Sunday, 28 February 2016 06:00

Parliament of the World’s Religions—Awesome

Written by John P. Martin, MM
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A temple under construction for the Parliament

John P. Martin, MM

Scouting the massive Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, set up for the 10,000 scheduled attendees, I was awed. A luxuriant parade of multi-colored folks from 80 countries were walking the corridors, meeting with friends, making new acquaintances, and scouting the environment like me. When else can you get to see some 40 different religious and spiritual traditions of the world in one place, with one heart and soul? So much peace and goodwill showed in everyone’s faces, and we shared the same mood of cheerful greeting. Awesome!


Indigenous People. The first morning, in the small grassy plot outside the Parliament, a Native American smoked me with burning sage grass for purification as a prelude to his son giving me a pinch of tobacco. I was instructed to offer it to the sacred fire burning on top of a raised platform. I prayed for a softening of the hearts of those opposed to letting the Spirit enter their hearts, everywhere. The indigenous peoples of Utah played a prominent role in the Parliament. We had asked permission to come to their land, and so we came. The opening ceremony highlighted their dancing and drumming, as well as many of their leaders who led us in prayer.

One excellent workshop promoted reconciliation between the Native Americans and the rest of us. A Quaker treated us to a mini-version of a longer formational program that she offers in churches and other groupings. Individuals representing Native Americans, the federal government, the settlers, and others, did readings that led us to experience the genocide that went on in the 19th century. I left with a strong conviction of the need to advocate that my Catholic Church abrogate the dictates from the 16th century that allowed the genocide to take place in the Americas. Ramifications of that “doctrine of discovery” still plague the legal system of our country against which Native Americans must struggle for their rights. 

Old Friends and New. I chatted about stages of faith development with a man from the Utah Civil and Compassionate Communities exhibit who knows a lot about developmental psychology. Fr. Thomas Keating, of Centering Prayer fame and a mentor for my own spiritual life, was involved in their local projects, too, to educate people about the golden rule and civility and compassion. Another connection made!

Florence McGuire at Catholic booth

Some Roman Catholic women priests who were ordained by valid male Catholic bishops and have propagated several hundred women priests and bishops were there. They of course know Roy Bourgeois from Maryknoll, who was severely punished for his advocacy of women priests in the Catholic Church. Gerry Grudzen, who had been ordained with Maryknoll in 1967, was present with companions from his study program in San Jose, California. His classmate, and now Affiliate, Tom McGuire, and his wife Florence, faithfully  staffed at the Catholic Association for Interreligious Officers’ exhibit. Rev. Marcus Braybrooke recognized my face, and I reminded him that we had met at the inter-religious assembly in Bangalore, India, in 1993. He wrote “Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue,” a fine history of the original Parliament in 1893. He said a shorter version is in print, too.

I met Patrice Broudeur, with whom I had studied at Harvard Divinity School. He is director of research for a major inter-religious group in Vienna, Austria, which is in touch with over 400 international groups doing interfaith work. Awesome has been the spreading of this movement! And Pat Lucey and Pauline Conway from Dublin, Ireland—they work at Misean Cara, where they coordinate development work among many mission-oriented groups. 

Muslims. I am interested in the condition of “dialogue” with the Muslims in this country, so I attended the workshop: “Peacemaking and bridge building at the grassroots between Muslims and non-Muslims.” My own perception of the severity of injustice and discrimination toward Muslims was confirmed. The sickness of Islamophobia is our new American racism! 

I have been aware of “A Common Word Between Us And You” since its publication in 2010 and of its transcendental nature and hopeful impact on the relationships of moderate Muslims with the Christian world. I tend to identify “moderate” Muslims with “liberal” leaders in our Western traditions, because of their openness to change, to dialogue and to fully respecting other believers. Written by an enormous and influential group of Muslim leaders, the document invites all Christians to a respectful dialogue based on the commonalities in both our traditions of love of God and love of neighbor. 

One of the major supporters of this Parliament, the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna, Austria, was founded by Austria, Spain, and Saudi Arabia, with the Holy See as Founding Observer. They “bring together leaders of religious communities and policy makers to find sustainable solutions to contemporary challenges and conflict situations.” They also backed a major effort to denounce violence in the name of religion.

Florence McGuire with head cover on way to Sikh free lunch

Sikhs. Those Sikh brothers and sisters, dozens mostly from Birmingham, England, outdid themselves in generosity by providing a free vegetarian meal to hundreds of us all four days of the Parliament. It is called Langar, with everyone sitting side by side (never some above the rest), to symbolize their basic belief in the equality of all humans, as it were, a sacrament of equality. 

Religious Observances. I selected observances each morning that would be new to me. I went to a pagan earth-centered chanting session, a healing ritual centered on the goddess Brigid, and a Sikh prayer time offered by a family, with the theme of peace, justice, and reconciliation. I attended the observance by the EarthSpirit Community from Western Massachusetts devoted to chanting to nature. I felt at home with these women and their nature chanting led by Deirdre Arthen. I sang much more and better than I have in a long time.

Awesome Parliament. The immense Parliament offers over 600 workshops, 20 or more for each time slot. Before the Parliament, the leadership had formulated Declarations on climate change, emerging leaders, income inequality, hate, violence and war, women’s rights, and indigenous peoples. We were encouraged to commit ourselves to implementing these declarations in our lives. The Parliament’s two major sub-themes—ways for people of faith and spirituality to address the pressing problems of today’s world—were climate change and income inequality, with a view to “renewing the heart of our humanity.” 

Afterwards, it felt like I was living half in and half outside of a sphere or a bubble—the special environment that the Parliament had created. It was an environment of harmony and of respect for all who are so different and are endowed so richly in dress and language, customs and faith. We were made aware of the enormously rich variety of our human heritages.

How small I am! For goodness’ sake, how small is Maryknoll in the cosmic context and in the total human context! Others are soooo much, and they are so many, and they are so big! It surely was an awesome trip, and now for the rest of the journey?

Affiliate Tom McGuire Adds His Comments:


Florence and Tom McGuire meet the Vatican Permanent Observer to the UN, The Most Reverend Bernardito C. Auza.

Florence and I, of the Chicago Affiliate Chapter, participated in this Parliament of the World Religions as members of the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical & Interreligious Officers. This organization made possible the Catholic booth at the PWR, which we staffed for most of the five days. Most of the many participants we talked to were overwhelmingly positive about Pope Francis’s Laudato Si. Also, I observed that a large number of Catholics had become members of other religious traditions. Someone said many, if not most, North American Buddhists are former Catholics. We had a deep sense of hope as 10,000 people from more than 45 different religions and 80 countries gathered to share concerns about sustaining our common home.

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