A force of unity against factories of extremism

By Tania Mann

“Interfaith cooperation isn’t just about trying to find harmonies between Islam and Christianity… it’s about building real relationships between Christians and Muslims”, says Eboo Patel, the founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization building a global movement to empower young people of all faiths to work together in service. Named by US News and World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Patel has emerged as one of the most prominent mainstream voices — in print, TV and radio — for interfaith dialogue and action worldwide. Last year, he was appointed by President Obama as a member of the newly established Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Patel was born in India but grew up in Chicago, where the IFYC is based today. He attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship — receiving a doctorate in the sociology of religion — and is the author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation . In the following telephone interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Patel speaks on the roots of his passion for interfaith action and on how youth can fight in favor of unity and against the distorted depictions of religion so rampant today.

Eboo Patel (Photo courtesy of IFYC)

What led to your founding of the IFYC?

It was my introduction to the Catholic Worker movement, where my experience showed me that the heart of religion is about serving others, and about bringing creation in line with the intention of the Creator. And that, I believe, is about people from different backgrounds living together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.

There, I saw Catholics taking the social dimension of their faith so seriously that they were truly living it. My Catholic Worker time shaped how I understood the relationship between faith and service. That is what led to me founding this organization. I later discovered that same drive and impulse in my own religion, and I realized that so much of how religion is portrayed on the evening news is just the opposite. It is depicted as a barrier of division instead of a bridge of cooperation. I figure that, if so many young people can be involved in these factories of extremism — these forces of intolerance where religion serves as a barrier or a bomb — then young people could be equally mobilized while working to form a bridge. Because so many of those changes happened for me in college, I happen to think that college is a very special space and a really powerful time in a young person’s life when they make certain value commitments. They commit to the ethics that they are going to carry into the world.

How did the organization itself come about?

When I was a grad student at Oxford, I would leave for one or two months at a time to run interfaith youth service projects around the world — in South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and across Europe. I was convinced by the young participants in these projects that there was a critical mass of young people inspired by faith to work with people of different religions, and to apply that shared value to the way they could affect other people’s lives. The evidence was there and it was inspiring.

By the time my PhD was finished, I had developed a methodology, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I was tired of the factories of extremism and forces of intolerance being so strong. I thought: “Why can’t we build a movement for interfaith cooperation that is stronger?”

The U.S. has recently seen heightened tensions between Muslims and those of other faith traditions. What do you think lies at the root of these tensions? How can they be overcome?

In my view, at various times in American history, forces of intolerance have targeted different groups. Earlier, it was Catholics, but these forces have also targeted Jews and African Americans, among others. Now its Muslims. But the good thing is that every time these forces have gone into action, they have been defeated by the forces of unity. It is our time to be the forces of unity. In the previous generation we had leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr but those leaders are no longer around, so now we have to do that.

Can you explain a bit about President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — its function, your role, and how you came to be involved?

One day, I received a phone call and was told: “Congratulations! The President has selected you for his Advisory Council”. That is a special phone call to get! Our initial meeting was in February of 2009, during which the President said: “I want this council to focus on four things: 1) Faith communities have to be involved in service, especially in this time of recession, 2) members of those communities ought to view service as a shared value that they can build better understanding upon, 3) we ought to show the world that this is what America is about: that we can work together and be a model of cooperation and harmony, and 4) young people should be the leaders in this”.

Well, my jaw about hit the floor when I heard that! So I got up the gumption to stand up and thank the President, and to add that: “The vision that you just laid out is exactly our vision at the Interfaith Youth Core”. He looked at me, smiled, and said: “We will be following up with you about that”. It was very inspiring to me to learn how close to the President’s heart this vision is. My formal term on the Council is over now [council members serve one-year terms] but as a part of it I helped make progress concerning the importance of interfaith movements on college campuses. The White House also hosted an interfaith summit in June, and will be kicking off two interfaith leadership training institutes with hundreds of students in late October.

How have your studies in the sociology of religion affected the way you think about religious interactions?

