by Cardinal William Keeler

This text and introduction was first published in Origins: CNS Documentary Service 25, 36 [February 29, 1996], and appears here with the permission of Origins.


There are those who "envision a coming clash of civilizations which they are ever more ready to see as a confrontation between Islam and the West. But here in America, Muslims and Christians are factually in a position to show that the circumstances of democracy can just as well foster a dialogue among the believers in the one God," Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said in Washington, Dec. 8, 1995, in an address to an interreligious banquet in his honor sponsored by the American Muslim Council. The council gave Keeler its Mahmoud Abu Saud Excellence Award for 1995. In his acceptance, the cardinal urged Muslims and Catholics to work together to promote "a restoration of basic moral teaching in the public schools"; oppose all forms of pornography, "especially that directed at children"; and approach media leaders and advertisers "regarding immorality and violence in the media." Noting that the interfaith banquet was held on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Keeler said: "Catholics are delighted to learn that there are more verses in the Qur'an -- 34 of them -- which name the Blessed Virgin Mary than there are in the whole New Testament." He said that while Muslims do not believe that Mary is the mother of God, they hold her in great esteem. Keeler said that although a "radical difference in faith forever separates us" with regard to Mary, "it paradoxically also holds us forever in conversation."

Cardinal Keeler's text

It is very much an honor for me, following the completion of my term as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, to be with you this evening. My presence here is essentially symbolic, a sign of your appreciation for what Dr. John Borelli and others are doing, a tribute to the many who work with us and to the people of faith I am privileged to serve.
I have had the grace to witness even before my term as president of the conference a growing relationship between Catholics and Muslims.

In 1989, as Cardinal O'Connor, Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles and I were assigned to develop the draft of a pastoral message on the search for peace in the Middle East, we met with many Muslim leaders here in the United States and, at your suggestion, with Muslim religious and civic leaders in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. In addition, during our visit to the camps on the West Bank and Gaza we listened to local Palestinian leaders as well as to civic and religious leaders representing other points of view throughout the Middle East. It was there I had seen in the early 1960s the unique and uniquely difficult situation of the Christians in the region. By 1989 the sense of pressure they experienced had been heightened, and many whole families were leaving the Holy Land.

From the 1989 trip I treasure very especially the memory of our meeting in Damascus with Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro, the grand mufti of Syria. With that meeting began a friendship which continued on this side of the ocean; in successive years he came to Baltimore, and each time we were able to discuss a number of issues of common interest. Last year, through the goodness of Imam Bashar Arafat, I was a guest in a Muslim home for a dinner with him. I intend to recall later one other incident involving the grand mufti of Syria, whose own key role in the relationships between Catholics and Muslims was underscored by his participation at Assisi at the interfaith service for peace led there by Pope John Paul II, on Oct. 27, 1986.

As to our own working together in the United States, I think also of the interfaith pilgrimage in Baltimore coinciding with the special day of prayer for peace in Assisi on Jan. 9, 1993, when the situation in the former Yugoslavia had become so tense several years ago. At that time I was so pleased that we could visit a mosque in Baltimore and then conclude our evening with a Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption, the historic first Catholic cathedral of this land, with the imam present with us and later to join us at the supper which broke the daylong fast. That supper was characterized in a special way by the dialogue between the imam and the other guests as he explained graciously and with great clarity some of the Muslim practices and beliefs with which Christian and Jew alike were unfamiliar.

More recently, it was a joy to see some of you at World Youth Day in Denver with Pope John Paul, to tell him at supper what you had told me at the reception in the afternoon and then to introduce you to him and let you tell him of your own appreciation of the message he brought to young people and their response to it.

Of course, the award this evening is in fact a recognition of the cooperative spirit of trust and of friendship which has developed between many connected to our two organizations. Dr. Cheema and I have rejoiced at the labors of others who assisted in developing the agreed statement which we were happy to sign with respect to the Cairo conference last year, and what a positive impact that statement had! We could stand before the American public as Muslims and Catholics expressing our principles on the issues of population and development and, precisely because we stood together, we were able to attract attention and serious consideration from those who might otherwise be inclined to ignore our message.

Much more awaits us in the future. We need to keep looking for ways for our formal dialogue to continue so that we can move along, especially theologically, in our understanding of one another. Some of you here tonight came to Baltimore last Aug. 9 to participate in a session of dialogue at the headquarters of Catholic Relief Services, where we all learned a great deal from our guest speaker, Cardinal Francis Arinze.

I must say that we Catholics were honored that you came to Baltimore to hear one of us speak and to engage in dialogue. Also, we did have a dialogue, and we touched on religious and social questions.

