by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
I spend a fair amount of time on airplanes or in airports. I always try to pray before leaving on a trip that I will be open to opportunities to minister to my fellow travelers and open to opportunities for evangelization.
Recently one night I was in Chicago’s O’Hare airport seated in the gate area waiting to board my return flight to Kansas City. Our flight’s departure was delayed by about an hour and a half. I had several talks and homilies that I had to give in the next two days, so I had plenty to keep me occupied.
A young woman sat down next to me. I continued to work on the homily that I was preparing. When I finished, I prayed evening prayer. I had another talk that I needed to prepare, but I had the sense this young woman wanted to talk.
I asked her the obvious: “Are you headed to Kansas City?” She told me that she was. She lived in Overland Park. Then, she told me that she had been traveling for 20 hours that day. She was returning from Damascus where she had been visiting some of her extended family. Her mother and father had both emigrated from Syria to the United States. She had been born in America.
She obviously was very fatigued from her travels, but she was also very excited about her recent experiences. She asked me if I knew that Damascus was the longest continuously inhabited city in the world. I was not aware of that fact. She was kind enough to give me four pages of historical information about Damascus that she had downloaded from the Internet.
She was a Muslim, but she confessed that she had not been very practicing. She had been in Damascus for the beginning of Ramadan. She told me about this 30-day fast which, much like our Christian Lent, is meant to turn the heart away from its dependence on the things of this world and towards God. She told me about the beautiful faith of her family and how striving to do God’s will guided everyday life.
She was embarrassed by the extremists who had given a bad name to Islam. I asked her about the place of Mary in the Koran and Islam. She apologized for not knowing her faith better, but she said that Mary was revered as the mother of Jesus. She said that the “only” difference between the Christian understanding of Jesus and the Islamic understanding is that Christians believe Jesus to be the “Son” and Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet. She related how the significant Christian population in Damascus and the large Muslim population live side by side in peace.
I was very impressed by this young woman. She obviously had a great love for her parents and family. She had a deep yearning to grow closer to God. She wanted more than anything else to do God’s will.
She was not wearing the traditional Muslim dress for women. She said that in Syria about half of the women wear the traditional dress and veil, but all women dress modestly. I could sense that she was herself striving to live a virtuous life.
Yet, I kept thinking back to her comment that the “only” difference between the Islamic and Christian understanding of Jesus is the difference between the words — son and prophet. In a sense, she was correct except for the “only.” This is not a small but huge difference! It also made me consider if we who have grown up as “cradle Catholics” in a predominantly Christian culture appreciate the significance of what we believe about Jesus.
Muslims find our belief in the Trinity scandalous. They view it as a regression to polytheism. Moreover, they find addressing God as “Father” offensive. Muslims view this as a lack of reverence for God and his transcendence.
It is our understanding of Jesus as the Son of God and his sharing his life with us that allows us to call upon God as Father. Jesus has opened for us an opportunity for an intimacy with God that is not found in Islam or any other religion. The remarkable beauty of our Christian faith is that we believe completely in the awesome transcendence of God, who is the creator and Lord of the universe, and at the same time that this transcendent God so loved us he sent his only Son to be conceived in the womb of Mary and to share fully in our humanity.
If we understand what we believe about Jesus, then we could never stop marveling about the goodness of God and giving thanks for the miracle of his love for us revealed in Jesus. The document “Dominus Iesus” (“The Lord Jesus”), issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in August 2000 (and discussed last week in this column), was an effort to represent for interfaith dialogue a clear understanding of what Christians believe about Jesus Christ and how it is significantly different from the “founders” of other world religions.
It was also an effort to represent to Christians the great gift of our faith in Jesus who not only promises us eternal life but gives us intimacy with God (the abundant life) in this world.
I told my young Muslim friend that I enjoyed talking with her. I asked her to pray for me and I would pray for her. I gave her my card and told her if she ever wanted to know more about Jesus to contact me.
I have been praying that God provides her the opportunity to know Jesus as the Son so that she will come to also know herself as his beloved daughter. I also pray that I never take for granted in my life the great gift of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.