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The Middle East, 50 Years After the Council

by Greg Kandra

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This October marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, an event that had a dramatic impact not only on the Catholic Church but on the church’s relationship with other faiths. Someone who understands that very well is Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt.

Born in the United Kingdom 75 years ago, Archbishop Fitzgerald studied in the Netherlands and Tunisia. He went on to study theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in the early 1960’s. He taught at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic studies and has served as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him nuncio to Egypt and delegate to the League of Arab States.

Considered a leading expert on Islam and interreligious dialogue, he offers a few thoughts on Vatican II and the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East.

ONE: You were a student in Rome during Vatican II. What are your memories of that time?

Archbishop Fitzgerald: I have a vivid memory of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. At the time, I was a student priest at the generalate in Rome of our missionary society, the Society of Missionaries of Africa [White Fathers]. There was a feeling of great joy as the council began at last after several years of preparation. One of my confreres, a German, was appointed by a German missionary bishop as his peritus, or advisor, and so was able to attend the sessions. For the rest of us, we had to be content with meeting the bishops and also attending talks by some of the periti, such as Father Yves Congar and Father Karl Rahner. It was nevertheless an exciting time.

ONE: One of the most significant documents the council produced remains “Nostra Aetate,” which addressed the Catholic Church’s relations with non-Christian religions. How would you assess its meaning and impact?

Archbishop Fitzgerald: “Nostra Aetate” has been a very significant document. It has, of course, to be considered in relation to “Dignitatis Humanae,” the declaration which affirms the right to religious liberty, and also to “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the church. This constitution states that the nature of the church is comparable to that of a sacrament, in other words it is a sign and instrument of what God is doing to bring salvation to the whole of humanity. This is the basis for the church to reach out with great respect to the followers of different religions, conscious that the Holy Spirit is already active within their hearts and also within their religious traditions. This conviction leads to the statement that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (NA 2). This does not signify by any means that the church considers all religions to be equal, since it believes that the fullness of revelation has been given in Jesus Christ. Yet the attitude of respect provides the grounds for dialogue and cooperation at the service of all members of the human race. This teaching, repeated and put into practice by the recent popes — Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI — has radically changed relations between Christians, especially Catholics, and the followers of other religions.

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