By Paul Gray
A Catholic parish in Melbourne has co-hosted the first “Miryam Meal” between members of the Catholic and Muslim communities.
The Miryam Meal is designed to promote dialogue between the Catholic and Islamic faiths at a grass-roots level, with the blessing of the Church.
It takes as its starting point the Hebrew name for Mary, explicitly recognizing the unique place of honour given to Jesus’ mother within Catholic tradition.
Fr John Pearce, parish priest of St Paul Apostle parish in Melbourne’s Endeavour Hills, spoke at the first Miryam meal along with Dr Salih Yucel, a Muslim and a lecturer at Monash University.
“When I heard Dr Yucel talk about Mary, I appreciated my faith tradition through another lens,” Fr Pearce said.
The Miryam Meals project grows out of an agreement between the Australian Intercultural Society, a Muslim organization, and the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese.
The speakers addressed the importance of “dialogue in our faith.” Dr Yucel criticized those who oppose interfaith dialogue today.
“There are extremists who do not understand the essence of religion and question why people are coming together for interfaith dialogue,” he said.
Dr Yucel said no matter which major religion one belongs to, it is imperative to understand the importance of dialogue. “First and foremost, God entered into a dialogue with humanity through the Prophets,” he said.
Fr Pearce said those engaged in dialogue are doing a service to the nation. “Australia needs men and women like us who are prepared to walk on the same side of the road and say ‘Hello’.”
Fr Pearce also acknowledged that the two faiths are different. “We don’t have to have the same prayer,” he said.
In July last year the Intercultural Society and the Melbourne Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission signed a Memorandum of Understanding which sketched out joint activities between Muslims and Catholics under four main headings for dialogue.
These are called dialogues of life, action, understanding and religious experience. The Miryam Meals program falls under the heading dialogue of life.
Other initiatives envisaged under the Memorandum include consultation between a Muslim welfare organisation, on one side, and the St Vincent de Paul Society and Centacare on the Catholic side. Dialogues between Catholic and Muslim youth and a proposed “joint pilgrimage” to Rome and Istanbul have also been proposed.
The Australian Intercultural Society is also active in promoting better relations with the Jewish community, co-hosting the second National Social Cohesian Conference at the University of Melbourne in late February.
This conference focused on the integration of the Muslim community into mainstream Australian society.
A keynote speaker, Supreme Court Judge the Hon Justice Howard Nathan, spoke of the history of the Jewish community in Australia, which began with the first fleet in 1788.
The judge described that history as a “good news story.”
Justice Nathan said education had been the key to the successful integration of the Jewish community. “Not only were they (the early Jews in Australia) literate but they were also numerate, which put them ahead of others and stood the Jews in good stead ever since.
“Education, education and yet more education was the key,” he said.
Muslim comedian and law student Nazeem Hussain also spoke at the Cohesian conference, highlighting the important role of humour in communication between migrants and others.
A Turkish Muslim speaker, Mr Kazim Ates, said that migration produced surprising results for many newcomers to Australia. “We actually discovered our religious and cultural identity here in Australia,” he said.
“We didn’t hear about Gallipoli until we got here. We realized we had something in common and we could build on it.”
Mr Ates said that going to school in rural Australia had quickly taught him the importance of building on shared values with your neighbours.
Sportsmanship, loyalty and business ethics were some of the shared values which Muslims and non-Muslims could use to build relationships with each other.