One of my main influences is Wilfred Cantwell Smith. He was very focused on the notion that interfaith cooperation isn’t just about trying to find harmonies between Islam and Christianity, for example, but it’s about building real relationships between Christians and Muslims. It’s not just in how you learn things about other traditions; it’s in the way you interact with them. Just because you can identify the commonalities among certain faiths doesn’t mean you have the skills to do something with that knowledge.

At Interfaith Youth Core, we believe that just as college campuses have been models and beacons for promoting environmental and multicultural causes, they can do the same for interfaith cooperation. That’s why we are training college students to run an interfaith action campaign called “Better Together” on their campuses. The goal is to teach college students to be interfaith leaders; to lead a concrete campaign, to mobilize large groups of people to participate in interfaith service projects, and to speak compellingly about the importance of interfaith cooperation.

Over 100 campuses are participating this fall, many of which are Catholic schools, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. My parents went to Catholic schools in India, the reason I came to this country was because of my father’s studies at Notre Dame, and my son goes to Catholic school now. Catholic institutions take very seriously the values of learning, diversity, faith and service. Today there is a need to lift up these shared values as a priority and integrate them into the way we live our lives. That’s what the Interfaith Youth Core seeks to do through our programs.

Interview conducted 10/1/2010. © L’Osservatore Romano English edition 2/23/2011.


Interview with Archbishop Vincent Nichols

The Church in England and Wales has become a “meeting point of Catholics from all over the world”, having recently grown significantly in diversity, said Archbishop Vincent Gerard Nichols of Westminster in an interview on Monday, 25 January 2010. The Archbishop, who is President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, also expressed the Church’s hopes for Benedict XVI’s upcoming Visit to Great Britain, as well as for the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. The following is the full transcript of the interview, which he granted to L’Osservatore Romano‘s Tania Mann and Nicola Gori at the beginning of the Bishops’ ad Limina visit to Rome.

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How would you describe the proper role of faith in public life?

At this time in England, I believe, society is at a point of change. I think there is the beginning of a greater openness to the expression of faith in public life. For some years now, there has been a great scepticism and suspicion of religious faith, because in many minds it has been associated with extremism and a lack of rationality.

But I think there is a sense of uncertainty in our society and people are asking about the kind of values that we want to live by; the values around which might hold us together. In that search, there is a greater openness to the light which comes with religious faith, especially in the Catholic tradition, which lays such emphasis on the partnership, the combination, of faith and reason.

There are small signals of this shift in English public opinion. For example, the visit of the relics of St Therese of Lisieux attracted a great and wide interest. On the whole, that visit was received very positively in the public arena.

Just now, an art exhibition has finished at the National Gallery. It has been open for three months, and it is called “The sacred made real”. It is an exhibition of Spanish religious art from the 16th and 17th centuries which is very direct, very vivid and contains very strong images of the Christian faith. Many people have said that 10 years ago it would not have been possible to show this art. But this exhibition has been very successful — attendance has been 250% higher than the Gallery expected. One of the exhibits is particularly dramatic; it’s a polychrome sculpture of the dead body of Christ. It has been said that in the middle of the art gallery people have knelt and prayed. It has been a very remarkable lifting of a kind of deep-rooted unease in English culture about the art which in our country disappeared at the Reformation, but now in this exhibition is being seen again. So there are small indicators that the contribution which religious faith can make is finding a cautious welcome again.

The Catholic Church is manifest in very diverse ways throughout the world. Beyond the stereotypes, are there aspects that particularly characterize the English Catholic Church?

Well, one of the most evident characteristics of the Catholic Church in England at the moment is that it’s changing rapidly, and that it is very diverse. It is in fact a meeting point of Catholics from all over the world, from many different cultures and languages and ethnic groups. So in most parishes in the Westminster Diocese, in the Birmingham Diocese, and in the big cities, every parish has a great international feel to it now. There are parishes in Westminster where there are 90 different languages spoken by the congregation. That would be true of parishes in many of the other big cities as well.

