Seeds of Peace – Interfaith Prayer

Seeds of Peace

By Paul Moses

As the coronavirus pandemic shut down churches across the green expanses of the west of Ireland, Fr. Stephen Farragher decided it would be a fine idea to let a local radio station broadcast his celebrations of the Mass on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Shortly afterward, two men he knew from the local Muslim community contacted him and asked if there could be a joint act of solidarity in response to the pandemic. “Just spontaneously, because I had so much on my plate at the time, I said, ‘Look, my Friday Mass is being broadcast,’” Farragher said. “Why don’t you come at the end of Mass and you can say a prayer.” And so, just before the final blessing at Mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo on April 3, one man intoned the Islamic call to prayer and then the other prayed for God’s mercy on all suffering from the coronavirus.

Unfortunately for Farragher, news of this small event in a rural town of 2,312 people made its way across the ocean to the alt-right Catholic media in the United States and it was twisted into: “MUSLIM DECLARES MUHAMMAD’S SUPREMACY OVER JESUS AT CATHOLIC MASS.”

It is the usual inflammatory commentary from these self-appointed defenders of the Catholic faith, slanted to produce maximum resentment and a predictable wave of online bullying. “It has been a tough, tough week for me, but I’ve been buoyed by the support of many wonderful parishioners here who know me to be the person that I am,” Farragher told me by telephone on Good Friday. “Maybe if I were more cautious by nature, I probably wouldn’t have done that, but it was just a spontaneous act in unprecedented times, really.”

I had contacted Farragher because I was struck by a very large gap in the accounts I’d read. That is: St. John Paul II had allowed the same Muslim call to prayer, the adhan, to mingle with the Mass he celebrated at Manger Square in Bethlehem on March 22, 2000. In that case, it was planned in advance at the highest level of the church. To my knowledge, no one ever accused the pope of heresy, or of celebrating a Satanic Mass, because of this. No one said the pope acquiesced to “an act of Islamic triumphalism.”

Farragher said that he has tried to tell his critics about the World Day of Prayer for Peace that Pope John Paul had initiated in Assisi in 1986, when representatives of many religions prayed, each in their own way but side-by-side. “I dare not mention Pope Francis’s visit to Abu Dhabi and the statement cosignedwith the grand imam,” he said, referring to the groundbreaking Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. “The same people who criticize me have it really in for Pope Francis as well.”

Pope John Paul, an actor in his youth, delighted in making symbolic gestures aimed at achieving reconciliation and peace. In the jubilee-year Mass in Bethlehem, he turned a potential cause of division—the usual call to prayer from the mosque conflicted with the scheduled time of the Mass—into one such symbol. For the Palestinian Christians who crowded into Manger Square, it was an electric moment.

After the pope completed his homily with the greeting of peace, “As-salaam alaikum,” the adhan rang out from the Omar bin al-Kiata Mosque, which towers over the square where the Mass was celebrated. John Paul, seventy-nine years old at the time and afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, sat quietly and, it seemed to me, reflectively, during the three minutes that the muezzin sang the prayer in Arabic:

God is most great. God is most great.
God is most great. God is most great.
I testify there is no god except God.
I testify there is no god except God.
I testify that Muhammed is the messenger of God.
I testify that Muhammed is the messenger of God.
Come to prayer! Come to prayer!
Come to success! Come to success!
God is most great. God is most great.
There is no god except God.

The Latin Rite patriarch of Jerusalem at the time, Michel Sabbah, said a few words to the congregation in Arabic after the prayer ended, and a big cheer went up. Later, I sought out a translation. The patriarch explained that the muezzin’s prayer had been arranged earlier, adding, “And we witness once again the unity of Muslims and Christians.”

This bit of cooperation induced tears in some of the Palestinian Christians I interviewed after the Mass. “I have no words to tell you what my feelings are,” Suad Sfeir, a Palestinian Christian woman from Bethlehem, told me. “I am speechless. I don’t know what to say.” Her husband, Tony Sfeir, who received communion from the pope, was also overcome with emotion, saying that “both were praising God.”

One can only imagine the attacks Pope Francis would undergo today if he had permitted what occurred. But at the time, the muezzin’s prayer was little more than a footnote in news coverage of John Paul’s busy day on the West Bank. Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, described the overlapping of prayers as“mutual and respectful.” Papal biographer George Weigel, who kept a diary of thepope’s pilgrimage for First Things, made no mention of it in his entry for March 22, 2000.

As I spoke with Farragher, it became apparent to me that Ballyhaunis and St. Patrick’s Church are in fact a model for responding to the diversity Europe is struggling with. The town has been described as the most diverse in Ireland. Located seven miles east of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Knock, it has one of the largest mosques in Ireland.

Farragher traced this to Pakistani-born businessman Sher Mohammed Rafique’s decision to open a halal meat-processing plant there in the 1970s. As the son of a farmer, Farragher expressed his appreciation for the jobs and the market this had brought to the region—and for the diversity. The community grew, as did the business, and now about a third of the students in the church-run primary school are Muslims, he said.

When Rafique died last year he was widely mourned and, Farragher said, many parishioners went to the mosque when he was remembered. Rafique’s son was one of the two men who came to him recently seeking out some act of solidarity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, which is afflicting without regard to creed.

Because of that, good intentions can sometimes lead to unhappy results. St. John Paul II experienced that on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as I recall from covering it for Newsday. He had the Vatican choreograph one of those symbolic events that were so dear to him. In a ceremony at the Notre Dame Center, located just outside the walls of the old city, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish children sang songs of peace as the pope, the chief rabbi, and a prominent sheikh prepared to plant three olive trees. Just to get the Jewish and Muslim leaders to share the stage took great effort, and then the ceremony fell apart. The rabbi asserted that the pope had affirmed Jerusalem as the “united eternal capital” of Israel, which wasn’t the case, and then the sheikh responded with a fiery speech and walked out.

