Gods House has Many Doors
Michael Fitzsimons talks with Pushpa and Jack Wood about what an interfaith relationship looks like up close.
Living with cultural and religious differences is something that Pushpa and Jack Wood know more about than most of us.
Pushpa is a Hindu, from the Brahman priestly caste and Jack a Roman Catholic raised and educated in the Hutt Valley. They met more than 30 years ago when they were both on Asia-Pacific Commonwealth Youth Development Fellowships in India.
When Jack first asked Pushpa to get married she turned him down, afraid of what it might mean for the future of her younger sister and her family.
From Differing Traditions
“Coming from such different traditions was a huge deal for us,” says Pushpa. “And it was not only the religious differences, which came later. The biggest hurdle was our highly different cultures. I think my family feared their idea of Westerners and Christians, an idea they’d received through media and films. Because my Dad was a union leader, he was a lot more understanding and tolerant of other cultures and faiths than my mother and grandmother. They feared not only that they would lose a daughter, but that their daughter would lose all she had been taught, that I would become a Christian.”
Jack, for his part, was a man in love, ignorant of Indian culture and on the receiving end of misperceptions about Western culture.
“Pushpa’s family got their ideas of Western culture from bad films, largely. For example, they believed that Western men drink a lot, smoke a lot, go out with other women a lot, that they have no regard for the stability of marriage.
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and neither does Pushpa. And we’ve been married for 32 years.
“Basically they were ignorant, just as Pushpa found many New Zealanders were when we came here in 1980. Even in the young Indian community in New Zealand at that time, a mixed marriage was very unusual.
“One of the nuns who taught me, my music teacher, was very happy about the marriage, but another nun who was very traditional told me that she was very disappointed. And my priest wouldn’t marry us. Those were the difficulties. But that is where the Church was at the time. Our marriage was a civil ceremony.”
As it turned out, Jack was a skilled and persistent letter-writer, and love triumphed over the obstacles. The journey since then has been one of mutual respect and openness, with both staying strong in their own religious traditions.
On this bleak Monday morning, temperatures plummeting, we meet in Pushpa’s office at Massey University (Wellington campus) where she is the Director of the New Zealand Centre of Personal Financial Education. Jack works in a community and management business consultancy, principally focused in Asia. They live nearby in the suburb of Mount Cook, which has always been their base. They have one daughter, Gayatri who has been exposed to all major faith traditions and doesn’t see the need to establish a superiority of any one over another. She’s a believer in “world religion”, notes Jack. “She wants to take the best of everything she finds.”
Over the long span of their marriage, Jack has found Hinduism to be a very accepting religion.
“In my experience it has certain social and cultural drawbacks but I can go and pray in any temple. I can’t go into a mosque in the same manner, for example. They accept Jesus Christ. In my ignorance, I thought that all Hindu statues represented different Gods, when in reality they are different channels to God, much like the Virgin Mary is a channel to God. It’s a difference of language. I found it very easy to accept Hinduism, in this respect. I have always encouraged Pushpa to practise what she wanted to practise. I go to Pushpa’s temple, and she comes to my church, relatively often.”
Pushpa has a PhD in Indian religions and has been a driving force in interfaith dialogue in New Zealand over many years. She believes the ultimate aim of religion is the same, whatever your tradition.
“I grew up alongside my Dad’s union gatherings, with Muslim, Sikh and Christian uncles, uncles from all different faiths. Christ was another of the whole horde of gods and goddesses we prayed to.
“At a very young age I was taught by my grandfather that God has not blessed this world with only one kind of flower. The other thing I always remember is that God’s place has many doors for entry. Who am I to make judgment on another belief system? That is why I have trouble with people who tell me that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ.
“We go to a Jewish synagogue, too, and a Buddhist monastery. For us, irrespective of faith traditions, the ultimate aim is the same. We just have different paths to get there.”
Similarity and Challenge
A major similarity between Christianity and Hinduism is the sanctity of life, says Pushpa.
“Life is sacred because there is an unbroken bond between the soul and the supreme soul. The ultimate aim is to be reunited with the supreme soul. The difference is that I as a Hindu believe you might need to take many forms before this reunion, such as reincarnation.”
The challenge, says Pushpa, is not just to tolerate other religions but to seek greater understanding.