Tonight I want to take a few moments to move our theological discussion along a little more and to underscore publicly some ways for possible cooperation that I raised on the occasion of our meeting in Baltimore.

Today Roman Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus. We recall that at the moment of the annunciation, when the angel Gabriel informed her that she was to be the mother of Jesus, he saluted her as "full of grace" (Lk. 1:28). Christians for centuries have called her "the All Holy One" ("Panagia"). In 1854 Pope Pius IX gave official voice to the belief of Catholics that "the Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God ... preserved free from all stain of original sin" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 491).

The pope's words expressed the Catholic view of the full extent of the holiness which by God's gift Mary enjoyed even in her mother's womb. The Qur'an recalls that Mary's mother, before she gave birth to the daughter she hardly expected, had prayed: "O Lord, I dedicate to your service that which is within my womb, one totally free ("muharraran"); accept it from me" ("The Imrans" III:35). Indeed, to Mary herself, according to the Qur'an, the angel said, "God has chosen you and made you pure ("tahharaki"), and he has chosen you above the women of the universe" ("The Imrans," III:42). For according to the "Qur'an", Mary, "a saintly woman ("siddigh") (The Table V:75) was destined, together with Jesus, her son, to be "a sign ("ayyah") to the universe" ("The Prophets" XXI:91), to play a unique role in the history of salvation.

Catholics are delighted to learn that there are more verses in the Qur'an --34 of them-- which name the Blessed Virgin Mary than there are in the whole New Testament! They speak of her presentation in the temple in Jerusalem, which Christian tradition also records, of her purification, of the annunciation, of her virginal conception of Jesus and of the birth of her son, the Messiah. It is no surprise then that just over 30 years ago the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in their historic document "Nostra Aetate" (Oct. 28, 1965), wrote:
Upon the Muslims too the church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, maker of heaven and earth and speaker to humankind.... They also honor Mary, his virgin mother; at times they call on her too with devotion (No. 3).
What a propitious moment it is, therefore, that finds Christians and Muslims together on a major feast of the Virgin Mary to celebrate the mutual esteem for one another which befits men and women in the faith tradition of Abraham, "God's friend" (Is. 41:8; Jas. 2:23; "Women" IV:125). It is certainly true that in her very person there is a meeting point, or at least a stepping stone, between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, as the Qur'an itself says: "To those who believe, God has set an example ("mathalan") ... in Mary, who preserved her chastity ..., who put her trust in the words of her Lord and his scriptures and was one of the truly devout" ("Prohibition" LXVI:12).

It was Sheikh Kaftaro, the grand mufti of Syria, who first gave me an Arabic translation of the Hail Mary, our most familiar prayer to Our Lady. Last year Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, the archbishop of Sao Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, went with me to St. Joseph Hospital to visit the sheikh, who was convalescing from surgery. There I reminded the mufti of how he had given me the Arabic text of the Hail Mary. Cardinal Neves was inspired to say to me, "Let us pray together the Hail Mary for the speedy recovery of our friend, Sheikh Kaftaro." And this we did in a way which showed the deepest bonds of friendship and support.

It is true, of course, that for all of the esteem and honor which Muslims and Christians have for Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her role in our separate ways of prayer, she is also the symbol of what radically divides us and what challenges us to dialogue. For Christians she is the all-holy "Theotokos," the mother of God, the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate. For Muslims she is the mother of Jesus, the Messiah, "who was no more than God's apostle and his Word, which he cast to Mary: a spirit from him" ("Women" IV:171). While this radical difference in faith forever separates us, it paradoxically also holds us forever in conversation with one another. And this conversation can, and should be, as the Second Vatican Council taught Catholics, a "jihad", a "striving for mutual understanding." And the council fathers went on to say of the Christians and Muslims together, "On behalf of all peoples, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom" ("Nostra Aetate," 3).

Here in the United States we have done just this. One thinks immediately of the fruitful collaboration of Muslims and Christians for the common good in Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, not to mention the helpful and friendly conversations between Muslim leaders and Catholic thinkers held under the auspices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops here in Washington, D.C., just a few years ago.

I recall also very distinctly how when word first came to us that Pope John Paul II would be visiting the United States in 1987, I suggested at the meeting of the Administrative Committee of our National Conference of Catholic Bishops that there should be an interfaith service, preferably at Los Angeles, at which the Holy Father might participate and thus demonstrate what had already begun to happen in that city. And it came to pass, a service in which Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists joined with local Catholics in listening to sacred readings, each in turn offering reflections. The Muslim speaker was Dr. Maher Hathout, who in time became a member of the American Muslim Council board of directors when it was established. Pope John Paul spoke last of all to underscore his deep appreciation for what was being accomplished.