We never know if the seeds we plant will sprout. But even if they fail, we don’t stop planting.


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  1. Eugene Sheehan says:

    Well done, Stephen Farragher, for following your heart, rather than your head, and to Paul Moses for publicising the wonderful gesture. God is to be found “in the bits and pieces of every day”, so God was truly praised and the people truly blessed in this simple act of goodness and kindness.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    It’s no use invoking the authority of any pope against these American rightists. They used the pope as a battering ram as long as they could (though John Paul II always disappointed them on the interreligious front), but now they lack that weapon. Their screaming is an indication of their extreme weakness, and they can safely be ignored.

    It’s important to make the interreligious teaching and activities of the church better known. Sermons on Jewish-Christian and Islamic-Christian friendship and dialogue would be a salutary sowing of good seed.

  3. Vincent A. Keane says:

    I am a native of Ballyhaunis and have spent the last 50 years in the United States. I am so proud of Fr. Farragher for his sense of inclusiveness, and his respect for all cultures and religions. Our parish is blessed to have him. If the right wing defenders of Orthodoxy was there when Jesus met the woman at the well they would have criticized him too, so don’t worry Fr. Steve, you are on the right side of justice and integrity.

  4. Pól Ó Duibhir says:

    As an unbeliever, can I express my solidarity with Fr. Farragher. He did the right thing. More power to him.

    I am proud of Ballyhaunis’s record on integration.

    My father was born in Barrack St. which has its own back entrance to the church grounds. I had two cousins priests from Abbeyquarter and have attended two funerals in person in St Patrick’s – one a long time ago (Fr Ciaran 1995) and one more recently (Matt Dwyer 2016) and followed another on the church’s excellent web service (Frank Purcell 2018).

    I have a cousin on the other side of the family who, as a PP many moons ago, invited the Protestant Rector to address his congregation. He was complained to the Bishop but is still in good standing.

  5. Colm Holmes says:

    Congratulations to Fr Stephen Farragher on his wonderful welcome to the muslim community by allowing the Islamic call to prayer at the end of mass as an act of solidarity in response to the pandemic. A very Christian gesture deserving of everyone’s praise and support. So sad that some ultra extremist conservatives in the USA have attacked him for being a true Christian.
    Many thanks,
    Colm Holmes

  6. John Lindsay says:

    There is a story(possibly / probably apocryphal) I tell about our first Parish Priest, who, when asked how the Parish Mission was going, replied, “It’s great! They’re throwing stones at my windows!” Digital stones nowadays, but it’s still great! Thanks, Father Farragher!

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    Delighted to hear the Vatican is doing a survey of the pastoral fall-out of the restored Tridentine (1962) rite. My advice is: DUMP IT FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!

    And please, please would the pope and bishops do some radical reflection on the mess they have made of the Eucharist all round? We should have a rich and nourishing liturgical culture rather than the tawdry, paltry routines that are bereft of any theological meditation. The utterly horrible new English “translation” is the epitome of this. Please study what other churches are doing right and humby learn from them.

  8. John McParland says:

    Stephen, I was sorry to read that you have had to endure these inflammatory remarks and online bullying of “ these self appointed defenders of the Catholic faith” Your spontaneous act of love and friendship in these unprecedented times was in my opinion absolutely the right decision and an appropriate symbolic gesture with all involved praising God mutually and respectfully…. a small step on the road to peace and reconciliation. As a Principal in a Church of England Academy in Kent and previously a Catholic Headteacher I often quote the Latin phrase of Pope John XX111 “ ut unum sint. “ praying that all Christians may be one. In my Church School my Syrian Muslim refugee children pray each day in our chapel at break and lunch time. Indeed over 30 years ago in a Catholic Sixth Form College in London as Head of the RE Department I gave permission for one of my Muslim tutees to pray on her prayer mat facing Mecca at the front of our chapel while at the same time on one day of the week a teacher used to lead some students in praying the rosary. Again all praising and worshipping God in love and harmony which is so much sought after and needed in today’s world. Well done Stephen for the great work you are doing and will continue to do as the Holy Spirit leads you and guides you in your ministry to bring the good news to all the world in St Patrick’s Church in Ballyhaunis. I am sure Pope Francis would endorse these and all sentiments expressed in support of your spontaneous response to our Muslim friends. God bless you in your work

  9. Michael Maginn says:

    Dear Friends,
    our Muslim neighbours have just begun the celebration of Ramadan, their month long season of fasting and prayer. Many of our Muslim medical staff will be observing the strict Ramadan fast.

    During this time, they will be continuing to save lives and bring healing to those who are sick in our various hospitals, including our own local area hospital here at Craigavon.

    Over the years in the hospital’s Quiet Room, I have noticed Muslim staff-members taking time out from their busy hospital schedules, coming in and unrollingtheir prayer mats in order to pray.

    On those occasions it sometimes occurred to me that if our medical staff from abroad, had any reason for returning home, our hospitals would be in serious trouble.

    We give thanks for all our Muslim medical staff during their special time of Ramadan, and for all foreign nationals working in our hospitals and health-care system, so far removed from their own friends and family at this difficult time for us all.

    Blessings, Michael

    April 2020

    Between the five daily calls to prayer,
    the prayer-mats await their destiny.

    Carefully rolled and stored,
    their silken threads concealed
    from those who do not know
    or care for Mecca.

    Then coming into their own,
    their silken threads unrolled with reverence,
    the mats are laid upon the floor,

    where they assume their sacred role,
    and God is praised behind the door.

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