Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue
How are Christian and Interfaith Wisdom Practiced?
By Francis X Clooney SJWith this column we begin a second year of NJN’s Dialogue Corner, dedicated to reflection on the interfaith dimensions of our lives and ministries today. In this year’s issues we will hear from a variety of perspectives, in secondary and higher education, established scholars and fresh voices joining the field, posing possibilities and tough questions. I begin with a reflection on an issue that probably touches the experience of a majority of my readers: interfaith marriage.
Now in my eight year as Assistancy coordinator for dialogue, I have just completed a three-year commitment to the Centre for Hindu Studies at Oxford University; I teach and write in the areas of interfaith diversity and comparative theology; dialogue is basic to my life and ministry. But I still find interfaith marriage one of the most important occasions where Christian and interfaith wisdom is required in practice, as a practical issue most of us can share. Let me give two examples from my own experience during the summer of 2004.
The first instance deals simply enough with a Hindu couple planning an August wedding. Since the bride was a former student of mine, and then a friend, even though I could not preside at a Hindu- Hindu wedding, we naturally spoke about the ceremony and factors to consider in planning it.
Since both bride and groom were converts to a Hindu tradition, most of their family members were still of Christian backgrounds, so it was important to mirror in the ceremony values of love and commitment that all could share, both specific Hindu values but also resonances basic to Christian tradition.
How to do this in an hour’s ceremony? I gave them advice, but in the end, by way of their own wise use of symbolic acts, prayers, and readings, the couple skillfully integrated a lovely ceremony meaningful to all present.
Earlier in the summer a still more challenging opportunity presented itself. The daughter of a grad school classmate was getting married. My friend and his wife have been devotees of an Indian religious teacher for more than 30 years, so the bride was born into an essentially Hindu tradition; naturally, both she and her parents hoped for a wedding reflecting Hindu values.
But the bridegroom’s parents were Christian–Lebanese Maronite, and French Canadian Catholic — and he and they shared definite expectations about the Catholic wedding they very much wanted. There was other factors too: the bride’s mother’s family was Jewish, and in fact more comfortable with the Hindu affiliation of mother and daughter than with the Catholic affiliation of the groom’s family; moreover, the couple’s friends included a diverse international and multicultural group of students and young professionals, many of them unfamiliar with Hindu, Christian, or Jewish traditions. What to do?
The couple at first simply consulted me on how to compose a viable ceremony – which was to be Catholic, given the groom’s family’s expectations — that would honor the values of various family members while yet excluding no one. Eventually, given the complexities involved — symbols, music, readings, even language (we ended up with readings and prayers in Hebrew, French, Arabic, and English) — they also asked me to preside at the ceremony to be held in an interfaith university chapel. I found that this situation demanded of me a sense of Catholic values — including free commitment, permanence, and openness to the gift of children — yet also sensitivity to Jewish apprehensions about how Jewish tradition might be portrayed (or ignored) by Christians, plus skill in honoring a Hindu teacher’s wisdom in a serious and integral manner.
In the end (by God’s grace!), everything came together, and the ceremony succeeded as a Catholic event that managed to be wonderfully inclusive of the many values involved. Sloppy syncretism was avoided, while complementarity and mutual enrichment were achieved.
While this particular wedding was a rather more complex case than most, my guess is that many readers will recognize the phenomenon, as Catholics and members of other faith traditions fall in love and decide to marry. Indeed, it is in marriage preparation and at the wedding that America’s religious diversity becomes most vividly and urgently enfleshed. Even those of us not regularly involved in interfaith dialogue find ourselves — in a parish, on campus, among friends — discussing what is at stake in an interfaith marriage, discerning how both ceremony and married life might be most healthily sacramentalized as humanly good, religiously diverse, yet consonant with Christian and ecclesial values.
Required is a practical interfaith wisdom rooted in particular choices: how do we witness to Catholic values in ministering to young couples? How ought Catholic faith be manifest at a wedding? How do we help sacramentalize a love already chosen and lived by a couple mingling two faiths? When do we advise a couple to think twice, because we foresee particular difficulties that an interfaith wedding will bring?
None of us is the definitive expert, and we need to have a conversation on the pastoral care of interfaith couples; we need to learn particularly from the experience of those in parish and campus ministries where this issue comes to the fore most regularly.
In fact, we already find this a topic of interest: the most “hits” at the website for Mission and Interreligious Dialogue (http://puffin.creighton.edu/jesuit/dialogue/) seek guidance regarding interfaith marriages. What do you think? If you have ideas, or experiences to share, let me know and we can make what we learn available on line and even in printed form too.
(Fr. Clooney [NEN] teaches in the theology department of Boston College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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