At an academic level we are blessed by the faculty and programs at our great universities represented here tonight, The Catholic University of America, Georgetown University, Howard University. You and your programs have aided us much in our formal dialogue.

Now the times call for renewed efforts on our part to foster a climate of mutual respect and tolerance, not only in a world grown largely impervious to faith, but sadly ever more ready to think in terms of racial and cultural stereotypes. There are those commentators who at the close of the 20th century envision a coming clash of civilizations which they are ever more ready to see as a confrontation between Islam and the West. But here in America, Muslims and Christians are factually in a position to show that the circumstances of democracy can just as well foster a dialogue among the believers in the one God. Cardinal Francis Arinze put the point well in his "Message on the Occasion of Id al-Fitr" at the end of Ramadan 1423/1993. He said:
A challenge which faces us in this increasingly pluralist world is to show that genuine religion, based on belief in God and the desire to do his will, is not a divisive and disruptive element in society, but it is rather the firmest foundation for love of others, for justice and for a more fraternal and free society. To those who believe God is one, Creator of all, it follows that the human family is one. We share a common history and common hopes for the future. We who believe that God's will is sovereign over all humankind know that it is the will of God that every human person be treated with respect.
This fall I had the privilege of hosting His Holiness Pope John Paul II in Baltimore. One of the events we planned was a prayer service at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, which included guests from various Christian churches and our friends in the Muslim and Jewish communities. The Holy Father chose to speak on religious freedom:
Today religious tolerance and cooperation among Americans cannot simply be a pragmatic or utilitarian understanding, a mere accommodation to the fact of diversity. No, the source of your commitment to religious freedom is itself a deep religious conviction. Religious tolerance is based on the conviction that God wishes to be adored by people who are free: a conviction which requires us to respect and honor the inner sanctuary of conscience in which each person meets God" (Origins, 25:18 [Oct. 19, 1995]: 316).
Pope John Paul went on to speak to the very interests which brings us together now:
To all believers in the one true God I express the respect and esteem of the Catholic Church. As I said at the United Nations, the world must learn to live with 'difference' if a century of coercion is to be followed by a century of persuasion. I assure you, dear friends, that the Catholic Church is committed to the path of dialogue in her relations with Judaism and Islam, and I pray that through that dialogue new understanding capable of securing peace for the new world may be forged.

You have shown in this community how dialogue and cooperation can lead to improvements in civic life: in the work you have done together to promote the teaching of moral values in the public schools and in providing housing for the poor. May that work be blessed and may it increase as your dialogue of faith deepens in the years ahead.
The times call for a new dedication to dialogue and cooperation between our faith communities.
In my final presidential address to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, I built on our conversations with Muslim representatives in Baltimore and on my discussions in which I had participated with other Christians and with Jewish leaders to propose several ways in which the Catholic Church in the United States should cooperate to address areas where there is broad agreement on what we ought to do together:

  1. To promote a restoration of "basic moral teaching in the public schools" -- something already happening through interfaith cooperation in many communities.
  2. To "oppose, within the constitutional limits already acknowledged, pornography in all forms, especially that directed at children."
  3. To approach entertainment media leaders and advertisers regarding immorality and violence in the media.
  4. To work with the news and entertainment media to help them understand and convey the deep and genuine religious and moral dimensions of life, which so often seem strained out of reporting and programming. This is crucial in our country, where each week more people participate in public worship than in the spectator sports, which receive so much more attention.

A recent example of this restricted vision where matters of faith are concerned comes from the Balkans. Rabbi Arthur Schneier encouraged recent joint prayers for the success of the Dayton meetings seeking a peace accord for the region. From the Serbian patriarch, two Catholic Croatian cardinals and the principal Muslim authority came calls for peace. These were echoed in the United States by religious leaders of Christian churches and of the Jewish and Muslim faith communities. I suggested to Rabbi Schneier that he bring this to the attention of Cable News Network. What a helpful and dramatic report it would be to show on a single weekend the prayers being offered in synagogues, churches and mosques for God's gift of light for those working for peace, prayers for God's gift of lasting peace with justice for the region! But typically, this was not to be.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Messiah, was ever ready to do the will of God. In Catholic spirituality, believers recall the words she spoke to the angel who brought the news of God's plan for her. She responded, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word" (Lk. 1:38). This is the attitude of every true believer in the living God, the Lord of the universe.

May God be with us as we seek to discover his holy will for us and to do it.