It’s easy to despair that the barriers dividing Christians and Muslims will never be overcome. But Pope Francis’s historic visit to Iraq this month offers the opportunity to imagine otherwise.
Consider that, not so very ago, even the phrase “the three Abrahamic religions” aroused condemnation from the Vatican. Louis Massignon, the great French scholar of Islam who often used it, was told that his views on the subject were “perilous and scandalous.” That was in 1961, and Massignon was fortunate that his friend Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini intervened to protect him from what was then called the Holy Office.
Massignon died in 1962, but his friendship with Montini, who was installed as Pope Paul VI a year later, foreshadowed a new outlook on Catholic-Muslim relations, as Peter Hebblethwaite recounted in his 1993 book, Paul VI: The Modern Pope. We can tread that route with Massignon, with St. Paul VI, and with St. John Paul II to arrive at the Plain of Ur with Francis for his walk “in the steps of Father Abraham, who joins in one family Muslims, Jews, and Christians.”
In remarks that deserve to be pondered, Francis spoke eloquently of where that journey ought to lead:
The Patriarch Abraham, who today brings us together in unity, was a prophet of the Most High. An ancient prophecy says that the peoples “shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” This prophecy has not been fulfilled; on the contrary, swords and spears have turned into missiles and bombs. From where, then, can the journey of peace begin? From the decision not to have enemies. Anyone with the courage to look at the stars, anyone who believes in God, has no enemies to fight. He or she has only one enemy to face, an enemy that stands at the door of the heart and knocks to enter. That enemy is hatred.