“I think tolerance is inactive, but understanding is active and inclusive. The person who really influenced my thinking on this was Father Bede Griffiths. He spent quite a lot of time with Hindus in India, and somebody told him that he was losing his Christianity. I remember him saying that the more he learnt about Hinduism, the better Christian he became. I think this is very true.”
Intra-faith relationships, rather than relationships between faiths, can present an even bigger challenge, says Pushpa.
“ It is sometimes more difficult for me to connect with another Hindu than it is with a Christian. Within the same faith tradition, people can be so close-minded. Between faiths the differences are obvious, and you know where you stand. But within the same faith, where there are so many similarities, things can be far less clear.
“My fundamental belief is that understanding another faith tradition doesn’t mean losing one’s own. In my experience this is people’s biggest fear, when entering an inter-faith relationship. But if you’re secure within your own skin — in your faith, your culture, your belief system — then I think you won’t be threatened by others.”
For Jack an inter-faith relationship is all about accepting your partner as a whole. Falling in love is only the beginning.
A Vase to Polish
“An inter-faith relationship encourages understanding. Love is like a vase which will inevitably be tarnished, and you have to polish it. Anything can make up the formula you polish it with. A diverse formula is a good thing, I believe it helps.”
A Birthday Reflection - The Problem with 'Mother Church'
Author: Anna Holmes.
As we age, birthdays become times of reflection on personal journeys, the world about us and the many beloved and stimulating people who have accompanied us. There is also a sense of where do I go from here?
Women who have accompanied me for more than 30 years — Margaret Farley, Elizabeth Johnson, Joan Chittister, Edwina Gateley, have all been under increasing attack from the Vatican for writing what they believe and know about the world we live in. That is the role of those called to be prophets or mystics.
I have been enabled and accompanied by so many extraordinary women and women religious in my life. I remember the love of the Carmelite sisters who arranged my first communion celebration in Sri Lanka. They had decorated the chapel exquisitely and made a feast for us. My biology teacher in the 50’s who taught us about human sexuality and my headmistress at the time who gave me room to protest at injustice while enabling me to be accommodating.
The SMSM sisters I worked with on the Chatham Islands who in spite of habits that were totally inappropriate to the terrain refused to allow them to be humanly diminishing. I have wonderful memories of their veils blowing away in a fierce southerly and of two of the sisters in full habit and veils (and my husband) frantically digging out pipis on an incoming tide.
These women not only took care of the physical well being of the islanders, they also enabled their spiritual wellbeing as well as supporting the priest and doctor’s family. I later worked with them in Bangladesh where they bore witness in a clinic that took care of all in the community even the most outcast. That clinic was later closed by the arbitrary decision of the Bishop and parish priest without any discussion with the sisters who worked there.
Then there were the Maryknoll sisters I worked with in Tanzania in the early 1970s who were supported by an amazing, saintly bishop. They were a most remarkable, courageous and spiritually seeking group of women working under difficult conditions. Together we read the documents of Vatican 2 in the light of the very poor country in which we lived.
There I first heard a woman say she thought she had a priestly vocation — she was the pastor of a huge area where a visiting priest occasionally came to say mass. Her main anguish was about the women whom she knew well, who told her of their pain and need for reconciliation and whom she then had to hand on to an unknown priest for absolution. It was there that I also heard of the large number of priests with ‘wives’ in the villages — wives who had children and were often abandoned if the priest was moved on.
The last Maryknoll friend working in Tanzania has just returned to the US at the age of 84. She worked in community development with women teaching them to garden and sew, with men teaching them how to build safe houses from local materials. Latterly she was also much involved with the AIDS orphans of whom there are so many.
For over 30 years in New Zealand I have been well supported by other women. These have been women of courage and strength working in areas that were neglected, maintaining parishes and giving wise counsel to so many. They too have been criticized for daring to question the church hierarchy when they were being unjust or discriminatory.
I remember the outcry when the Mercy sisters went to work in Aranui in Christchurch and the amazing things that happened there as a result of that work. I remember the spontaneous response to the letter of Pope John Paul on the non-ordination of women and the formation of Catholic Women Knowing Our Place. For we did and do know our place as beloved of God called to proclaim freedom to those captured by the materialism and individualism of this age even within the church. The strength of this message is not in political posturing or alliances; it is in the truth within it.