I was in a parish yesterday, in North London. I was there 10 years ago; 10 years ago it was predominantly Irish, and yesterday there were people from five different continents. So there is a great enriching in this diversity of Catholics present now in the Church in England and Wales, and the contribution that those who are coming make to our churches is one of great strength, enthusiasm and vibrancy. So, there are many Polish Catholics; there are Catholics from Kerala, from the Philippines, from Africa. They are fervent in their faith, and they help to revitalize the English expression of faith as well.

It also means we have a number of different liturgical rites. In Westminster Diocese, we have about 60 different ethnic chaplaincies in the diocese, and a whole number of different Catholic rites. So we are slowly deepening our appreciation of the diversity within the unity of the Catholic Church.

Speaking of bringing new people into the Church, would you like to speak a bit about the initial reactions to the recent Apostolic Constitution, “Anglicanorum Coetibus”?

For 20 years now we have been developing the process of the rite of Christian initiation of adults as the normal way in which people come into the Church. So, at the beginning of Lent, Westminster Cathedral will be filled with those who are becoming Catholics and with their sponsors, for 2 days in succession. It’s not big enough to accommodate all those people in one day..

Some of those seeking membership in the Catholic Church will be people coming from different religious backgrounds. A large proportion will have had no religious upbringing. Some will be people who have been baptized and so are candidates for full communion. Some of those will be from the Church of England, and that has become part of our routine, year by year.

The Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus I think it’s very important to understand that this was not put in place particularly with England in mind. As you will know, the issuing ofAnglicanorum Coetibus was a response by the Holy See to requests that had been made to the Holy See by people within the Anglican Communion from all over the world, principally from America and from Australia. The request that was made to the Holy See was, “Is there a way in which we, who are convinced of the primacy of the Pope and of the gift of visible unity around the Pope as that ministry is at present fulfilled — is there a way for us who have that conviction to come into full communion with the Pope and bring with us some of our patrimony which is consistent with Catholic faith?”. So that was the question. And the response was Anglicanorum Coetibus.

In England we remain to see how many people will decide to respond to that opening by the Holy Father. There is in the Church of England quite a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition, but that’s not the focal point of Anglicanorum Coetibus. The focal point of Anglicanorum Coetibus is those, who have not just a deep understanding of the Catholic nature of the Church’s life and the Christian discipleship but, as its central point, an understanding of the papacy. There are many in what is called the “Anglo-Catholic” part of the Church of England who would not share that view of the papacy. So I hope the Anglo-Catholic feature — strength — of the Church in England will continue and I don’t think Anglicanorum Coetibus, as it were, is going to have a significant impact on that.

There are some who, as well as sharing that Catholic sense of Christian discipleship also have a definite and positive regard for the role of the Bishop of Rome. Now they will have to choose. As Archbishop Rowan Williams and I said in our Joint Statement, the issuing of this Apostolic Constitution could well “bring to an end a period of uncertainty” — a period of uncertainty for those who didn’t know whether they wanted to act on their conviction about the papacy. So I think now it will be a moment of decision.

We know that there are people within the umbrella of the Church of England who at this time are pondering that over carefully. They have chosen the 22nd of February, the Feast of the Chair of Peter, to begin to formulate their response.

It’s important to remember, however, that Anglicanorum Coetibus refers to groups of Anglicans, not individuals. It’s a way for small communities of members of the present Church of England, or the Anglican Communion, to enter into full communion.

There have always been conversations with individual members of the Church of England. That continues, but Anglicanorum Coetibus is not just talking about maybe half a dozen clergymen but rather it’s talking about groups of laypeople. We have to wait and see.

What can be said of the current dialogue between Christians and Muslims?

In England and Wales we recognize the very great importance of the interfaith dialogue. We would also want to emphasize the importance that this is not simply a dialogue with Islam.

