuring—were it not for her explanation that the Virgin of Fatima was an image of the Hindu god Devi.
The past few decades have brought a series of similar shocks for loyal Catholics. We have seen shamans and witch-doctors praying for peace at (but—an important distinction—not inside) the basilica of St. Francis at Assisi. We have seen the Roman Pontiff kiss the Qu'ran. We have seen these things, and wondered: When does a display of respect for people of other faiths become an offense against the First Commandment's injunction: "You shall have no other gods before me." TWO EXTREMES
Among those who heard about the Hindu pilgrimage, reactions tended toward two polar extremes. (Here we are ignoring the ploys of clerical authorities who, despite the videotaped evidence, stubbornly denied that the events of May 5 had taken place.) Some Catholics saw the pagan presence at Fatima as an outrage that should never have been allowed. Others claimed that the Church should always open her doors to all peoples, regardless of their beliefs.
Each of these responses, we submit, is partially right, but mostly wrong.
Certainly pagans should not be allowed to worship their idols in the consecrated space of a Christian church. But they should be welcome to visit, and to learn more about our faith. We were all pagans once, before we were brought the waters of Baptism.
So it would be wrong to bar Hindus—or members of any other religious group—from a Catholic shrine. Yet it is equally wrong to greet them, professing our respect and fraternal love, and fail to share the great treasure that is the Catholic faith.
St. Francis Xavier, that great apostle to Asia, was vivid in his condemnation of pagan idols. Still, fired by Christian charity and zeal, he loved the idol-worshippers enough to correct them, instruct them, and bring thousands of them to the true faith. With the same sort of patient instruction, maybe some of the Hindus who came to Fatima looking for Devi might have realized that they had found something much greater: the Mother of God, Theotokos.
At the dawn of the third Christian millennium, the Church faces a renewed challenge from Islam, whose militant adherents are emboldened by their belief that they have a heavenly mandate to wipe out the "infidels." Sometimes Christians slip into the error of thinking that we, too, should seek to eliminate our adversaries. But our divine mandate is clear: not to destroy but to convert—to "make disciples of all nations."
Are we engaged in a worldwide war against all Muslims? Or should we be seeking "dialogue" with Islam, even in the face of atrocities? Thoughtful Christians should reject those alternatives, and look for a "third way"—an approach to Islam that emphasizes neither blind hatred nor bland acceptance. We are not the enemies of the Muslim people, as Islamic extremists portray us. We are their greatest friends, because we offer a priceless gift: the true faith, the only faith that brings salvation.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen predicted that the conversion of Islam would come through the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima. Portugal, he observed, was once Muslim territory, now returned to the faith; the very town of Fatima is named in honor of a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity. Islam reveres the Virgin Mary, but does not recognize her as the Mother of God. We have important lessons to teach our Muslim neighbors; we should invite them to listen.
When Muslim pilgrims come to the Fatima shrine, they should surely be welcomed. Better yet they should be asked to stay—not at Fatima, perhaps, but in the Catholic Church.
- Philip F. Lawler