John P. Martin, MM*
This year, from October 15-19, the grand-daddy of all inter-faith assemblies will convene in Salt Lake City to celebrate “Reclaiming the heart of our humanity: Working together for a world of compassion, peace, justice and sustainability.” This Parliament of World Religions has quite a history, and I have gained much from my association with it.
The first Parliament of World Religions (http://www.parliamentofreligions.org/) took place September 11-27, 1893, and was a resounding success, with 4,000 participants and representatives from forty churches and traditions. With its goal to bring together in one place the many religious traditions of the world, it was hailed as a pioneering event. The goal was to express the harmony that can and should prevail among believers in God, despite our different garbs and tongues, traditions and rituals. Some established Christian churches were repulsed by the idea that leaders of non-Christian traditions would be included. Still the organizing went on.
Despite the bias toward European and North American Christian presence and organization, the breadth of topics and the extensive participation of believers of many traditions from many lands accounted for the very positive reactions to this event. It was perhaps the largest and most influential interfaith gathering among peoples of the world to date.
This Parliament resulted in the founding in 1900 in Boston the International Association for Religious Freedom (https://iarf.net), the first-ever international interfaith group. In 1936, Sir Francis Younghusband founded the World Congress of Faiths and in 1960, the dream of Judith Hollister came true in the Temple of Understanding. 1970 saw the birth of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (now Religions for Peace – http://www.rfpusa.org/). Their present secretary general is former Maryknoll Lay Missioner William Vendley, and our John McAuley, MM, worked there also. This legacy includes countless groups organized within many religious traditions dedicated to the dream of religious harmony and collaboration among all believers.
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) from India was an instant success from the start of his speech addressed to “Sisters and Brothers of America.” His guru Swami Ramakrishna was a reclusive renunciant in Calcutta, West Bengal, whose lineage has been propagated by the organizing efforts of his most famous disciple in the West as well as in India. I had the privilege of visiting his ashram and being the guest of the Ramakrishna Order while in India myself.
Swami Paramananda (1884-1940), an early disciple of Vivekananda, came to the United States in 1906 and established an ashram in Cohasset, Massachusetts. He later selected his niece Mataji Gayatri Devi (born in Barisal, Bangladesh) to direct the community at his passing. I had the privilege of knowing her; she initiated me as a sannyasin (renunciant). I maintain my contact with this inspiring community.
I attended the congress in Bangalore, India, organized by the four interfaith groups cited above. I had lived in Bangladesh from 1975 through 1981 and had been living since 1991 in West Bengal, so I already knew the Bengali language. The long discussions on the proposal from Hans Kung, “A Global Ethic,” were a salient feature of this congress.
Increasingly, I see how these events and encounters have enriched my life. My mind and heart and spirit have been expanded to become more tolerant, less inclined to judge. My perspective has become one of universalism, of respecting others as true believers in the one god of all. I see religious diversity as a gift helping us all to live by our faith traditions.