I have just come from Birmingham, and in Birmingham there is a very fruitful interfaith leaders’ group and series of contacts, but it is with the six or seven major faiths. In Birmingham, there is a large Christian community. Then, probably, the next biggest communities are the Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists. There is a small Jewish community and a growing Muslim community. There we have tried to maintain the dialogue with all the different faiths. I think that’s important to remember —that the interfaith issues are not just to do with Islam.

What is particularly a challenge with regard to Islam is that neither in Birmingham and nor in London is there a leadership or a coherence or a uniformity about Islam. In Birmingham now, there are about 160 mosques. But a lot of them actually relate to a single village — in Pakistan, or in India. They don’t necessarily have any great cohesion.

In London, there are Muslims from all over the Muslim world. But African Muslims have a quite different agenda to those from Iran, or from Turkey, who have a quite different stance to those from Pakistan, or from India. So it is not really possible to talk about Muslims as a generic whole.

I think also we understand a little bit, as a Catholic community, about what it is to arrive or to emerge as a minority in England and to be the focus of a lot of suspicion. I think we have an empathy with Muslims who, because of an atrocity carried out by extremists, who use the title of Islam to excuse what they have done. Because that has resonances with the Catholics in England and their experience at the time of bombs set off by the IRA for which all Catholics were blamed. So there is some empathy for the moderate Muslims — which is the majority of those in Britain —who want to live peacefully, who see their faith as a motivation for good, and who want to play their part in British society.

This kind of contact can happen at local level, and it can happen at the level of Church leaders. It’s important that we give that witness, so that those in authority slowly move away from a position that they sometimes take up, of viewing religious faith as a problem for society; whereas in fact we believe that religious faith is an enrichment of society and an important contributor to the work of fashioning a modern city. And there is evidence to support this view.

Looking to the future of the Church in England and Wales, what are your greatest hopes?

We are obviously looking forward to the proposed Visit of Pope Benedict XVI. While that Visit hasn’t been officially confirmed, we are confidently getting ahead with preparations. It is very encouraging that the British Government and of course Her Majesty the Queen are extremely positive about the Visit of Pope Benedict.

We are working closely with both Ministers and officials of the Government in fashioning a short but what we believe will be a very effective program for the Visit. This program will focus, we hope, on the role of faith in what Pope Benedict often describes as a society of “positive and open secularity”.

Then, of course, we are looking forward very much to the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who everybody knows as a scholar, as a famous convert to the Catholic Church, and we would very much want to present him as a man of English culture, as a man who has great stature within the cultural and literary life of our country. We would very much want him to be appreciated as a parish priest because for over 30 years he was a parish priest in Birmingham, and his beatification comes at the end of the Year for Priests. So here we have the Beatification of an English parish priest, just as we close the Year for Priests. We hope that that will lead to a greater understanding of the role of Catholic faith, how it is really part of an English way of life, and perhaps a flowering of new vocations to the priesthood.

I think our hopes would go wider than that as well, because we hope for continuing fruitful dialogue with the Church of England and other Christian partners, and we are very pleased to see the announcement of the third set of International Anglican Roman Catholic Dialogue, ARCIC III, and obviously the outflowing of that into a refreshing of a vision about what a good modern society stands for

Because sometimes I sense that British society today tries to hold together around negatives. It holds together round its determination to be non-discriminatory. It holds together round its determination to be tolerant. But these are not substantial enough a vision to motivate people, to lift their spirits. And so I hope that together we might be able to have more positive convictions about what is for the good of a human society and for families within that society.

And your greatest fears?

My fears would be to do with a failure to get beyond the cynicism and the suspicion of religious belief. Such cynicism impoverishes everybody and therefore it will lead to a greater fragmentation of society. We do have — perhaps in a particular way — a great capacity to be cynical.

It’s the marginalizing of religious faith that is the biggest fear, because I think that would be really corrosive of good things in society. What would go with that would be a loss of confidence, even within the communities of faith themselves.

