Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jesuit Building a ‘Trialogue’ Among Three Great Religions

Jesuit Father Patrick Ryan
by Peter Feuerherd
New York Province of the Society of Jesus

As he sat, literally and figuratively, in the chair of the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., Jesuit Father Patrick Ryan, S.J., reflected about following in the footsteps of a Catholic theological giant.

Father Ryan, 70, occupies the office and holds the chair as the Laurence J. McGinley professor of religion and society at Fordham University, a position held by Cardinal Dulles from 1988 until his death in 2008. A former student of Cardinal Dulles, Father Ryan, in the afterglow of Vatican II’s outreach to non-Christians, was urged by the theologian to pursue doctoral studies in comparative religion at Harvard.

He responded with a doctoral dissertation based in part on his own experience in Nigeria. As a young Jesuit teacher in Nigeria, Father Ryan got to know the Yoruba people, a group roughly half Christian and half Muslim, who have long experienced interfaith understanding.
The Yoruba are a model in a post-9/11 world, wrote Father Ryan in the February 2006 issue of National Jesuit News.

“The Yoruba Christians and Muslims, despite some efforts by a handful of fanatic on both sides in recent years, have learned not only to tolerate each other but even to join in each other’s moments of sorrow and moments of conviviality,” he wrote, citing their interfaith families and friendships. Among the Yoruba, Christians and Muslims routinely join together for weddings and funerals.

While an academic, it is the sights and sounds of Africa that animate Father Ryan, not the ivy-covered walls of an American college campus. “I return to Africa every night at 8 p.m. My imagination is still there,” he said in an interview shortly after his return to the U.S. It’s still true, he now says, even if he has made some accommodation to American life.

Besides 11 years in Nigeria, Father Ryan spent another 15 years in Ghana. Living there, he said, “I began to see the world the way many Third World peoples saw it.” A Jesuit for 52 years, Father Ryan spent half of that time in Africa.

Fr. Ryan with General Yakubu Gowon,  a former Nigerian head of state

In some ways, the American experience has become foreign to him, as he finds himself still adjusting to supermarkets bulging with aisles of dog food and paper towels, and life in a country where a health crisis now revolves around an abundance of food, unlike the relative scarcity of Africa. He still goes back to Nigeria and Ghana as often as he can, reconnecting with friends whose children he baptized and parents he buried. In 2005, after 60 students from Loyola Jesuit College were killed in a plane crash, he went back to Nigeria to pray with and console families and loved ones.

Cardinal Dulles used his forum as the McGinley scholar – named for a former Jesuit president of Fordham – for public presentations on doctrinal concerns. Those lectures attracted big crowds, particularly after he was named a cardinal in 2001.

Father Ryan comes to the McGinley chair with a different perspective, honed in Africa and also in academia, where he has mostly taught courses with a focus on the Islamic world. He intends to use the prestige of the new post to further many of his acquired interests. Besides his extensive contact with the Muslim world, as a native New Yorker he is familiar with Jewish culture and maintains close friendships with many Jews.  He will continue the McGinley lecture series with a focus on interfaith understanding among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. His first lecture, on Nov. 18 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus and Nov. 19 at its Bronx campus, is titled “Amen: Faith and the Possibility of Jewish-Muslim-Christian Trialogue.” Respondents will be Rabbi Daniel Polish, a Jewish scholar Father Ryan came to know at Harvard, and Professor Amir Hussain, a Canadian Muslim and professor at Loyola-Marymount University with family roots in Pakistan.

The hope is to encourage discussion and friendship among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, focused on what unites the three great faith traditions. As a starting point, Father Ryan will focus on how all three religious communities put their faith in a God who reaches out to humanity in a covenant relationship that has its roots in the biblical Abraham.

Fordham’s New York location is the perfect vehicle for such discussions, says Father Ryan. In a city that prides itself on diversity, “I am hoping we may be able at Fordham to provide a place here in the capital of the world where Jews, Christians and Muslims can engage in intellectual exchange.”

Again he harkens back to Africa. “I sometimes think we could learn a lot from those multi-religious Yoruba families I first met in Nigeria in 1964,” he says.