Real commitment to faith

It is a legacy of understanding and discovery, of peace-making and friendship...and now the job of carrying that legacy forward lies with all of us.

The following article by Murray K. Watson, Ph.D., appeared in the final issue of Scarboro Missions magazine, September 2018.

Respectful dialogue between and among different faiths is a relatively recent phenomenon. The concept would have made little sense to Fr. John Mary Fraser when he founded the China Mission College in 1919. Catholicism’s view of other religions tended to be clear-cut: “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.” The missionary mandate was primarily focused on preaching the Gospel and bringing non-Christians (thought of as “pagans”) to the light of Christian faith. Interactions with non-Christians generally had baptism as the hoped-for outcome. Those ideas would certainly have been part of Fr. Fraser’s vision.

The fact that Scarboro Missions would eventually become such a focal point for interfaith dialogue, education and engagement, both nationally and internationally, is a testament to the transformation that took place in the Society’s own self-understanding—and in the Catholic Church’s thinking about missionary activity—especially in the wake of Vatican II.
Many missionaries had come to see and appreciate the beauty and importance of the many religious and ethical values present outside of Christianity. A recognition of God’s presence and activity in non-Christian faiths led to a new approach, one increasingly marked by curiosity, respect, reciprocity and openness to “the other.” For example, Vatican II’s decree on missionary activity, Ad Gentes, says: “Let [missionaries] acknowledge themselves to be members of the group among whom they live; let them share in cultural and social life by the various undertakings and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions...[They] should converse with them, so that they themselves may learn, by sincere and patient dialogue, what treasures a generous God has distributed among the nations of the earth.”

Dialogue and collaboration

The terms of the conversation had changed dramatically. In the October 1990 issue of Scarboro Missions magazine, Jesuit Fr. Ovey Mohammed of Regis College wrote an article on “Catholicism and other faiths,” in which he offered an overview of how the church had grown in its thinking over the centuries. “Real commitment to faith,” he wrote, “belongs to the world of dialogue and collaboration, rather than to the sphere of judgement. Catholics must be willing to listen as well as to speak.” The great challenge, he said, would be to model an attitude of openness toward other faiths.

In 1996, Scarboro Fathers John Walsh and Gerry Curry invited Paul McKenna, who had recently completed theological studies at St. Michael’s College, to collaborate with them in organizing events that could bring together members of faith communities in the Toronto area, under Scarboro’s patronage. Their first initiative was sponsoring two interfaith conferences to be held each year and rooted in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

The time had come to “institutionalize” interfaith as a formal component of Scarboro’s apostolate and an Interfaith Desk was created. Fr. Ray O’Toole was its inaugural director. Paul was a core element of the team, along with Deo Kernahan, a Trinidadian-born Hindu teacher, broadcaster and leading interfaith activist. Over the years, Frs. Terry Gallagher, Dave Warren, Mike Traher and other Scarboro missioners lent their support. When Deo died in 2001, the team lost a valued member.

Paul McKenna, interfaith consultant and later director of the Interfaith Department, moderates questions to a multifaith panel. Scarboro Mission Centre, 1997. Seated behind Paul is Deo Kernahan, a valued member of the interfaith team. From 1996 to 2003, Scarboro Missions sponsored two conferences annually on using Gandhian nonviolent methods as an approach to interfaith dialogue.

With the establishing of the Interfaith Desk in 1999 and later the Department of Interfaith Dialogue in 2001, Scarboro Missions was able to connect with local non-Christian communities, collaborate on educational or community-building events, and provide news, facilitation and resources related to interfaith topics. Paul McKenna, Scarboro’s long-serving interfaith consultant and later director of the Interfaith Department, played a key role in advancing interreligious discussions and learning, raising the profile of this part of Scarboro’s mission, and building bridges with local, national and international bodies.

A review of the programs, publications and activities of Scarboro’s interfaith ministry reveals their breadth, relevance and prophetic character. They confirm the powerful impact this branch of Scarboro’s apostolate has had over the decades.

