Last week Pope Francis announced a consistory for the creation of new cardinals that will take place in Rome on Oct. 5. He has announced that he will elevate 13 men to the rank of cardinal. Of these 13 named cardinals, three of the men are over the age of 80 which means they are considered “honorary” since they are too old to vote in the next conclave that will elect our next pope. I would like to highlight one of these choices and mention another which gives us an insight into the trajectory of Pope Francis’ papacy as regards the centrality of interfaith dialogue and peacemaking, especially with those who worship the one true God revealed to Abraham so long ago.
Among these so-called “honorary” choices is British Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald. I have had the opportunity to meet Archbishop Fitzgerald at a few academic gatherings on the topic of interfaith outreach and learning. He is a very down to earth man, who with great wisdom and a good sense of humor holds the attention and teaches the tenants of the church’s call to peaceful harmony with the adherents of our collective monotheistic faith which started with the first revelation of God to Abraham our father in faith. He is one of the Vatican’s leading experts on Islam and formally served as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He was relieved of this position by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2006 and given the position as Vatican ambassador to Egypt.
It seems this recent papal honor to the rank of cardinal in many ways highlights the good work of Archbishop Fitzgerald and points out that the work and advocacy of dialogue and outreach to the Islamic community in the world is a priority of the pontificate of Pope Francis. To bolster this emphasis on the importance of interfaith dialogue and outreach, Pope Francis is also raising to the rank of cardinal, Archbishop Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, Archbishop Fitzgerald’s successor as head of the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Archbishop Guixot before taking over for Archbishop Fitzgerald was charged with overseeing dialogue between the Vatican and Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and university, understood by most as the equivalent of the Vatican to the Sunni Islamic world.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald was born in Walsall, United Kingdom, into a Catholic family of Irish descent. At a young age he joined the junior seminary of the Missionaries of Africa, often called the “White Fathers.” He was only 12 years old. He eventually through his extensive studies learned Arabic and began his study of Islam early in his priestly career. He was sent to Rome to study dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Some of his professors during this time which coincided with the Second Vatican Council were Jesuit theologians Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner and Dominican friar Yves Marie-Joseph Congar. He earned a doctorate in theology, and a degree in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Some of his noteworthy work in the field of Muslim studies includes a stint teaching at the prestigious Institut Pontifical d’Etudes Arabes, later renamed the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI). He eventually became the director of PISAI and was a central figure in the creation of “Encounter, Documents for Christian-Muslim Understanding,” while supervising the launch of “Islamochristiana” a scholarly journal. He eventually became a consultor of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, which eventually was renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). He was named secretary and eventually president of PCID. Pope John Paul consecrated him a bishop and named him archbishop upon naming him the president of PCID. He remained in that position until his move to Egypt as nuncio. He resigned from his position as nuncio in 2012 and moved in with the Missionaries of Africa in Jerusalem until returning to England to work in a Liverpool parish.
In an interview with The Tablet, U.K. news network, Archbishop Fitzgerald said the appointment was a complete surprise and came “without warning!” He added, “Judging from the messages of congratulations that I am receiving from different people, and not only Christians, it seems that people who are engaged in interfaith relations are greatly encouraged. They see this appointment as a sign of hope at a time when work in interfaith relations is often called into question, but when in fact it is more necessary than ever.” As one who is involved in a small way with interfaith relations, I am encouraged and full of hope. I sure like the sound of Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.