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God Squad: Interfaith dialogue begins with friendship

QUESTION: Watching much of the around-the-clock coverage of Pope Francis' visit to the United States, it was called to my attention the early friendship of Pope Francis and Rabbi Skorka in Argentina. I believe they even had a TV or radio show together. This, indeed, did remind me of your friendship with Father Tom Hartman. I'm wondering if you would comment on the importance and effects of this mutual respect and love of persons who follow different paths to God.
-- G.

ANSWER: I, too, was struck from the moment I learned about Pope Francis' deep friendship with Rabbi Skorka. I am always moved when I learn of other "God Squads" and pray that such examples of interfaith friendship might grow in many gardens of the spirit. I will tell you some of what I have learned from my friendship and shared ministry with Father Tom, who no longer writes this column with me because of his chronic illness.

I learned that interfaith dialogue must begin with interfaith friendship. The many annual interfaith Thanksgiving services held in synagogues and churches around our country are all good, but they are often sadly just annual institutional convocations and not the fruit of true friendship. We all tend to ghettoize ourselves, and this is both understandable and regrettable. We have our own separate religious communities and our own sacred calendars and rituals that root us and comfort us.

They do not intend to isolate us but they often have just that effect. We need to break out of our racial, religious and cultural isolation if we are to find one another as people of faith and maintain a true sense of our common destiny as religious Americans in a broken world.

We have so much to learn from one another. For example, Judaism teaches that life after death for our souls is real, but I must admit that until Tommy asked me why I never preached about Heaven, I did not lift up this precious teaching of hope taught by my own faith the way I do now. Tommy also learned from me. He told me that sitting in our home for holiday meals and Passover seders, he realized that the main focus of the Church is the family and the home and not just a building in which to say Mass.

Interfaith dialogue is about learning that there are other paths up the same mountain and this learning cannot be achieved by strangers or even by occasional acquaintances. I love Tommy like a brother and our ministry derived from that love. Our love did not derive from our ministry. Pope Francis' inspiring visit reminded me of that fact.

You are right. The pope's deep friendship with Rabbi Skorka is one of the many impressive qualities of his luminous spirit. It means that he could see the humanity and spiritual authenticity of another way and another person. I saw a picture of the two of them speaking together on their TV show and it reminded me of something a woman who had just heard Tommy and me speak said to me when I asked her, "What ideas did you learn from our lecture?" She gave me a puzzled look and then said, "Well, actually I don't remember anything either of you said, but what I will never forget is how he looked at you when you were speaking and how you looked at him when he was speaking." True friendship is not about shared ideas, it is about shared love.

About a month after we met in 1987, it was my birthday (and his a week later), and I sent him a book. He sent me this passage from 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, 11 on a handwritten card: "There are different gifts but the same Spirit. There are different ministries but the same Lord. There are different works but the same God who accomplishes all of them in everyone . . . it is one and the same Spirit who produces all these gifts, distributing them to each as He wills."

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