In March 1999 the intersections of ecology and interfaith discussions were the topic of a Scarboro retreat. A few months later, the environment was again the focus at an afternoon of dialogue, drawing on interfaith wisdom as the world prepared to enter a new millennium. A six-week series of presentations on major world religions was also on Scarboro’s agenda that fall, culminating in Scarboro lay and priest missioners visiting a Hindu temple in Markham where they were given a warm welcome and a meal.

Golden Rule poster launched

Fr. Gerry Curry presents the Golden Rule poster to Fr. Paul MacNeil and Sr. Millie MacNeil, a Sister of St. Martha, chaplains at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia. 2003. Launched in 2000, the poster has gained international recognition and is now available in 20 languages.

In 2000, Scarboro’s interfaith team collaborated with Toronto’s Jain Society for a day of reflection on non-violence (ahimsa) and an afternoon discussing the place of storytelling in interreligious relations. The Jubilee Year also marked the launch of the Golden Rule poster, which expresses in 13 faith traditions the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The poster has proven immensely popular with educators and interfaith activists. It has been translated into 20 languages and is used around the world, including finding a home at the United Nations in New York. With the new poster, Scarboro quickly became a global resource centre, gathering and making available dozens of Golden Rule educational materials through its website. In February 2001, the Bahá’í community in Toronto partnered with Scarboro for a day-long session on how religions view the role of service. A few months later, the Vedic Cultural Centre co-sponsored a day of prayer and reflection on “unifying streams in religion.”

Another key area of work for the interfaith team was to contribute material for Scarboro Missions magazine, and they coordinated seven special interfaith issues. For example, the February 1998 issue explored Catholic milestones in interfaith dialogue and how dialogue with Judaism, Islam and Buddhism was unfolding. It also featured interfaith ambassadors like Fr. Bede Griffiths and Mother Teresa.

Focus on Islam

In a sad irony that no one could have foreseen, a special issue of the magazine in September 2001 highlighted the advances in interfaith conversation the same month that the 9/11 terror attacks brought Islam and the state of interreligious relations to the world’s attention. That magazine edition also highlighted the role of young people in interfaith conversation, a theme that would take on increasing importance in Scarboro’s interfaith work into the 2000s. World events had given a new impetus to what was already a significant aspect of Scarboro’s outreach work.

A year after 9/11, Scarboro Missions’ focus was on “interfaith miracles,” on signs of hope and positivity at a very tense time in geopolitics. In his guest editorial, Paul McKenna pointed to Pope John Paul II’s Assisi interreligious gathering for peace in January 2002 as one of many good things happening around the globe. “The interfaith impulse is alive and well,” Paul wrote. “People of various religions are joining the interfaith conversation...More and more people are seeing interreligious sharing as a path to cooperative ethical action and harmonious community living.” In the shadow of such tragedy and violence, the Pope’s message was a welcome one and it hammered home the importance of what Paul and the Scarboro team were doing.

As the 2000s progressed, Scarboro’s interfaith activity continued to expand, diversify and deepen. The department was participating in exciting interfaith activities that were contributing to a transformation in the Society’s self-understanding. In 2004 Scarboro published another poster highlighting Catholic milestones in interfaith dialogue and summarizing the church’s major advances in the field in the past 50 years.

The Scarboro Mission Centre became a hub of interfaith activity offering a wide-ranging series of evening talks. Jesuit Father Harry Gensler, one of the world’s top scholars of the Golden Rule, spoke about its importance—and its possible pitfalls.

Another fertile area of interreligious outreach was with Catholic secondary schools. Under the gifted leadership of Kathy Murtha, the coordinator of the Mission Centre, Scarboro provided a venue and a resource team to engage with tens of thousands of teenagers enrolled in the Grade 11 World Religions course at Catholic high schools throughout the Toronto area. Scarboro’s impact on young people is one of many ways in which the message of positive interreligious relationships was shared and modeled.