The Catholic church is Catholic in the wider meaning of the word. Many find comfort and shelter within it even if they do not agree with some official pronouncements. The social justice teaching of the Catholic church is founded on the essential truth that all are equal before God. This is the very thing that even those who walk away from the church keep — the passionate sense of God’s love for all. They walk away from the institutional church because they see it living a lie — proclaiming justice and living oppression.
Who can blame them?
I almost despair at the actions of the Vatican, the active injustice, oppression and attempts to control and limit the contribution of women. Do they live in a hermetically sealed enclave, out of touch with the reality of the post-modern world? Can they not hear the call of the poor, the alienated, the many searching for spiritual sustenance? Are they so afraid of women being their equals before God?
I cannot remember a time like this when people looked for spirituality in their lives. They see that materialism and individualism lead to alienation and despair. Somehow the institutional churches are unable to meet their need. They fail to see the change in understanding of the physical world today from an ordered rule-bound universe to a quantum state where everything is interconnected. This is the place of mysticism not doctrine.
But mysticism is not controllable. This God will not be doled out in limited parcels but illuminates every particle of the creation. Do church leaders really think that following the rules laid down by men is more important than ministering to the suffering? Are they really under the impression that ritual and pomp, birettas and fine music, reveal the presence of God to the poor and needy in the world? This is after all the God who comes not in the storm but in the gentle breeze. This God is with the women who are oppressed.
The problem with ‘Mother Church’ is that there are no mothers within its structure. Mothers and those who take that role know that children often do not obey the rules, make mistakes and are messy and untidy. They need to be allowed space to explore and make their own journey with all the stops and starts life journeys bring. They always need to be forgiven and healed when they are suffering. With much love, children grow into loving and lovable human beings. That is surely the message of Jesus and needs to be rediscovered as the message of the church. I can see the banners:
PUT WOMEN BACK INTO MOTHER CHURCH.
Author: Cathy Harrison interviews Sister Bertha Hurley on her journey with interfaith matters and how this has deepened her own faith, brought about many important friendships, and given her hope and energy for the future.
Sinking comfortably into her chair in her St Alban’s Christchurch home, Sister Bertha Hurley SMSM (Missionary Sister of the Society of Mary) wastes no time luring me into the joys of her 21 years in Fiji. They began in 1978 in a village on the island of Vanua Levu Fiji, after seven years secondary teaching in Samoa. That Fiji experience has resulted in a life-long commitment to interfaith dialogue and the building of many friendships. Bertha’s ministry was warmly received by Catholic, Hindu and Muslim families. Subsequently her interfaith journey took her out of the village to gatherings, further education and around the globe. But mostly it has led her into the ‘Oneness’ of God.
Bertha remembers the village where her journey began. “Those three years in Naleba, 12 miles from Labasa, gave me the happiest moments of my life. I’m talking of pre-coup days. If ever you could say that there was an interfaith village that was it. Everyone joined in everything — so if there was a birthday or a wedding or a funeral the family involved would always have prayer and everyone would be there. They would listen respectfully. As teachers, we were expected to be there. If not, we’d be sent for.” Even chickens for Christian and Hindu celebrations were killed by Muslim men, Bertha explained.
Her most significant experiences in interfaith relationships were homely and personal. She tells how “one Christmas the Catholics decided that they were going to have a little float to go around the villages. We had a pickup covered with tar paper and lights inside and cut-outs of Mary, the baby and the shepherds. Everybody wanted to help and when the light truck drove off there were also the crescent moon and star and the Hindu diya or lamp. While it was a Christian celebration, it was an incredible interfaith experience — Christians, Muslims and Hindus sharing together.”
Bertha recalls another occasion, where the child of the only Catholic family in a village was to be baptised. Hindu and Muslim families helped prepare the meal and the shelter shed, then respectfully attended the ceremony, making it a wonderful interfaith experience.
Another significant experience for her occurred in 1997 when she travelled to the World Council of Churches’ symposium in Varanassi, India. She was accompanied by Gendawati Prasad, a Hindu woman, who remarked, “When we began Interfaith Search Fiji in Suva we were like islands — suspicious of one another (it was after the coup) — suspicious and afraid. Now when I come, I meet friends and I love our gatherings.”