I think that one of our biggest challenges is to deepen faith within the Catholic community and to strengthen the substantial understanding of faith, because in these circumstances, anyone who wants to be a disciple of the Lord has to be strong from within and therefore needs an understanding and needs a practice of prayer which is quite deeply rooted. So they are the big challenges, too.

Your last book was entitled “Missioners”. Would you like to speak about the importance of mission?

Well, the book called Missioners was actually about the ordination of priests and deacons. I gave it that title because when the diocese in England and Wales were re-established in 1852 after the Reformation, one of the great founding Bishops of the Diocese of Birmingham, Bishop Ullathorne, spoke of priests who, if they had the right spirit and the right heart, deserved the name “missioners”. So his view was that every priest was essentially a missioner.

And that is partly because, at that time, priests had been moving around the country, using places of safety for Catholics to gather Catholics together and celebrate Mass. And these were not called parishes, they were called missions. What became a parish at the beginning of the 20th century up to that point had been called a mission. So the very nature of what we would call a parish was to be missionary.

It was that spirit that I was trying to recall by using that as the title of the book. The double movement in the life of the Gospel and in the life of the Church, because it reflects the inner mystery of the life of God, is outward and back. So we breathe out and we breathe in. We breathe in when we are drawn into the life of God and into a communion of life, and we breathe out when we engage in expressing our faith in action or in word.

And the interesting thing, when we take that reflection back to our understanding of God, is that in a way the first thing we know of God is because of God’s mission of sending — the missio, the sending of the Word in the act of creation, and the sending of the Word in the action of the Holy Spirit in history, and then in the incarnation in the person of Jesus. So the missio of the Trinity comes first, and in a way, the mission of the Church is what gives it its reason for being. The communion that we celebrate in Liturgy and in prayer and when we try to be closer to God is like the breathing in, and the mission is the breathing out. So they are inseparable in the life of the Church.

Of course, mission is as subtle as breath or breeze; and yet also as evident, at other times, as a storm. Just as the creative action of God is sometimes entirely delicate and entirely unseen, and other times quite remarkable, vivid and very visible, so too the way a disciple of Christ, a member of the Catholic Church, fulfils their mission sometimes will be very delicate and very unseen, within the context of a family or towards a neighbour, and at other times it will be quite public and maybe even controversial.

What is the current state of vocations in England and Wales?

It varies, I think, from diocese to diocese. My sense is that some of the bigger diocese are able to generate interest and momentum, and some of the small diocese are finding it more difficult. In terms of diocese, I can only speak for Westminster, and we have about 35 in the seminary and we have nine people who are applying for interview and selection this year. I think there is overall an increase, but it varies from place to place.

If you were me, what would you ask you today, and then of course what would be the answer?

Perhaps I’d ask about the role of modern media and things like digital communication, particularly how people relate to each other. With communication today, young people now talk to each other online. How does that work in terms of the way the Church communicates?

In terms of young people communicating through Facebook, Twitter and all these different forms of communication; these are quite superficial. They don’t necessarily invite people to reflect, and to spend time thinking about where their life is going. It’s very quick and immediate, whereas our message very often requires some reflection. Engaging with that level of communication — that can be quite challenging.

Just as a discussion point, there’s a very interesting topic of study at the moment around uncertainty. I read a most fascinating paper arguing that since the Enlightenment, Western efforts in the face of uncertainty have been based on the belief that if you get more information about something, then you remove the risk, you remove the uncertainty. So if you talk about health and safety, risk assessment and security issues, the more information you can have, the less that is left to risk and uncertainty.

But in fact the opposite is true. The more information you have, the more uncertain everything becomes. Once you begin to think you can base judgments primarily on information, then you find that everything becomes more uncertain. There what you find is that you end up with everybody having their own view of things and there is a greater degree of uncertainty.

I think that’s the perspective we have to get past. In a way, we are all beguiled by fact and information and the latest. Yet information overload doesn’t invite us to sense deep uncertainties which of themselves begin to open us to a new set of questions, which are much more the realm in which the invitation of God works.


© L’Osservatore Romano English edition