Mission Centre coordinator Kathy Murtha and her team facilitated many new programs including Golden Rule retreats in collaboration with 35 Catholic high schools as part of their World Religions course. This student is learning about the shofar, an instrument made of ram’s horn and traditionally blown on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Jewish-Christian dialogue

The addition of Sister Lucy Thorson of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion to the team in 2008 brought new expertise in the area of Jewish-Christian relations. Sister Lucy organized a wide range of learning sessions exploring Judaism, Jewish worship, spirituality and ethics, and the remarkable changes that have marked five decades of Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Working together with Shawn Daley (who was later ordained a priest for Scarboro) and University of Toronto graduate student Héctor Acero-Ferrer, Sister Lucy built bridges with the U of T student community and coordinated a number of sessions at the university’s Multi-Faith Centre, touching on contemporary issues of social justice through the lens of the world’s great faith traditions. Sister Lucy organized evening lectures on the theme of mercy in the three Abrahamic religions (featured in the April-May 2016 magazine edition), and built a network of connections with Toronto’s Jewish communities and their leaders. She and Héctor were key organizers of a major 2015 conference in Toronto celebrating the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s ground-breaking declaration on non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate.

Room simply doesn’t allow me to delve into the many ways in which Scarboro Missions has made a dramatic impact on the face of interfaith dialogue and education in Canada and beyond. Through the variety of workshops, lectures, retreats and visits that the Interfaith Department organized; the vast library of online materials that Paul and his team have collected, created and curated; and the magazine articles, videos and posters that they have produced; in so many ways, the energy, creativity and wisdom of the Scarboro team has been a catalyst for truly amazing interfaith progress. Tens of thousands of people near and far have benefited from this expertise and from the welcome Scarboro provided to people of all faiths to meet and to learn about and from each other.

Perhaps what most amazed and inspired me, however, is the impressive roster of names of keynote speakers and partners, of authors, resource people and guests, who worked hand-in-hand with the interfaith team for more than 30 years. Scarboro’s events and initiatives provided a venue where a spectrum of voices could be heard and where a broad cross-section of human spiritual experience could be shared. An enormous pool of friends in the Toronto area and around the world have appreciated the inclusive vision that the Interfaith Department embodied. In an environment where interfaith groups and organizations tend to be very transitory, Scarboro provided a home—and funding—which allowed the Interfaith Department to be a stable and enduring presence, which in turn allowed it to foster trust and friendship.

For those friends and collaborators, the winding down of Scarboro’s ministry can only be felt as a great loss to the larger interfaith world. Resources may find new homes, but nothing can replace the web of goodwill, friendship and sharing that undergirded the work and contributed so much to its success. Many of Scarboro’s partners have spoken of the loss that the department’s closing represents to the Canadian interfaith landscape. Bishop Douglas Crosby, OMI, writing on behalf of Canada’s Catholic bishops, said:

“The commitments by Scarboro the ministry of interfaith dialogue have had a significant pastoral impact in Canada and abroad. While there must certainly be a degree of sadness about the closing of the department, Scarboro Missions should also take great joy and satisfaction in knowing that the remarkable work you have accomplished, the seeds you have sown, have richly served and benefited interfaith dialogue...May Scarboro’s contributions to interreligious dialogue long serve both as reminders of how to understand ‘the needs that are in the heart of every person’ and also as approaches that can be used ‘to contribute to the fulfillment of the common good.’”

For all of us who have been touched by Scarboro’s interfaith work, this is a bittersweet moment. But the eyes that this work helped to open see differently now, and the minds and hearts inspired by its efforts think and feel differently now. It is a legacy of understanding and discovery, of peace-making and friendship...and now the job of carrying that legacy forward lies with all of us.∞

Dr. Murray Watson received his PhD in 2010 from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He has taught Biblical Studies and ecumenical courses at St. Peter’s Seminary, London,Ontario. Since August 2013, he has been the director of French Biblical programs for the Ecce Homo Centre for Biblical Formation in Jerusalem. He is currently Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Huron University College in London.

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