Bertha heralds the courage of interfaith people, like the Anglican Bishop Bryce in Fiji. He read a prayer in the Catholic cathedral in Suva along with the Interfaith Search president Hardayal Singh, a Sikh. The next day a newspaper photo caused some Anglicans to demonstrate against their Bishop. Bertha sympathised with him in this predicament. But he stood by his action, saying that people have to learn from and accept interfaith experiences.
Bertha finds joy in interfaith relationships. Though she found Hindu prayer foreign to her, on one occasion it led her to her own prayer. She was travelling to Suva by bus, windows wide open. The bus stopped at the university bus stop where many students got on and off. It is also the place where a Hindu Temple is situated. “A group of women were going in procession to the Temple, carrying diyas and tambourines, singing and praying and I thought, here are women so committed to prayer and worship that they are able to ignore the student melee! While I was watching I was drawn into prayer and felt as if I were in God’s presence. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. Only afterwards I realized that the bus had moved on and we were almost in Suva. It affected me throughout the whole day. As I reflect on the occasion now, I am reminded of the oneness of God.”
“You’ve got to be grounded in your own faith before you can really be involved in interfaith,” she explains. “Otherwise, I think it can be threatening. It’s certainly challenging. Yet I find it’s a very humbling experience to listen to my Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish friends talking, and to see their commitment to God and their love of God.”
Once she was challenged by a Christian minister who was not part of the interfaith movement. He asked, “How can you be a missionary and yet be involved in interfaith dialogue?” She thought about that and came to realize that “being involved there, sharing my faith in our interfaith discussions, is like ploughing the soil for the seed. Only God can give that seed. And so I felt quite comfortable being involved in interfaith matters.”
Doors of the Temple
She explains how the Sikh temple has four doors, one on each side: “Each side is open to you to come in. Sikhs are very much into hospitality. Sunday is their day of prayer and after worship they have a meal open to everyone. We have so much to learn from one another. Openness and readiness to listen are essential. It’s easy to filter things and colour them through your own lens. We need to accept humanness.”
“My interfaith experience has deepened my understanding of God,” she said, “and enriched and challenged my own faith.” Bertha has learnt that God’s love is present regardless of religion, and that people’s love of God is dominant: “It is just expressed differently. We need to accept and respect the differences and also to allow them to inspire us.”
Bertha considers that “There’s too much of ‘me (or us) and them’ and that if people can move out of their comfort zone barriers start to disappear.” She is intent on recognising inner beauty in everyone and believing that differences are few. She quotes from the Acts of the Apostles (10: 34-35) where Peter says, “The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.” She smiles with an inner satisfaction.
Significant religious figures from her time in Fiji are highlighted in Bertha’s stories. She remembers in particular Master Hussein of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Fiji and M Pandaram, a Hindu gentleman, one of the founding members of Interfaith Search Fiji. He died from a heart attack while at the Temple praying on one of the main Hindu festivals.
Turning to her present work in New Zealand, Bertha finds hope for the interfaith movement in the Christchurch Interfaith Society’s Prayers for World Peace, the Assisi Day of Prayer, their discussion evenings and Interfaith Society’s desire for participation in the Christchurch rebuild — a spiritual rebuilding.
The New Zealand National Interfaith Conference, held annually, invigorates her as well. “Hindus, Muslims, Jews and the wide variety of Christian participants sharing together fill me with hope, and enliven me to want to continue in interfaith dialogue and activities. The movement is growing around New Zealand and is getting more catholic media coverage but we need to get more into the general media.”
Little Candles Burning
When Interfaith Search Fiji was making a submission to the Fiji Constitution Forum, Sir Paul Reeves said to her, “It’s very small. It’s not much more than a candlelight.” She replied, “Yes, but there are lots of little candles beginning to burn.”
Immersed in her memories Bertha was undisturbed by a 5.2 earthquake! She is as enthusiastic as ever about interfaith relations as well as her diverse pastoral commitments in Christchurch. If I had to reduce her incredible story to one word, it would be ‘love’.
The Vatican State - How Come?
One of New Zealand’s best known writers casts her critical eye over how the Vatican State came into being to answer another important question: what is the state of the Vatican? This is the first of two articles. In this part, Sister Pauline looks at the history of the development of the Vatican State.
Author: Sister Pauline O’Regan is a member of the Aranui Mercy Sisters community.
Recently I was asked by a younger person to explain, if I could, the existence of such an entity as a Vatican State. The tone was accusing. He’d just discovered that it’s the size of a large golf course, has no democratic government and sends diplomats all over the world. I considered that for him to have any understanding of this strange phenomenon we needed to go back a little.
I began by reminding him that the nation of Italy is significantly younger than that of New Zealand. Before the year 1860, Italy as such did not exist. Until then, that peninsula that so resembles a large boot, was made up of many small states, quite independent of one another, each ruled by rulers with absolute power, all of them oppressive. They ranged from the occupation of the north by the Austrians to the hated French Bourbon dynasty in the south. All of central Italy, known as the Papal States, was ruled by the Pope.
How Italy Came to Be
The Middle East today, I told him, is the Europe of the 19th century. The people were no longer able to tolerate oppressive regimes and were ready to lay down their lives to overthrow them. In Italy, thanks to a clever statesman in the north, named Cavour and a charismatic soldier in the south named Garibaldi, the hated rulers were driven out and the nation of a united Italy came into being. One of those overthrown rulers was Pope Pius IX. The Papal States became part of the new Italy led from Piedmont in the north.
But Rome had been the capital of the Papal States and the new rulers did not dare to include the city of Rome in the new Italy. They feared that if they did, either Austria or France, mindful of the powerful Catholic vote in each country, might invade Italy once more to restore his capital city to the Pope. Even as it was, French troops were already stationed in Rome to protect the Pope.
Loss of the Papal States
Pius IX was distraught by the loss of his lands, the Papal States. He believed that the Catholic Church could not survive without the backing of its secular power.
So, he resigned?
Hardly! No, he did two things, both profoundly affecting the church to this day.
He began systematically to centralise the universal church on Rome and secondly, to cement the spiritual power of the papacy to replace the temporal power it had lost.
Now, how could he do that?
Well, for one thing, he decreed that the authority of the Pope in certain circumstances be absolute. That was the beginning of an undermining of the authority of bishops in their local areas. Consciously or not, he opened the way for the creation of the climate of fear that besets authority in the Church today. Each bishop has to toe the papal line no matter what his own conscience tells him is right or his knowledge of his particular region tells him is appropriate for him to do. The context of the church in Africa is different from that of Iceland for example, or of New Zealand for that matter. If a bishop doesn’t conform to papal instruction, he runs the almost certain risk of being suspended.
The Syllabus of Errors
To make sure that bishops knew what was expected of them, Pius IX wrote an encyclical letter Quanta Cura with an accompanying Syllabus of Errors. This Syllabus consisted of a long list of condemnations which effectively denounced every development in thought, political liberalism, science, and technology of that time. To give my friend an idea of the drift of this document, I limited myself to its condemnation of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. I suggested he google the rest!
Was that all?
Not by a long shot.
1870: Turning Ppoint
I confined myself to the most significant step in establishing papal power. There is more often than not, one year in every century, I told him, which proves, in retrospect, to have been a turning point. Events come together in that year, to change the course of history. 1870 was such a year, both for the world and for the Church.
In 1870, Pius IX convened an Ecumencial Council of the Church, to be known later as Vatican I. The bishops of the world were gathered in Rome. They had not fully covered the agenda when Prussia declared war on France. The French troops, urgently needed at home, were immediately withdrawn from Rome. This meant that the new Italian army would now seize the moment to take Rome. While they would never touch the person of the Pope, he felt himself to be dangerously exposed. With Europe at war, the bishops fled Rome overnight. Vatican I was adjourned and was never formally closed. That’s how things remained until 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II.
The main topic on the agenda of Vatican I was that of infallibility. There were those who supported the Pope in his contention that infallibility was vested solely in the person of the Pope. Others contended with equal passion, that the tradition of the Church was never that the Pope alone was infallible, but rather the Pope, in union with the College of Bishops in an Ecumencial Council of the Church. Before it could be fully discussed, the war precipitated events. There was a hurried vote and the majority of bishops voted with the Pope.
And the Catechism...
After that, it remained only for an obscure English nun to compile a book to become known as The Penny Catechism, for the Penny Catechism to be disseminated throughout the English-speaking world, for virtually every Catholic child to learn the catechism off by heart, (Q. Is the Pope infallible? A. The Pope is infallible.) and the doctrine became cemented into the Catholic mindset, never to be questioned.
And that’s how things stayed until 1962; but more of that in the next article